Phonological Awareness and the Pursuit of Everything: A Bit on Not Overdoing Anything
When “The Science of Reading” community says that there are decades of research on early literacy instruction, I see the truth in this statement. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a dissertation entitled “A Meta-analysis of Phonological Awareness.” At that point in the history of literacy instruction, there were already mounds of research on the topic, enough to warrant a statistical summary of the data, which is something of a litmus test for the robustness of an area of inquiry.
The research was well received by the small audience that read it. It was one of three finalist for the International Reading Association’s (currently International Literacy Association) coveted Dissertation of the Year Award, and it won the Dissertation of the Year Award for the school of education at the University of Kansas where I was graduating.
One unsurprising result of the study was that you could teach students to be phonologically aware and that this instruction improved students’ reading acquisition. In fact, one could say that you really don’t need to teach students phonological awareness unless you want them to learn how to read. Teaching phonological awareness is that important. Not teaching phonological awareness would be like suggesting that one couldn’t learn to swim without getting into some water.
The second result, the one that excited my advisors, was that, while instruction in phonological awareness was critical to early literacy, one could get too much instruction in the area. After a student was sufficiently phonologically aware, continued instruction in hearing sounds within words didn’t just lend no further improvement, it produced an inhibitory effect. In other words, phonological awareness development is essential, but too much of it can actually impede progress.
A meta-analysis is a statistical summary of all the statistical research on a topic. In designing a meta-analysis, one must decide whether to include unpublished dissertations. Unlike later meta-analyses of phonological awareness, I chose to include dissertations in my data, which meant that unpublished results were included. I did this to compensate for the publishing world’s bias towards positive results. Perhaps this is why I discovered some potential problems with phonological awareness instruction. In the later (and even current) phonological frenzy, I cringed to see whole classes of third-graders engaged explicit and isolated phonological awareness practice.
I never published these results in a journal, partly because I had toddler twin sons, partly because I knew I wanted to remain a practitioner rather than an academician, partly because I was sick of the topic, and partly because I received a phone call from Linnea Ehri (who's work I was studying) who was also working on a meta-analysis of the phonological awareness research. But these findings have informed my lifetime of work in literacy and have been part of what has driven me to hold tight to systematic instruction in phonological awareness with a balanced perspective of not overdoing it.
On one side of the current (and historical) debate, it is easy for phonological awareness instruction to be spotty and random, if at all, which I have continued to see as problematic even when mine wasn’t a popular perspective among some in the “balanced literacy” community. On the other side of the debate, it is easy for phonological awareness instruction to be overdone, which I have also continued to see as problematic even when perspective was unpopular among “the science of reading” community (even before it was called that).
If you are convinced that something is THE key to literacy, whether contextualizing work with sounds and the print system that lays over them or explicitly teaching students the bits and pieces of our orthographic system, be careful not to push this certainty to extremes such that your reasonable conviction (and both convictions are reasonable) becomes the Achilles heel of your instruction.
10/25/2019 10:26:32 am
Thank you so much for beginning this website. It is so needed and will do so much good!
10/31/2019 06:08:33 am
Thank you for your support and encouragement, Susan!
10/25/2019 10:30:54 am
You have beautifully reflected both sides of a complex issue Jan. Knowing what is important is not enough as it also gives us a responsibility to understanding the big picture, which you have described here so eloquently!
10/31/2019 06:07:49 am
I really appreciate your encouragement, Mary. I am trying to maintain a tempered approach all of this.
10/25/2019 02:16:11 pm
Wonderful post and perfect for those needing a perspective without getting sucked into the war. Thank you.
10/31/2019 06:09:47 am
Thank you, Geri. That is my intention. I would like a space to honestly consider what is overlooked on both sides of this discussion. I don't want to be in a war, either. :)
10/25/2019 03:01:35 pm
Fascinating, Jan. So glad you are doing this new website. Thank you for sharing your important work.
10/31/2019 06:10:16 am
Thank you, Maureen. You are such a dear and I so appreciate your support, as always.
10/25/2019 05:43:40 pm
We were taught that there was a maximum limit on constrained skills. That is why I have been so puzzled over folks who have demanded "phonemic awareness skills" for high school students, such a small skill area for students who have many "life" needs!
10/31/2019 06:15:18 am
I agree, Fran. To broadly teach phonemic awareness to high school students seems to me such a misinformed and myopic effort. I have supervised the tutoring of individual high school students who have had print issues and needed some practice in parsing spoken sounds in order to unlock the system, but that is rare in my experience.
10/25/2019 06:51:19 pm
Is phonics a kind of scaffold for learning to read? In my experience with gifted kids, they skip quickly through phonics and go to reading whole words. At some point, phonics fools them and they know it. Like making a child who knows multiplication facts use skip counting. Going backward does not move a child forward.
10/31/2019 06:20:38 am
Phonics is not a scaffold for learning to read; it is quintessential to learning to read. Some children acquire facility with the print system--both how it works and the elements within--faster than others, however. The fact that your students pick all this up very quickly probably makes it look like the code is less important than it actually is. I imagine that these particular students pick many things up pretty quickly.
10/26/2019 10:12:20 am
And this is why our best research is our students- keeping a close watch on the impact our instruction has on our students. Thank you, Jan, for prompting us to reflect on our practice.
10/31/2019 06:23:24 am
So true, Elaine. Published research, particularly that which is quantitative, overgeneralizes. It is critical to know our students. While it is worth knowing and thinking about research, we have to take the time to see and respond to the children in front of us.
It's interesting to know that children can have increased reading acquisition learning if they are phonologically aware. I hope that the teacher I will find for my first child will continue to learn new techniques through phonics learning strategies courses. It will give me the confidence that my daughter would be able to actually learn and comprehend what she is reading at the age of 5 or 6.
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Dr. Jan Burkins is a full-time writer, consultant, and professional development provider.