Phonics and PA - What are you Waiting For?

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School has started back and many foundation teachers are wondering what phonological and phonemic awareness (PA) should look like in the early days of the year.

There are a lot of ideas around about this. Here are just a few.

  • Phonological and phonemic awareness develops in a progression of skills that we have to work through one at a time. This means that students need to have learned all of the earlier phonological skills before we begin on phonemic awareness.
  • We shouldn’t use a pre-written PA program.
  • A pre-written program is the only way to teach PA
  • Phonemic awareness must only be done without graphemes
  • Phonemic awareness must only be done with graphemes
  • We should hold off on phonics instruction until students are blending orally

The truth is that none of the above statements are accurate.

It can be hard for schools and teachers to have certainty about phonological and phonemic awareness when so many conflicting ideas are discussed at length by a range of academics, researchers and commentators. These discussions often leaving the poor early years teacher confused about exactly what they are supposed to be doing in their classroom and doubting everything we thought we knew. 

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 There are some areas of phonological and phonemic awareness development instruction where more research is necessary to provide us with firm guidance on what things ought to look like.  While we wait for this to occur, let's refer to the 2001 National Reading Panel report.  I wrote a summary of its findings a little while ago. You can find it here.

 To help make it all a little clearer, here are a few thoughts to help you out as you embark on the new school year. 

  • Dr Susan Brady's recent webinar about phonological and phonemic awareness reminded us that it isn’t necessary to wait until students have developed overall phonological sensitivity before beginning on phonics and phonemic awareness instruction. Waiting for all students to be able to delete syllables or consistently produce rhyming words before you start on phonics and phonemic awareness can potentially waste a whole lot of time.  Some programs don’t start phonics until the start of term 2.  It’s a time-line that doesn’t sit well with me.  I don’t mean that you attempt to cram all the phonics into your students’ heads on day one.  By all means, spend a couple of weeks settling students in and getting the fundamentals of routines, concepts about what a phoneme and letter is established. But once that’s done, get straight into it.

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  • You can work on phonemic awareness and phonological sensitivity at the same time. Teach phonemic awareness explicitly within your phonics lessons (once students know a few phoneme grapheme correspondences well) and address phonological sensitivity in ‘teachable moments’ or through transitions between activities. You can easily include syllable blending in your instructions throughout the day. E.g., “Class. I would like you go and sit on the car-pet.”  If you’ve done the Reading Success Teach Along, have a look back at module 4 for the full list ways you might do this. 

  • It’s fine to do a bit of oral blending and segmenting work, but make sure that the main focus includes graphemes. Orally, you can include segmenting in your shared daily writing as you jointly construct sentences. Have students ‘help you’ sound out words. In terms of oral blending, use a similar approach as with the syllables above.  “Point to the block that is r-e-d” while showing two coloured block is a simple and effective way to include this in your morning routine.
     
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  • You don’t have to throw your pre-written, oral PA program in the bin. Nor is it the only tool you should have in your kit bag. 5-10 minutes a day of oral PA work isn’t going to hurt anyone and will likely support many of your students, especially in the Foundation Year. But focus on one or two skills at a time, not all of them. Once the students have mastered a skill, don't spend any more time on it. For year 1-2,  it is likely that only students with significant challenges will require practice or instruction in phonological sensitivity. Make sure they get it, but don’t feel the need to spend time large amounts of time on it for your whole class.

  • ‘Advanced skills’ such as deleting, adding and substituting can simply be embedded within your phonics lessons. After students have written the word ‘mat’ on their boards or made it with magnetic letters, say, “Now turn mat into mats” or “Now turn mat into pat”. Ensure that they are, in fact, substituting or adding not rubbing the whole word out and starting from scratch.   You might be wondering about the inclusion of the graphemes in this.  We need to remember that the point of phonemic awareness is to engage with written language for reading and spelling. It’s not an end in and of itself. As such, hours of oral phonemic manipulation isn’t necessary to set students up for success.  It’s through lots of word building in explicit lessons that students will develop the depth of understanding of word structure to make these ‘advanced’ skills happen.

  • Take note of the students who are not making progress in phonological and phonemic awareness and take action straight away.   Talk with your school's speech therapist about what this might mean and ensure that students receive Tier 2 instruction as soon as possible. 

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My main message today is, "Don’t worry so much about making PA instruction perfect that you end up doing nothing at all".  Perfection is the enemy of action!  There are few practices that are actually going to harm children when it comes to PA. One thing that might not be so great is if you treat ‘blends’ as if they are phonemes.  For example, if you have students segment ‘stop’ in ‘st’, ‘o’ ‘p’, you won't get to the full phonemic awareness necessary for strong spelling. But apart from that, I can’t think of too much that you can do to break the children.  If you are doing something that could be better, your data will tell you that story and you can adjust from there.  As you grow in confidence and knowledge you’ll refine and adjust.  All will be well.



1 comment

Jeanne Beeming

Thank you for making PA clearer to understand.  Looking forward to Module 5.

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