Phonemic Awareness Training: A Cart-Before-
the-Horse Approach to Teaching Reading?
In the last twenty years, volumes have been written about the correlation between phonological processing deficits and reading disabilities. In the scientific community, many has reached consensus that most reading (and spelling) disabilities originate with a specific impairment of language processing, not with general visual-perceptual deficits, inability to construct meaning from context, or other more general problems with attention or memory.1
Phonological awareness is the understanding of different ways that oral language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated. Examples of phonological awareness tasks include:
- Phoneme deletion ("What word would be left if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?");
- Word to word matching ("Do pen and pipe begin with the same sound?");
- Blending ("What word would we have if we blended these sounds together: /m/ /o/ /p/?");
- Phoneme segmentation ("What sounds do you hear in the word hot?");
- Phoneme counting ("How many sounds do you hear in the word cake?"); and
- Rhyming ("Tell me all of the words that you know that rhyme with the word cat?")2
It is said that phonemic awareness, a subset of phonological awareness, predicts reading ability. Share and Stanovich conclude that phonemic awareness is the "most important core and causal factor separating normal and disabled readers."3 It is also said that phonemic awareness training will overcome a reading disability.
Margaret Moustafa, Professor of Education at the California State University in Los Angeles, however, points out that correlation does not establish causation. "There is a strong correlation between, for example, being in a hospital bed and being sick, but being in a hospital bed doesn't cause sickness, at least not the sickness that brought about the initial hospitalization. The word predicts is a statistical term which means there is a very strong correlation between two phenomena. Prediction does not mean causation.
"Research does not support phonemic awareness training,” says Moustafa. "Bus & van Ijzendoorn (1999) found that phonemic awareness in kindergarten accounts for 0.6 % of the total variance in reading achievement in the later primary years. Troia (1999) reviewed 39 phonemic awareness training studies and found no evidence to support phonemic awareness training in classroom instruction. Krashen (1990a, 1999b) conducted similar reviews and had similar findings. Taylor (1998) points out that phonemic awareness research is based on the false assumption that children’s early cognitive functions work from abstract exercises to meaningful activity, rather than vice-versa, as in other learning.
"In fact, rather than phonemic awareness being a pre-requisite to literacy, literacy contributes to phonemic awareness (Scholes, 1998; Treiman, 1983, 1985). We use our knowledge of how words are spelled to figure out how many phonemes are in a word. We are less competent in analyzing spoken words into phonemes when individual phonemes do not have a one-to-one correspondence with letters. For example, most literate adults do not realize that there are four phonemes — not three — in the word box. Phonemic awareness training is a cart-before-the-horse approach to teaching reading."4
1.) Moats, L. C., "The missing foundation in teacher education," American Educator, 1995.
2.) Stanovich, K. E., "Romance and reality," The Reading Teacher, 1994, vol. 47, 280-291.
3.) Share, D., & Stanovich, K., "Cognitive processes in early reading development: Accommodating individual differences into a mode of acquisition," Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology, 1995, vol. 1, 1-57.
4.) Moustafa, M., "Research on phonemic awareness training" (summary), California State University, Los Angeles.