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Research Supports: Phonemic Awareness as a Necessary Element for Successful Reading Acquisition

Is it possible to teach, motivate, and inspire our children to read proficiently (like the child in the above photo- who would not even look at a book for months?) Recent Studies share positive evidence that teachers can provide effective instruction, increasing the number of proficient readers by using, “The Science of Reading” as an integral part of a student’s reading program.

Let the Research Speak

Before we move any further, let’s come to grips with some startling statistics: according to the National Achievement Level Results (NAEP) in 2022, about 33% of fourth-graders are reading at or above the proficient level, and the gaps are even greater for disenfranchised students. The National Literacy Institute states that in 2022, 21% of adults in the United States were illiterate, with 54% of the adults reading below a 6th grade level. We are a country that is constantly competing in an ever-changing global economy. How can we turn the tides and reverse these findings? The good news is that by using a research-based approach called, “The Science of Reading,” or “Structured Literacy,” we can. This article will discuss the National Reading Panel’s recommendations for effective reading instruction and I will provide some ideas to help teachers keep kids reading and engaged in books at the end of the year.

The National Reading Panel (NRP) lists the following 5 major components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Correlation studies consistently note that phonemic awareness and letter knowledge are two great predictors of how well children will perform during their first 2 years of school. This study supports the importance of teaching phonemic awareness to kids. What is phonemic awareness? First, we need to understand what phonemes are. Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language. The English language has about 41 phonemes and they combine to form syllables and words. For example, the word “go” has 2 phonemes (g,o) and the word “check” has 3 phonemes (ch,e,ck). Further, phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate these units to make spoken or written words. After students understand how to manipulate sounds, they then learn the sounds-letter correspondences or phonics rules for reading and spelling.

Our brains learn to read by comprehending the combination of decoding words, vocabulary, language comprehension and meaning from texts known as the Science of Reading or Structured Literacy (Gough and Turner, 1986). , Any instructional approach that neglects the integration of these components is missing the mark. Without this approach only 30% of students will learn to read. Since this is an approach, and not a literacy method, it must be combined with the method of reading instruction determined by the individual school district. I recommend coupling it with Balanced Literacy. It is important to consider that using Balanced Literacy without phonics has shown to produce lower reading scores. Balanced Literacy is an approach open for interpretation which is why many students fall through the cracks. Again, it must be combined with explicit phonics instruction. Fountas and Pinnell (1996) advocate using a balance of whole-group, small-group instruction and independent learning with a focus on authentic texts and phonics to teach kids to read.

I have been a Literacy Specialist, trained in Reading Recovery, Balanced Literacy structured phonics and Orton-Gillingham. I have lived through the reading wars where the pendulum has swung from whole-word reading, basal texts, integrated whole-language, balanced literacy, readers workshop, phonics, no phonics and back to the inclusion of phonics. I have experienced the greatest successes by including explicit, structured phonics in a “stairstep” approach with the balance of literacy. Let me explain further: Since reading levels and students’ needs vary, Fountas and Pinnell have a benchmarking system where you can determine each student’s reading levels (areas of strength and needs). After assessing students’ levels, I taught the skills, phonics, and strategies required of the grade level and then provided targeted instruction to meet students’ needs in groups or one-on-one. I followed a 45–60-minute solid reading block to arrange my reading in a balanced

format. For those students who required more time, I would group them according to need and target the skills: fluency, decoding, comprehension, and writing (although, I had a separate block for just writing instruction, Writer’s workshop, Lucy Calkins). At times, I provided longer periods of time to work with my “at risk” students. For students who have learning disabilities, they require a more intense, structured phonetic program called Orton-Gillingham or Wilson method provided by a certified teacher in those programs.

Here is a sample chart of Balanced Literacy (Lucy Calkins, Teacher’s College) with Structured Phonics included. I always began my Balanced Program with a mini-lesson to teach, skills, strategies and my phonics rules through authentic texts or in addition to the text. Students then engaged in reading “just right” books or books that were on their levels independently or in groups. During guided small group work, they accelerated their reading levels by being introduced to new texts, skills, strategies and were provided plenty of practice reading multiple books.

Since reading and writing are reciprocal processes, it is tantamount for teachers to set up a block of writing time each day. It can also be in the form of the workshop model or Balanced Literacy approach. I often combined writing activities as related to students’ reading or leveled books. The Department of Education recommends a minimum of one hour a day for writing instruction (not always practical). Below is a sample chart I used for my literacy block.

Balanced Literacy

How Can Teachers Continue to Maintain High Reading Engagement at the End of the Year?

After Students have spent a long and arduous year learning the basic skills, technology and other educational requirements, their attention begins to wane. The following list includes some ideas to keep kids engaged in reading activities:

  • Book Trade: Kids bring in gently used books to trade with other students

  • Tidy the Tubs or Class Library: Give students the responsibility to put books where they belong and opportunities to find some new books they want to read.

  • Dress up as a character from their book: Students guess who the character is and learn about the story.

  • Read Around: Students each get a few minutes to preview a book and then pass the book to the next person, so all have a chance to cultivate new interests.

  • Book Tasting Party: Teacher sets up a tablecloth and puts a wide selection of books on the table so kids can take one to their seat and review. You can also have a small party with treats and share some favorite books with each other.

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