The only phonological skill required for children taught to read with Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) is hearing the word after the letter sounds have been spoken, such as /c-a-t/ cat, /sh-ee-p/ sheep . Skilled readers do this whenever they come across an unfamiliar word. It is the way the alphabetic code works for reading. 

For most children, this skill needs to be taught in a step-by-step progression. The children learn a few letter-sound correspondences and at the same time are taught how to say the sounds linked to the letters, blend them and read the words. Once a word has been blended a few times it becomes known and then blending is only needed for new unfamiliar words.

The teaching continues with learning more letter-sound correspondences and developing fluent word-blending skills before expecting the children to read decodable books independently.

So why do we keep hearing about the importance of phonological awareness being taught before teaching children to read? My experience tells me that this is an example of how research can sometimes send educationalists in the wrong direction.

We know from research that the children who started school with good phonological awareness made the best progress with their reading. Undoubtedly the schools participating in this research would have taught their children with Whole Word Memorising, Balanced Literacy or Whole Language approaches and not SSP. From these results, it was deduced, by many educationalists, that we should teach all the children phonological awareness before expecting them to read, so that they, too, can be as successful as the children who scored well in the research experiment.  This sounds logical but is in fact misguided.

The reason the children with good phonological skills did well in the research experiment was due to them being able to crack the alphabetic code all by themselves, without step-by-step phonics instruction.

Only a few lucky children are able to teach themselves decoding for reading. They use their ability to hear the sounds in words and teach themselves how the alphabetic code works. For example, a child might see the word ‘mummy’ and notice the /m/ sound is linked to the letter <m> and then see it at the beginning of words like ‘man’, ‘mouse’ or at the end of words like ‘jam’ or ‘spam’. This would provide the child with an understanding of the link between letters and sounds. Then bit-by-bit they work out the link between the other letter-sound correspondences and then apply this knowledge to decode new words. Success at this is a remarkable achievement and requires a good ear for the sounds in words, a logical brain, excellent memory and possibly some guidance from home.

Phonemic awareness means being aware of small units of sounds called phonemes. This is the part of phonological awareness most relevant to reading. The reality is that it is much easier and far more effective to teach phonemic awareness as the children are taught the letter-sound correspondences, initially only using words for decoding that have letter-sound correspondences that have been taught. This is how SSP works for reading.

Below are two samples of independent research into the effectiveness of SSP teaching:

1. Longitudinal research: This large school was in an extremely poor social area.
    It achieved phenomenal results:

  • Chronological Age 7.04  :  Reading Age 9.8   :    Spelling Age 9.1

  • No child’s results were poor enough to qualify for dyslexia (Page 20)

2. A five year study:

        ‘It was found that the synthetic phonics group now had a reading age of 6
        years 8 months on the BAS Word Reading Test, being 16 months in advance of
        chronological age. They were also ahead in emergent reading, letter sound
        knowledge, and phonemic awareness ability but not rhyme ability. The mean
        reading age for the analytic phonics group was 5 years 4 months,  
        chronological age being 5 years 6 months.

Interestingly, rhyme was not a necessary requirement for high results.

Sue Lloyd, March 2023

What phonological skills are needed for reading? by Sue Lloyd

2 thoughts on “What phonological skills are needed for reading? by Sue Lloyd

  • 16th April 2023 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you for your post, Sue, which is important so people can appreciate an effective ‘cut to the chase’ form of phonics provision not reliant on a plethora of complex, manipulative, language ‘phonological activities which I sometimes refer to as ‘language acrobatics’.

    I, and others in the RRF, have found that these sound-acrobatic activities are not pre-requisites for phonics provision – just get on with teaching the knowledge of letter/s-sound correspondences (of the alphabetic code) and the skills and sub-skills for all-through-the-word phonics for sounding out and blending (decoding/reading) and segmenting spoken words then allotting letters and letter groups (encoding/spelling).

    Professor Kevin Wheldall of Multilit (Australia) flagged up an excellent report by Nicola Bell. It is freely available via the content-rich ‘Five from Five’ site which is well worth a visit. The report features some of the same issues you have raised about what is, and what is not, necessary when it comes to teaching phonics. This is recommended reading:

  • 11th May 2023 at 5:34 am

    Thank you for providing a post with a very interesting topic. By reading the articles you posted, I gained new knowledge and understanding of what phonological skills are needed for reading. I really enjoyed reading your posts.

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