Advanced Phonemic Awareness

So over the last few weeks, I have been observing intense debates over the issue of “advanced phonemic awareness” and the efficacy of extended phonemic awareness. This debate appears to be in my opinion taking place on two levels. On the one hand, Dr. Brown, Dr. Shanahan, the esteemed Stephen Parker, and Dr. Kilpatrick, have had an academically rigorous, and polite discussion on the merits of the research for “Advanced phonemic awareness”. However, on the other hand, I have found this debate on social media to be less rigorous and nuanced. 

 

While I wanted to weigh in on this debate, I also thought this debate could highlight another issue I have noticed within the “Science of Reading” community. Within science, it is usually considered best practice to avoid speaking in absolutes and to instead speak in degrees of probability, based on the available evidence. And while, the prestigious researchers who have been engaging in this debate on an academic level, have been arguing with nuance, civility, and scientific rigor, I have noticed quite a few people on social media, making very confident, absolutist statements, on both sides, with little to no evidence. 

 

Over the last few years of researching and writing for PNG, I have begun to feel a part of the SOR community. However, I have noticed the trend of proclaimed members, sometimes viewing that community, as more of an identity, than a concept. If we want to call ourselves scientific, we need to be open to opposing views, adjust our opinions to the ever evolving evidence, and communicate with scientific nuance. 

 

That being said, I completely understand how people new to the science of reading can be swept up in their new found convictions. When I first started writing about the science of education, I was completely swept up in the Dunning Kruger effect, I knew too little, to know how little I knew and I wrote with an embarrassingly high level of confidence. I was completely swept with excitement and new found conviction. But truthfully, I shudder when I read some of the things I first wrote for my blog. Years now into this process, after reading hundreds of studies on the topic of education science, and writing hundreds of pages myself, I feel very humbled. I try my best to write with humility, to be open to criticism, and to speak in degrees of probability, as I know mistakes are inevitable. With this off-topic diatribe out of the way, I do want to say it is with extra humility that I write about this debate today, as I fully recognize that the actual scholars already having the debate are far more qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable than myself. 

 

That all being said, as I see it, there are four areas of debate within the community over phonemic awareness instruction:

 

  1. Should we provide all students with “advanced phonemic awareness instruction”.

  2. Should we teach sounds before we teach letters?

  3. Should we provide older students with phonemic awareness?

  4. Do dyslexic students have a greater need for extended phonemic awareness instruction?

 

1) Should we teach advanced phonemic awareness to all students?

 

Before attempting to answer this I want to point out that both Dr. Shanahan, and Dr. Kilpatrick currently reject the use of this term. Well Dr. Kilpatrick popularized the term, he has stated that he used the term interchangeably, with phonemic awareness proficiency and did not mean it as a type of instruction. However, other scholars have used this term to represent deletion and substitution instruction. The NPR meta-analysis, which is quite possibly the largest meta-analysis of the topic, looked at three different types of phonemic awareness instruction: segmenting, blending, and deletion. It found similarly high results for segmenting and deletion, with slightly lower results for blending. 

 

The NRP meta-analysis also gave us several other important clues for this debate. The NRP showed us that PA instruction yielded high results for Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, and at-risk students. The meta-analysis showed moderate results for grade 1 and reading disabled students. The meta-analysis showed low  results for students above grade 1. Interestingly, it also showed results that diminished after 9 hours of instruction. (If you want to read more about the NRP meta-analysis of phonemic awareness Instruction, check out my more detailed summary of it here: https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/phonemic-awareness ). 

 

With the NRP results in mind, I think we can say with reasonable confidence that phonemic awareness instruction should not go past grade 2 for most students and that the scope of phonemic awareness should likely be limited. This is not to diminish the value of phonemic awareness instruction as indeed, the NRP meta-analysis actually showed higher impacts for it than phonics, for Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten students. However, it does appear that the value of this instruction quickly diminishes. I think this might be surprising to some members of the SOR community, but it appears that both Dr. Kilpatrick, and Dr. Shanahan actually agreed with this point. Indeed, Dr. Kilpatrick has made it clear in the recent “debate” that he does not believe extended PA instruction is necessary for any students except dyslexic students. 

 

2. Should we teach sounds before we teach letters?

 

I think this is the question I see most often discussed on social media. I often see people making strong claims for either sounds first or letters first. The NRP meta-analysis did examine PA with and without written instruction. Their results showed higher outcomes for instruction with letters, with a mean effect size of .88 for with letters and .55 for without.  I think realistically this is unsurprising though, considering that reading instruction with letters is more specific than reading instruction without letters. That being said, the studies included may not have made for a fair comparison. As ideally to study this we would want treatment groups that do PA instruction without letters, followed up by phonics instruction that included letters with a control group that used only phonics. To the best of my knowledge, this is not the comparison that was looked at in the NRP. Additionally, I want to make the point that the effect size of .55 does show a moderately high impact, indeed the mean effect size found for morphology in my secondary meta-analysis of the subject was .51. I often see people claiming students cannot learn to read properly, if they learn sounds first, or if they learn letters first. The NRP meta-analysis results do not support either argument, as students can clearly learn how to read either way. 


Dr. Kilpatrick also highlights that the studies in the NRP on PA instruction without letters, were specifically on whole class instruction, which he argues is different than what he is arguing for. Dr. Kilpatrick is arguing that students with Dyslexia, benefit from extended PA without letters, Indeed, Dr. Kilpatrick cites 6 papers that specifically look at extended PA instruction for dyslexic students. To attempt and assess the validity of Dr. Kilpatrick’s claim, I decided to do my own non-peer reviewed meta-analysis of the papers he listed. I divided the mean difference in gains for treatment groups by the mean SD of both the control and treatment groups, to calculate effect sizes. 

 

Studies Included: 

Torgesen 1999: This paper was an RCT study of 180 kindergarten students, suspected of having Dyslexia. The treatment group was given mostly PA instruction, whereas the control group was given analytic phonics instruction. I found a mean effect size in favor of the control of .53. This effect size is lower than the Kindergarten PA effect size found in the NPR, but it is higher than the effect size found for PA with dyslexic students, and phonics for dyslexic students. 

 

Torgesen 2001: This paper was an RCT study of 60 students in grades 3-5, suspected of having dyslexia. The treatment group was given mostly PA instruction, whereas the control group was given analytic phonics instruction. I found a mean effect size of .22, which is barely significant. This is in line with the NRP results, which showed diminishing returns for PA instruction to older students. This effect size is lower than the NRP effect size for PA instruction for, dyslexic students, but higher than the effect size for phonics for dyslexic students. 

 

Torgesen 2010: This paper was an RCT study of 108 grades 1-3 students that were suspected of having dyslexia. Both the control group and the treatment group included PA instruction and letters instruction. However, the treatment group received substantially more PA and less letters instruction. I found a mean effect size of .51, when comparing the difference in gains to the phonics group. The study showed higher results than the PA outcomes in the NPR (for this age range), as well as higher outcomes for dyslexic students.

 

Wise 1999: This paper was an RCT study of 122 students in grades 2-5, suspected of having dyslexia. The control group received phonics instruction. I found a mean effect size of .74, which exceeds outcomes in the NRP for PA results in older students, and for dyslexic students. 

 

Torgesen 2003: Despite my best efforts, I could not locate this paper cited by Dr. Kilpatrick. I searched the ERIC database, Education Source, Sage Portal, and Google. 

Alexander 1991:  I excluded this paper from my analysis because it had no control group and sample size of 10.

Results:

Upon reflecting on the studies that Kilpatrick cites, I think there is reasonable evidence to suggest that there might be benefit for some extended PA instruction, for dyslexic students. However, none of these studies looked at PA instruction completely without letters. Only 2 of these studies included students older than grade 3 and one of those studies showed low results. No studies exist either for students above the age of grade 5. Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, no peer-reviewed meta-analysis exists on the topic. My analysis here only included the papers Dr. Kilpatrick cited and there could have been other papers he neglected to cite, because they did not bolster his position. I also have to admit, I remain skeptical of the idea that what works for dyslexic students would be dramatically different than what works for most other students. Typically, in my research, I have seen interventions that work for non-dyslexic students, work for dyslexic students, but have much lower impacts. 

 

That being said, I think the fair interpretation of the science at this time would be: teachers should not teach their students sounds without letters. It is a plausible theory that students with dyslexia might benefit from sound instruction first, but not a scientifically established fact. 

 

3. Should we provide older students with phonemic awareness instruction?

The NRP meta-analysis showed diminishing returns for PA instruction after kindergarten, with results sharply reducing after grade 2. This is in line with the rest of the NRP findings, which showed diminishing returns for phonics after grade 2. Both skills are foundational skills and are therefore best taught at the primary levels, not to older students. Dr. Kilpatrick cited two studies for older dyslexic students. One showed high results, one showed low. Neither study looked past grade 5. I therefore think we can say there is weak evidence for providing PA instruction to dyslexic students in grades 5 and under. That being said, my disclaimer would be, if you assess a struggling reader with any deficiency, you should always address that deficiency with instruction. Of course, teachers giving older dyslexic students PA instruction, should keep in mind that this instruction might not be the best tool in their arsenal for improving reading results and that said instruction should probably remain limited. 

 

References:

 

Wise, B. W., Ring, J., & Olson, R. K. (1999). Training phonological awareness with and without explicit attention to articulation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72(4), 271-304. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lakeheadu.ca/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/training-phonological-awareness-with-without/docview/62497696/se-2?accountid=11956

 

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Herron, J., & Lindamood, P. (2010). Computer-assisted instruction to prevent early reading difficulties in students at risk for dyslexia: Outcomes from two instructional approaches. Annals of Dyslexia, 60(1), 40–56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11881-009-0032-y

 

Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A. W., & Wagner, R. K. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(1), 33–58. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lakeheadu.ca/10.1177/002221940103400104

 

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Rose, E., Lindamood, P., Conway, T., & Garvan, C. (1999). Preventing Reading Failure in Young Children With Phonological Processing Disabilities: Group and Individual Responses to Instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(4), 579–593. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.91.4.579

 

-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>. 

 

T, Shanahan. (2022). RIP Advanced Phonemic Awareness. Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved from <https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/rip-to-advanced-phonemic-awareness#sthash.IRrVfaZ4.dpbs>. 


K, Kilpatrick. (2022). Rebuttal to rebuttal of Clemens et al. (2021). Spell Talk.