Phonemic awareness is a key concept in early literacy development, a concept that never fails to spark passionate discussions among educators, researchers, and even parents. If you’ve found yourself perplexed by the term or simply want to deepen your understanding of it, you’re in the right place.
After diving into several research papers and synthesizing insights from esteemed scholars, I’ve pieced together a comprehensive look at why phonemic awareness is important for early literacy development. If you’re intrigued by the discussions here, you won’t want to miss my other post that delves into various scholarly definitions of phonemic awareness.
Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important for Early Literacy Development
The importance of phonemic awareness in literacy development can’t be overstated, and the research is compelling on this front. Let’s break it down.
The National Reading Panel conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis involving 52 peer-reviewed studies that examined the efficacy of phonemic awareness (PA) instruction (Ehri et al. 2001). Overall, the findings overwhelmingly suggest that PA instruction has a meaningful and statistically significant impact on reading and spelling. The effect size for PA acquisition was notably large (d = 0.86), while moderate yet significant impacts were observed on reading (d = 0.53) and spelling (d = 0.59).
The benefits of PA instruction, according to the report, weren’t limited to a specific demographic; they spanned across various groups including normally developing readers, at-risk readers, disabled readers, and children from different socioeconomic backgrounds and grade levels.
Interestingly, PA instruction had a more profound impact when taught using letters and focused on one or two PA skills rather than multiple. Smaller groups and instruction durations between 5 and 18 hours also led to more effective outcomes. Notably, classroom teachers were found to be quite effective in delivering this instruction. In summary, Ehri et al.’s meta-analysis strongly validates the indispensable role of PA instruction in fostering reading skills, with increased efficacy under certain conditions.
Griffith and Olson (1992) emphasize that phonemic awareness allows children to employ letter-sound correspondences for reading and spelling, essentially equipping them to read unfamiliar words by blending sounds (pp. 516-518). The authors go on to claim phonemic awareness as a “powerful predictor of later reading achievement” (p. 518). This isn’t a solitary voice; it echoes the findings of numerous other studies such as those by Juel, 1988; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986; Lomax and McGee, 1987; Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985. If we’re considering long-term academic success, investing time in building this skill is not just advisable, it’s critical.
Digging deeper, Griffith and Olson note that training in phonemic awareness directly contributes to children’s word recognition and spelling abilities. Other research also suggests that good phonological awareness is often seen in successful readers (Fox & Routh, 1980; Liberman et al., 1974; Perfetti et al., 1987). Kozminsky’s work further supports this by pointing out that pre-reading phonological awareness tasks are strong predictors of first-grade reading success, even when other factors like intelligence and socio-economic status are controlled (Kozminsky & Kozminsky, 1995, p. 187-188).
Snider (1997) concurs, stating that there’s a “powerful and predictable relationship between phonemic awareness and future reading achievement” (p. 209). In my view, this is vital for educators to understand, especially when choosing literacy programs and ed-tech tools.
Stanovich throws in a curveball: if there’s a specific bottleneck causing reading disability, it likely resides in the domain of phonological awareness (Stanovich, p. 393, cited in Freebody & Byrne, 1988). This suggests that if we tackle this problem head-on, we could potentially offset a cascade of academic and motivational problems later on.
Manyak (2008) rounds off by stressing that phonemic awareness is key to understanding the alphabetic principle and, consequently, the acquisition of early phonics skills (p. 659). This mirrors my own experience and mission in advocating for effective ed-tech solutions that help kids grasp this concept early on.
10 Reasons Why Phonemic Awareness Is Important for Early Literacy Development
Here are the 10 main reasons why phonemic awareness is important for literacy development as advocated by research:
Predictor of Reading Success: Studies by Juel and others underscore that phonemic awareness is a powerful predictor of later reading achievement. This aligns well with my own research and observations in educational settings.
Enhances Word Recognition and Spelling: Griffith and Olson highlighted that children who have phonemic awareness can better utilize letter-sound correspondences, thereby improving their word recognition and spelling.
Contributes to Reading Comprehension: Not just limited to word reading, but phonemic awareness also contributes to reading comprehension as indicated in the meta-analysis by the National Reading Panel.
Beneficial Across Demographics: Ehri et al. ‘s meta-analysis suggests ( that phonemic awareness instruction benefits a wide range of children, from normally developing readers to those who are at-risk or have disabilities, across different socioeconomic statuses.
Impacts Various Reading Stages: From preschoolers to first graders, phonemic awareness has been shown to be crucial at multiple stages of a child’s educational journey.
Effective When Taught Early: Many studies, such as those by Kozminsky, suggest that early training in phonemic awareness significantly contributes to initial decoding skills. This is something I’ve noticed in my research as well.
Potential to Address Reading Disabilities: Slow development in phonemic awareness can initiate a cascade of academic struggles, making it an area to target for intervention (e.g., Stanovich).
Influence on Alphabetic Principle: Manyak points out that phonemic awareness plays a critical role in understanding that alphabet letters represent sounds, thereby making early phonics instruction more impactful.
Impact on Spelling in Disabled Readers: Interestingly, the meta-analysis found that PA instruction improved reading but did not significantly impact spelling in disabled readers.
Effectiveness of Teaching Methods: According to the meta-analysis, the effectiveness of phonemic awareness instruction increases when taught with letters, in small groups, and over shorter durations (5-18 hours).
So, what’s the takeaway here? Phonemic awareness isn’t a peripheral skill; it’s central to reading and spelling, predictive of academic achievement, and potentially a game-changer for those at risk of reading disabilities. It’s essential for everyone involved in education to not just understand this, but to actively integrate this knowledge into teaching strategies and educational tools.
As we wind down this discussion on the critical importance of phonemic awareness, it’s evident that this skill is an essential building block in literacy development. Through an array of scholarly research and practical implications, we’ve seen how phonemic awareness serves as a powerful predictor for future reading success and how it goes hand-in-hand with effective spelling and word recognition. It’s a metalinguistic tool that enables children to grasp the alphabetic principle and engage meaningfully with written language.
I’ve been on both sides of the educational landscape—as a classroom teacher for over 15 years and now as an educational researcher—and the power of phonemic awareness has been an enduring theme in my own experience. This skill equips children to navigate the complexities of letter-sound relationships, decoding, and ultimately, understanding text. The potential impact is not confined to just academic success but extends to lifelong learning and the joys of reading.
So, if there’s one takeaway from this post, it’s that fostering phonemic awareness is a worthy investment for anyone involved in a child’s learning journey—be it teachers, parents, or caregivers. Understanding its fundamental role can be a game-changer in making literacy education more effective and engaging.
Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D. M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic Awareness Instruction Helps Children Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(3), 250–287. http://www.jstor.org/stable/748111
Freebody, P., & Byrne, B. (1988). Word-Reading Strategies in Elementary School Children: Relations to Comprehension, Reading Time, and Phonemic Awareness. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(4), 441–453. https://doi.org/10.2307/747642
Fox, B., & Routh, D. (1980). Phonemic analysis and severe reading disability. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 9, 115-119.
Griffith, P. L., & Olson, M. W. (1992). Phonemic Awareness Helps Beginning Readers Break the Code. The Reading Teacher, 45(7), 516–523. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20200912
Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447
Juel, C, Griffith, PL., & Gough, RB. (1986). Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 243-255.
Kozminsky, L., & Kozminsky, E.(1995). The effects of early phonological awareness training on reading success. Learning and Instruction, 5(3), 187-201. https://doi.org/10.1016/0959-4752(95)00004-M.
Liberman, I., Shankweiler, D., Fisher, F., & Carter, B. (1974). Explicit syllable and phoneme segmentation in the young child. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 18, 201-212.
Lomax, R.G., & McGee, L.M. (1987). Young children’s concepts about print and meaning: Toward a model of word reading acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 237-256.
Manyak, P. C. (2008). Phonemes in Use: Multiple Activities for a Critical Process. The Reading Teacher, 61(8), 659–662. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20204646
Perfetti, C. A., Beck, I., Bell, L., & Hughes, C. (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33, 283-319.
Snider, V. E. (1997). The Relationship between Phonemic Awareness and Later Reading Achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 90(4), 203–211. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27542094
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.
Tunmer, W.E., & Nesdale, A.R. (1985). Phonemic segmentation skill and beginning reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 417-427.
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