When I realized that my 6th grade students didn't know how to read anywhere close to grade level, I simultaneously realized that even though I had a master's in English education and took a course in the teaching of reading,
I. Had. No. Idea. How. To. Teach. Them!
Research Tests Show Teachers Are Under-Prepared
Researchers have discovered that this feeling of cluelessness is actually…all too common with the teaching of reading (see Walsh, 2006 for potential explanations).
For instance, Dr. Louisa Moats ignited a flurry of research on this topic in 1994 when she reported that graduate students in education had significant difficulty recognizing the phonemic (individual, sound-based) fundamentals of our language.
While phonemic awareness alone is certainly insufficient for feeling confident of how to teach reading, it is at least a prerequisite in my experience.
Indeed, more research has indicated that teachers with stronger understanding of phonemic awareness and other basic concepts of phonics have students with stronger reading achievement (for example: Cash et al., 2013; McCutchen et al, 2002a; McCutchen et al., 2002b; Moats & Foorman, 2003; Spear-Swerling & Brucker, 2004).
But that's not the only bad news…
Researchers have also revealed that elementary teachers think they know phonemic awareness and phonics better than they actually do.
Researchers asked experienced teachers to rate their confidence of their knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics. Many teachers said they were confident of their knowledge in these domains (Cunningham et al., 2004; Cunningham et al., 2009).
These studies indicated that those who thought they were knowledgeable actually performed poorly on tests of phonemic awareness and phonics.
Why Does Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Knowledge Matter for Reading Instruction?
How could these topics make such a big deal in beginning or struggling readers' achievement?
Let's consider a couple of examples:
What if a student misreads the word, “‘jump,” by saying /jup/?
Should a teacher critique him for selecting a word that doesn't make sense?
Should the teacher tell him the word?
Should the teacher support him to Blend As You Read and enfold the /m/ back into the word?
Most of the time, errors like saying “jup” for “jump” arise because consonant clusters, such as “mp” are challenging to blend. When we support our students' ability to blend using the Blend As You Read decoding strategy, then these difficulties fall by the wayside in a matter of days.
What is a student misreads the word, “done” for /doan/?
Should the teacher tell the student that the “o_e” pattern is the sound /uh/?
Should the teacher tell the student to just memorize this word because it's not decodable?
Should the teacher point out that the “o_e” pattern is usually /oa/, but in this tricky word, the “o_e” spelling is /uh/, which is unusual?
Two-thirds of the word, “done” are reliable and decodable. Only the “o_e” is irregularly spelled (in other words, it represents a sound that is uncommon for that spelling).
So, we just point out this quirky fact: “This (tapping the ‘o_e' with a pencil) is usually /oa/ so that's a good guess. But in this word it's /uh/. Try again.”
Then the student gains a little more knowledge about the code and gets to practice a pivotal decoding skill, Flex It–moving sounds in and out of words until a she hears a word that makes sense.
What if a student stumbles over the word, “telephone,” saying /tel eh foan/ and looks perplexed?
Should the teacher coach him that the “e” in “telephone” is the /uh/ sound?
Should the teacher encourage her to look at the picture and try again?
Should the teacher point out that /tel eh foan/ is what it looks like:
“Good! This sound here (tapping the ‘e' with a pencil) is a sloppy /uh/ sound that's called the schwa. We use up all our energy and stress on the first chunk, “tel.”
Then we slop through the next chunk and say, /uh/, but it would normally be the /eh/ sound, you're right.
Try the word again with the /uh/ sound…”
This later approach to teach the schwa and how to cope with it (again using the Flex It decoding approach) helps students solve the current word, but, more importantly, develop a strategy that will serve her for attacking all future unknown words.
Over time, these little instructional interactions add up and either slow a developing reader down or speed them up. (I also wrote about how important it is to think like a beginning or struggling reader in terms of phonemic awareness in this post here.)
Test YOUR Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Knowledge
Now that you've heard the above, I'm sure that…
You, intrepid teacher, do not want to be part of that statistic of limited knowledge about these reading fundamentals, do you?
You are reading this very article because you are a professional who is always learning more about teaching!
I got ‘ya covered.
Please enter your name and email to take this little quiz below to determine how strong your knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics is.
Afterwards, notice the explanations for what you may have missed, so you start down the path of being an expert in this domain of early reading instruction!