Knowledge for teaching literacy #3: What is Phonological Awareness?

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Phonological awareness means knowing that language is an object, something that may be analyzed and manipulated by them in different ways: to rhyme, to play word games, and to talk about. Phonological awareness is an umbrella term, meaning that is a broad term that encompasses a lot of sub skills (including phonemic awareness!). 

 

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Phonological awareness involves the detection and manipulation of sounds at four levels of sound structure:

word: the ability to hear individual words
syllables: the ability to chunk words into parts at the syllable level
onsets and rimes: the ability to segment words at a unit smaller than syllables
phonemes (phonemic awareness): the ability to segment individual sounds in words

How does phonological awareness develop?

While phonological awareness skills don't always develop in a linear pathway, some phonological awareness skills are considered simpler than others. 

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Why is phonological awareness important?

  • Phonological awareness is directly related to reading ability
  • Although the relationship is reciprocal, phonological awareness precedes skilled decoding
  • Phonological awareness reliably predicts later reading ability
  • Deficits in phonological awareness are usually associated with deficits in reading
  • Early intervention can promote the development of phonological awareness
  • Improving a child's phonological awareness can and usually does result in improvements in reading ability

Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

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For the past fifteen years I have taught courses and professional development workshops on the topic of reading comprehension instruction. It is always difficult to know where to get started with any training that aims to disrupt teachers’ current thinking about reading comprehension instruction. A group I worked with recently was terrific – engaged with the big ideas right from the start and eager to engage in thoughtful discussion.

When I asked participants to define what it means to teach children to comprehend text, they responded, as participants always do, with a long list of strategies such as summarizing and visualizing, and isolated skills, such as identifying the main idea and supporting details. When I press them to articulate why they teach their students these strategies and skills, really interesting conversation begins. In the United States, the teaching of these isolated skills and strategies has become the end goal of reading comprehension, rather than a set of tools that supports students in actively constructing meaning from text. This needs to change.

A second interesting trend I always find is that no one mentions that comprehension should involve negotiating meaningful texts and content. This is not surprising, but is a perhaps the biggest problem of reading instruction in this country. We are spending an amazing amount of time in language arts instruction, and yet a) students reading comprehension scores are at a plateau and b) students score increasingly poorly on tests that require world knowledge. Why? Perhaps because we spend the first four years of school acting like students don’t need to develop any world knowledge.

In a study I conducted I observed a one-hour reading comprehension lesson in which fourth-grade students were reading a text about Saturn; the primary focus of the lesson was having students identify the main ideas and supporting details of the text. I asked the teacher if she cared if students learned anything about Saturn and she replied: “No. You know I think it’s interesting to them…but it’s not anything that’s in our science curriculum or not even coming up next year in fifth grade or any time soon, so no, it’s just one of those things where I thought the way the article was laid out would do a good job of working on this idea of main idea, supporting details and text structure”

In his 2006 text The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch shares a similar example of a class of 9-year olds reading a text about a grasshopper storm in which students are learning to “clarify.” The point of the lesson was not to learn anything about grasshoppers, weather, or ecology but instead was focused on the practice of reading strategies. Hirsch argues, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading” (p. 14).

The romantic idea that we can teach students strategies to negotiate texts and then they will be able to read the world is simply false. Content matters, and must be taken seriously as we help students negotiate complex texts.

This video really got participants thinking: Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

Knowledge for teaching literacy #2: What Is Phonemic Awareness?

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Yesterday's post focused on phonemes, the smallest unit of sound in spoken language. Today we focus on phonemic awareness, a related concept. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken words. This is a critical stage in a child’s literacy development.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?
Phonemic awareness is essential for learning to read. If you don’t have strong phonemic awareness skills you cannot decode words. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a child’s phonemic awareness ability is a strong predictor of success in learning to read and spell. Children who are unable to identify and manipulate the sounds within spoken words typically have difficulty mapping sounds to print and therefore struggle with reading and spelling. The good news is that phonemic awareness can be explicitly taught. Directly teaching children how to hear, recognize, and manipulate the individual sounds in words typically has a positive effect on a child’s reading and spelling skills. 

It is important for you to know that there is a developmental trajectory to phonemic awareness, which means that there are easy phonemic awareness tasks, and ones that are more difficult. Children will be able to complete the easier tasks before being successful with more advanced phonemic awareness activities. For example, identifying a word that matches a target phoneme (e.g., which word starts with /f/: fish or dish?) is much easier than asking a child to substitute the phonemes in a word (if you change the /f/ in fish to a /d/ sound, what word do you have?)

Knowledge for teaching literacy #1: What Is A Phoneme?

   
  
   
  
    
  
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    A “phoneme” is the smallest unit of speech sound. For example, the word pan has three letters and three phonemes (p/a/n). The word sheep has five letters but just three sounds, or phonemes (sh/ee/p).    
  
   
  
    
  
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  Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken words. This is a critical stage in a child’s literacy development.    A child has phonemic awareness when the child can demonstrate an awareness of individual phonemes and can manipulate them in different ways. We see evidence of this important milestone when children can rhyme one word with another (pan - fan), list words that begin with the same sound (bus, boy, bye) or end with the same sound (ship, jeep, and shop), break words into individual phonemes, and blend phonemes together to make a familiar word. 

A “phoneme” is the smallest unit of speech sound. For example, the word pan has three letters and three phonemes (p/a/n). The word sheep has five letters but just three sounds, or phonemes (sh/ee/p).

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken words. This is a critical stage in a child’s literacy development. 

A child has phonemic awareness when the child can demonstrate an awareness of individual phonemes and can manipulate them in different ways. We see evidence of this important milestone when children can rhyme one word with another (pan - fan), list words that begin with the same sound (bus, boy, bye) or end with the same sound (ship, jeep, and shop), break words into individual phonemes, and blend phonemes together to make a familiar word. 

Reading Comprehension is an Active Process!

Text Annotation

Students with strong reading comprehension skills typically view the process of understanding texts as an active process. That is, when reading a text of any kind, a strong comprehender is constantly working to construct their understanding of text by actively asking questions, making inferences, and connecting information. This matches how reading comprehension is defined by literacy scholars, who define reading comprehension as an active process in which the reader simultaneously extracts and constructs meaning from the text using cognitive processes such as inference, attention, and reasoning.

By contrast, struggling comprehenders might interact with text in a somewhat passive way – simply reading through the words on the page without any expectation that they should understand and make meaning from those words in some coherent way. Sound like some readers you know?

As teachers, parents, or tutors, we can support students in developing the viewpoint that comprehending text is an active process and one that they are in control of. One way to do this is by having readers annotate the texts they are reading.  Importantly, we must keep text annotation simple – making it too complex can distract students from actually making meaning! I’ve suggested four simple markings readers can use to annotate texts as they read. This is one way to develop students’ reading comprehension muscles. 

Teaching Reading Comprehension

We are currently failing a majority of students in American classrooms when it comes to reading comprehension. When teachers are asked to explain what they are supposed to do in the service of reading comprehension instruction, the answers are quite varied — ranging from strategy instruction to think alouds to discussion based approaches. If we want reading comprehension instruction to improve, we should probably be clear about what reading comprehension instruction is.

In 2002 The RAND Reading Study Group defined reading comprehension as “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language”.

The idea that reading is an interactive process was not introduced by the RAND group — in fact, literacy experts have been operating with this idea for decades. But what does this definition have to do with reading comprehension instruction? In other words, if reading comprehension is about extracting and constructing meaning, what does this mean for teachers?

Reading comprehension instruction should be instruction that supports readers in extracting and constructing meaning. Since the early eighties, a vast majority of this attention has been focused on the design of instruction that helps students become proficient in strategies such as predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. The idea is that if you learn these strategies, you can read the world!

While strategy instruction has played an important role in focusing attention on the idea that we need to teach students to comprehend, too much strategy instruction is far removed from its original purpose — strategy instruction has become the goal — rather than thinking about strategies as a tool to support the end goal of comprehending the texts we read. If a student can ask a bunch of questions about a text but still has no idea what is going on in the text, the student has not comprehended what he or she has read.

In thinking about what strategy instruction should be, I think there are two important considerations:

1. It might be helpful to shift the discourse from strategies to strategic — a teacher’s role in comprehension instruction should be squarely focused on helping students construct meaning from text by helping them understand what it means to be active, strategic readers. Comprehension instruction should be focused on puzzling about text, reading between the lines, relentlessly figuring out what is going on in the text — all because meaning matters and students are working to construct meaning.

We need to teach students to care when comprehension breaks down — when the picture in their head is fuzzy or when they just plain don’t understand. They need to be encouraged to look back when two pieces of information seem contrasting or confusing, and they need to keep track of who the pronoun references are referring to when they shift from Johnny to he to that guy (all referring to the same person!). They need to know that texts aren’t all neatly packaged — or even all that considerate. Constructing meaning takes work! For many students, especially proficient readers, these behaviors come without instruction, but we can’t assume that all students will adopt these behaviors if we don’t teach them that these behaviors matter. This is what comprehension instruction should be about.

2. We need to stop operating as if the genre and discipline don’t matter. Learning a hodge podge of strategies with a bunch of random texts is not going to help students read the world. When they get to their high school history textbook, or are asked to negotiate primary source documents, or have to make sense of complex diagrams in science, generic strategies aren’t going to work. Specific genres and disciplines have features that students need to know about, and we should teach this important information explicitly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on reading comprehension instruction and how we can help students become savvy text comprehenders.

Why should we care about awesome literacy instruction?

I’ve been in the field of literacy for over fifteen years — first as a teacher then as a teacher educator and researcher and now as a consultant focused on supporting teachers and school leaders to enact high quality literacy instruction in their schools. Literacy is a civil right — and high quality instruction in schools is one pathway towards ensuring that students are supported in being skillful readers and writers.

OpenLiteracy’s mission is to make knowledge about best practices in reading and writing instruction accessible to everyone. The work of teaching reading and writing well – and ensuring that all children have access to amazing instruction -- is totally doable. And yet…..

In the United States, forty-two percent of school-aged children struggle to advance beyond basic levels of reading comprehension. The statistics are even more alarming in the area of writing. While most students learn to decode text and identify main ideas, many never advance beyond basic levels of comprehension and fail to use writing effectively in even basic communication. Students of color and children living in poverty are disproportionately represented within the lowest levels of reading and writing ability, as demonstrated by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

There is an abundance of knowledge about best practices in reading and writing. Let’s work to make that knowledge accessible to all.