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