Research supporting phonemic awareness instruction

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that speech can be broken down into discrete sounds called phonemes. Skills that require phonemic awareness include identifying beginning sounds in words, breaking words apart into their component sounds (segmenting), and putting sounds together to form words (blending).

Hoover effectively explains the logic behind
including phonemic awareness in preliteracy phonemicsinstruction: “Any system that links written letters to the phonemes underlying the spoken word requires phonemic awareness, because the would-be learner cannot connect the units underlying the written word (the letters) with the units underlying the spoken word (the phonemes) unless she is consciously aware of both and has the intent to learn the relationship between the two (known as the alphabetic principal).”

Makes sense, right? Let’s look at some research that supports the role of phonemic awareness in developing reading proficiency.

  • “Phoneme awareness performance can predict literacy performance more accurately than variables such as intelligence, vocabulary, and socioeconomic status (Gillon 2004).”
  • In an analysis of 135 research studies, Melby-Lervag, Lyster, and Hulme (2012) found a “specific and substantial association” between indicators of phonemic awareness and decoding skills. Rime awareness had a significantly weaker correlation with children’s ability to decode.
  • Many training studies have compared the reading performance of children who receive instruction in phonemic awareness with a control group (both groups receive the same reading instruction). Most of these studies have found that the experimental group performed substantially better on reading assessments than the control. This seems to indicate a causal relationship between phonemic awareness and reading ability (Hoover, 2002).
  • “The most common barrier to learning early word reading skills is the inability to process language phonologically (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989).”
  • A study of children with underdeveloped oral language found that an intervention of daily phonemic awareness and letter-sound training improved their early reading and spelling abilities (Melby-Lervag, Lyster, and Hulme, 2010).

It’s important to keep in mind that children cannot become successful readers without also developing other preliteracy skills (e.g. concepts of print, phonics). Nevertheless, the research clearly validates the reputation that phonemic awareness has as a critical prerequisite for reading instruction.


  • Gillon, G.T. (2004).  Phonological awareness: From research to practice. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Hoover, W. (2002). The importance of phonemic awareness in learning to read. SEDL Letter, 14(3).
  • Melby-Lervag, M., Lyster, S.H., & Hulme, C. (2012). Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 322-352.
  • Liberman, I.Y., Shankweiler, D., & Liberman, A.M. (1989). The alphabetic principle and learning to read. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Motivating students to read

According to Alexander and Fox’s “Historical Perspective on Reading Research and Practice,” we are currently in the “era of engaged learning.” One characteristic of this era is increased regard for motivational factors that influence learning, including students’ interest, goals, and self-efficacy beliefs.

Unsurprisingly, students are more motivated to read when they are interested in the material. Allowing students opportunities to select their own texts is an easy way to promote engagement. Interestingly, younger readers tend to prefer informational texts. Magazines and newspapers are good choices for older readers. Alexander and Fox highlight the appeal of “nonlinear texts”
found online.

4-boys-readingIn addition to allowing students to select what they read, teachers should also let students choose how they demonstrate their learning. For example, students might write a book report, create a work of art, or act out part of the text.

Students take ownership over their learning when they are encouraged to track their progress using charts or reading logs. Possible goals could reflect number of books read, amount of time spent reading, or number of new words learned. Goals are especially motivating for struggling students, because they help learners to focus on their achievements, and not their deficits.

The psychologist Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy as the beliefs we have about ourselves that cause us to make choices, put forth effort, and persist in the face of difficulty. One of the most important ways that children build self-efficacy is through so-called “mastery experiences.” When children reflect on their learning and make connections between their efforts and successful outcomes, their confidence and motivation are enhanced. A simple way to help children build self-efficacy is to differentiate texts to ensure students are reading on their level.


Literacy in the home

In the article “What no bedtime story means,” Shirley Brice Heath argues that children enter formal schooling with varying degrees of prior knowledge that influences their success in learning to read. In particular, children’s sociocultural backgrounds inform their oral language development as well as the way in which they interact with texts. Their parents may or may not teach them to make connections between books and the world they experience, or ask and answer questions about stories. According to Heath, “few parents are fully conscious of what bedtime story reading means as preparation for the kinds of learning and displays of knowledge expected in school.”


Recent research has confirmed the significant role that oral language plays as the foundation for literacy, particularly influencing students’ phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Studies have also shown that children with lower socioeconomic status tend to be exposed to a lesser quantity and quality of words.Thus, the so-called achievement gap between socioeconomic classes begins before children are even enrolled in kindergarten.

It seems that a critical component of attaining equal educational outcomes for our nation’s children is, in fact, educating their parents. How serendipitous that I would stumble upon a headline today about a Connecticut organization that seeks to do just that. Yesterday, Read to Grow launched its Books for Every Baby program, seeking to distribute free books to 100% of the state’s newborns. The organization is also running a social media campaign to raise awareness about the importance of early language skills. I also found similar organizations aiming to close the word gap, including New York City’s “Talk to Your Baby” campaign and Georgia’s “Talk With Me Baby” program, established in 2015 and 2013, respectively. I am eager to follow up in a few years to learn about the impact these programs have made on preparing children for school.