Update: The link between phonemic awareness and reading achievement

Research reveals that phonemic awareness among pre-readers is a powerful predictor of future success in reading and spelling. It predicts achievement in these areas better than IQ or perceptual ability. Most importantly, research indicates that explicit training in phonemic tasks improves reading achievement.

These findings suggest that there is a cause-effect relationship between phonemic awareness and reading achievement. The exciting implication is that if children at risk for reading failure can be identified early, remediation can help prevent failure.

Vicki E. Snider, University of Wisconsin/Eau Claire, cautions, however, that early identification carries risks of falsely identifying students at risk for reading failure, as well as missing others who are destined for difficulty with reading. Snider reports on two longitudinal studies that attempted to examine more closely the relationship between phonemic awareness and reading.

The first study confirmed that there is a significant correlation between kindergarten performance on some phonemic-awareness tasks and reading achievement at the end of second grade. A second study followed, for three more years, children from the original group who scored in the lowest 25 percent on phonemic tasks.

The tasks researchers currently use to evaluate phonemic awareness include rhyming, blending, phoneme segmentation, and phoneme manipulation (adding, deleting or moving phonemes).

Rhyming tasks not good predictors

Results of this study reveal that rhyming tasks are not good predictors of first-grade reading success in either word analysis or reading comprehension. The combined use of phoneme segmentation and phoneme deletion tasks are better predictors of initial reading achievement.

However, Snider warns that most students who perform poorly on these two tests go on to become average or above-average readers. These tests do not identify only students who ultimately find reading difficult. Many students who score poorly on them during kindergarten learn to read without significant
difficulty. In Snider’s opinion, remediation in phonemic awareness is worthwhile, but labeling and placement or retention based on poor phonemic awareness cannot be justified.

Girls more likely to catch up than boys

Another study following the poorest-performing students for three more years revealed that girls tended to catch up more successfully than boys. A quarter of these students were fluent readers at the end of third grade. The rest of the students continued to have difficulty with reading, but for diverse reasons. Those who were retained showed no benefit. After retention, they continued to perform very poorly and often were later referred for special education. And despite special education help, these children remained very poor readers. There were no obvious similarities or differences among the low performers in special education and those in regular education.

Snider writes that educators should not infer that children who perform poorly on phonemic awareness tests in kindergarten are developmentally delayed or have intrinsic processing or language disorders that would qualify them as learning-disabled students. Students who scored poorly on these tasks in kindergarten did not do better when they were retained or placed in special education classes.

Also, twenty-five percent of students in the lowest quartile were average readers by the end of third grade. And those who scored well in kindergarten did not necessarily go on to become fluent readers. Educators should be skeptical of basing important decisions about placement on children’s performance on phonemic awareness tasks. Poor performance should, however, lead schools to provide explicit instruction in phonemic awareness as part of beginning reading instruction.

“The Relationship Between Phonemic Awareness and Later Reading Achievement” Journal of Educational Research, March-April 1997, Volume 90 Number 4, pp. 203-11.

Published in ERN September/October 1997 Volume 10 Number 4

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