In this post, I’ll continue pulling together my notes on what I’m learning about reading. Thank you in advance for reading, sharing your thinking, and helping me to connect with a broader community committed to improving literacy instruction.
I want to first draw everything back to the Simple View of Reading as a friendly reminder that reading is big.
Word-level Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension
I’ve only been focused on the word-level piece, because that’s the part that was so new to my own understanding. But the language piece is HUGE!
Anyway, in this post, I’ll keep with the word-level recognition side of things and focus on what assessments and programs we might be able to use to tackle just that one side of things.
It’s one thing to have a clear theory and a model; it’s another thing to act upon it. This is where the real debates begin, because at some point, the rubber needs to hit the road:
What will we use to screen and diagnose code-based and meaning-based literacy skills?
What will we do in our core instruction to prevent reading difficulties?
What will we do to intervene when core instruction is insufficient?
This means a school needs to have an RTI model of some kind, which is a level of sophistication, unfortunately, many schools struggle with. There’s a lot more that Seidenberg, Kilpatrick, and I have to say on this topic, but in this post, I’ll maintain a narrower focus. I’d like to dig further into the RTI piece of it in a future post (I have some criticism of the model, though I’m rethinking it in light of some of my new understandings).
Every School Needs a Universal Screener
One of my favorite things about the Advanced Literacy framework that both NY state and NYC have adopted is that it promotes the need to go far beyond the data provided by a state assessment. We need universal literacy screeners–a short test that can help immediately identify kids who are behind in either code or meaning-based ability, from which we can then drill into further with diagnostics.
Because the available tests are not always ideally suited for assessing the various components of reading, the best reading assessment tool is the evaluator’s knowledge of research on reading acquisition and reading difficulties.
David Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties
The problem is that there are no perfect assessments. As Kilpatrick notes, “Because the available tests are not always ideally suited for assessing the various components of reading, the best reading assessment tool is the evaluator’s knowledge of research on reading acquisition and reading difficulties.“
And there are so many levels to reading assessment that it’s almost fractal in nature. You’d need a significant battery of subskill assessments to get a full and accurate picture of any individual child’s reading ability.
Another problem is that time is limited, and there are already a substantial number of tests that students are forced to take. Some are in-house, some are district mandated, some are used to evaluate teachers.
Ultimately, a school must make sense of them as best they can. This is where The Simple View of Reading really comes in handy. Different assessments provide you with different kinds of information.
There’s thankfully a lot of great resources in determining what screeners your will use. The Gaab Lab at Boston’s Children Hospital has an extensive compilation of screeners here.
Assessments of Phonological Awareness
Kilpatrick recommends using both the PAST and the C-TOPP2 as a further diagnostic after a universal screener. But I recommend using only the PAST because it’s free vs. $347 for the C-TOPP2 kit. Why is the PAST test free? Because Kilpatrick developed it and publishes it for free here: https://www.thepasttest.com/ He provides instructions on the site as well. Pretty darn cool.
I’ve begun piloting the use of the PAST at a few schools I support, and it’s been pretty eye-opening to see just how much need there is with phonological awareness in the students I’ve tested. I’ve administered it to an 8th grade self-contained class, and all of the students had phonological deficits — some at the most basic of levels. One student struggled to say the word “fantastic.” He couldn’t get that last syllable, even when I slowed it down and repeated it. 8th grade.
This has only gave me a greater sense of urgency in figuring this out.
The other thing I noticed is that the person administering the PAST really has to know their phonemes. It’s surprisingly hard to do well. In order to get an accurate gauge of student ability, you have to deliver the instructions swiftly and precisely. If you slow down or stumble when saying, “Say guide. Now say guide . . . but instead of . . . /g/ say /r/,” you can easily tax the student’s working memory, and they forget which word they are supposed to use while paying attention to the phonemes you’re saying.
When training teachers to administer the PAST, I first have to ensure they can pronounce the phonemes accurately, and then deliver the tasks with swift pacing. This takes practice!
So my advice is to practice delivering the PAST with someone else, multiple times, before you administer to a student.
Check out my new Resources page for a couple of trackers you can use once you’ve administered the PAST.
Assessments of Phonics Skills
Kilpatrick recommends using the TOWRE-2 Phonemic Decoding Efficiency subtest and KTEA-3 Nonsense Word Decoding subtests. The problem is that these are subkits of a larger kit, and the kits for each are expensive. If you’ve got a school psychologist in your building who uses these and can lend you a hand, that’s great.
Protip: “Nonsense word tasks appear to be the best way to evaluate a student’s phonics skills. In essence, all unfamiliar words a student encounters are functionally ‘nonsense’ words until they are correctly identified. . . . Timed nonsense word reading, such as in the TOWRE-2 and the KTEA-3, is arguably a better assessment of a student’s cipher skills than the traditional, untimed nonsense word reading tasks. . . . It is recommended that any timed nonsense word reading task be administered after an untimed task, and not before.”
Though Kilpatrick recommends these normed assessments, he does acknowledge that they “do not provide much information about the specifics of what elements of phonics skills are weak or missing. By contrast, there are many criterion-based assessments of very specific elements of phonic knowledge. Some are commercially available assessments and others are free online. These criterion-referenced assessments will index the particular letter-sound combinations that the student knows, such as the various letters, blends, digraphs, and diphthongs, which can aid instructional planning.”
So my (admittedly amateur) advice? Normed assessments are great if you can afford them. But you can use something like the CORE Phonics Survey, the DIBELS Nonsense Word Fluency tasks, or Ruth Miskin Nonsense Word Test (all available for free). I also just got an OG (Orton-Gillingham) phonic screen from a colleague, and it was really short. Please let me know what else you might recommend.
I’ll stop here.
There’s much more to talk about with assessments for word-level reading, but I’ll stop here. Even out of these two, phonemic awareness and phonics, I’ve elected to only focus on one — phonemic awareness. Why? Because if Kilpatrick and Seidenberg are right, this is the core area of deficit that causes word-level reading gaps. And because I’m just trying this out and seeing what kind of practices and systems I can support a school in developing that are sustainable and scalable, and you have to start somewhere.
Even just administering the PAST is a much bigger endeavor than it seems at first glance. You need to train and practice with it. Then you need to test each student individually, in a space where you have enough quiet to be heard.
And then you need to figure out how to provide effective intervention in a consistent and effective way. From the first set of data I just collected last week, I can see this will be more complicated than I thought. Each student is at different levels of phonemic awareness, so how can we group them strategically while still addressing each student’s need?
Help! If you’ve used Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program, especially with older students, any advice is much appreciated.
It was pretty cool to see my last post catch 🔥 and link me in to a vibrant and smart community of educators committed to the science of reading.
To review, in that post I laid out what I’d begun learning after realizing I knew absolutely nothing about learning to read:
Summary of critical points on word-level reading
The Simple View of Reading provides us with a clear and research-based model of reading comprehension
This doesn’t mean it’s completely definitive–no model is. But it does give us a useful map for aligning and targeting our assessments and instruction
Anyone who hears and speaks can be taught to decode words in print
IQ is not the basis for the ability to decode
Nor is it ever too late to address decoding issues
Units of sound (phonemes -> phonology) are the basis of written language (graphemes -> orthography)
Most word-level reading challenges are related to issues with hearing and speaking the sounds of the letters in words
We acquire new words as we read via a process called orthographic mapping
It is the phonological part of our brain that anchors the written word in our memory, not our visual memory
We learn the vast majority of words (after we have decoded them) by rapidly and unconsciously recognizing the sequence of the sounds of the letters in a word — even when they are irregular
The root cause of most struggles in word-level reading is a lack of proficiency with advanced phonemic skills
Students require fluency with deleting, substituting, and reversing phonemes to acquire a large stock of sight vocabulary
Since writing that post, it’s felt like a whirlwind of learning. In the NYCDOE, I learned that there are K-2 supports in many elementary schools called Universal Literacy coaches, and they are trained in the science of reading. I spoke with a few and saw how they are attempting to bridge the various programs and curricula schools use to the science. I read Robert Pondiscio’s superb book on Success Academy, How the Other Half Learns, and struggled to square how SA consistently achieves the highest reading proficiency rates in NY state, while applying some reading approaches not fully aligned to the science. (More on that in another post; there’s a lot to dig into from that book, and I’d like to do it justice.)
I then went to a training on Equipped for Reading Success with David Kilpatrick, and got to ask him directly about the distinction between statistical learning and orthographic mapping. He views them as different processes — orthographic mapping refers specifically to the mapping of individual phonemes, and it’s far more quickly acquired (1-4 exposures), as compared to statistical learning, which is a more global pattern recognition process that requires far more exposures. He had a nifty little chart he pulled up to explain the distinctions. Either way, however, I found Marnie Ginsberg’s explanation in a comment on my last post to be a pretty good way to think of it, though with the key addition being that while proficient readers can rapidly do all of this on their own, we need to explicitly train and teach the skills required for orthographic mapping (a chart that outlines those skills below).
It can be hard to gain clarity on anything in the world of education, but most especially when it comes to reading. So even as I take one step forward, I often take two steps back further steeped in doubt. Yet I’ve decided to commit to Kilpatrick’s manual as my North Star for the next quarter.
I’m still moving through the Equipped manual a little each day on my commute, marking it up and imbibing what I’ve taken to calling “the Knowledge” in my annotations, an allusion to the famed test for London cab drivers. The Knowledge, in this case, being terms like digraphs, blends, diphthongs, onset, and rime.
Terms like these, much like grammatical terminology, can seem unnecessarily technical and unessential to good teaching. Yet imagine a world in which it was required for teachers to learn and be assessed on the knowledge behind the terms of word-level reading! I never understood– nor was exposed to–what “onset-rime” means until I read Kilpatrick’s manual. Yet once I grasped it, it served as a threshold concept for understanding phonological awareness.
Here’s the passage from Equipped for Reading Success that expanded my mind and made me aware of a key distinction between the syllable level and onset-rime level of phonological awareness:
“The onset-rime level of phonological awareness goes beyond the syllable level because the child has to break apart the syllable. . . . Onsets and rimes can only be understood within the syllable. Not every syllable has an onset, but every syllable has a rime. This is because every syllable has a vowel.”
–David Kilpatrick, “Equipped for Reading Success” pgs. 20-21
Remember how in my last post I had the big realization that phonemes are an abstraction from our everyday experience of spoken language as a stream of sound? The onset-rime level of sound awareness is one further abstraction from hearing syllable level sounds. There are gradations of abstraction on the road to distinguishing those individual phonemes, and that progression moves from syllable level (“baseball” = 2 claps), to onset-rime level (“baseball” = 4 claps (“b” is onset, “ase” is rime, “b” is next onset, “all” is final rime), to phoneme level (“baseball” is 6 claps (/b/, /A/, /s/, /b/, /a/, /l/).
I’ve begun playing some of the “word games” in Kilpatrick’s manual with my two and a half year old son to cultivate phonemic awareness, and I’ve noticed he can’t yet isolate the second part of a two syllable word. He can identify the first part, however. Which is of absolutely no concern to me, given his age, but I found it revealing of an even more fundamental progression in terms of working memory and the awareness that we can break up multisyllabic words into smaller parts.
When it comes to foundational reading skill knowledge like this, it’s always been something I’ve wished I’d known, but didn’t consider it essential, because the expectation was that I focus on grade-level texts and content. And yet I had students reading far below grade-level. One would think that this would have compelled me to learn it at that point–and I did try, I went through some of the files from my first years of teaching, and I found a whole set of phonics related stuff I’d amassed–but the reality is that it was something else on top of many other things I needed to know and do, and I put my primary focus on grade-level texts and skills. Not a bad focus, of course, but I look back on my many students who were struggling with decoding words, and I feel like I have failed them. I have failed them.
Teaching is a hard job. But so is nursing, and I’m watching my wife as she goes through a nursing program and struggles to acquire a vast body of knowledge that must be applied on a daily basis in a clinical setting. Nurses have to acquire this knowledge and be able to apply it, their jobs demand it. People’s lives are literally on the line. And yet, when it comes to teachers, our society seems to be perfectly fine to let them off the hook.
In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio has an especially wry zinger (in a book full of them) in Chapter 1 when he states, “Teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly. . . But it’s the hardest job to do well.”
We are graduating too many students who are functionally illiterate. We all need to step up our game.
My Theory of Action
My working hypothesis, based on Kilpatrick: many of the struggling readers in the schools I support are struggling with a core phonological deficit. Therefore, if I administer the PAST and identify where a student’s phonemic awareness level is (and train teachers to do so), and support targeted daily instruction in phonemic awareness until proficiency is attained, then those students’ reading levels will improve.
I’ve brought the PAST, a short phonemic awareness assessment from Equipped for Reading Success, to a few of the middle schools I work with, and have begun pilots with self-contained classrooms and students. I just administered the PAST to my 1st student last Wednesday. We selected him because we knew he was struggling with reading. But it still shocked me with just how basic his phonemic awareness level was. He was at nearly the lowest level, the syllable level, a pre – mid kindergarten level.
Let me frame the wider context of what we’re up against: in that school, roughly 40-50% of students across the 6-8th grades are identified as struggling with decoding, according to an iReady diagnostic. Of that ~50%, how many are struggling with a phonological deficit? I’d like to find out. And help to do something about it.
Finding a way to tackle something that massive, while continuing to ensure that core instruction demands grade-level expectations, is a tough challenge. Because let it be known that I am in no way suggesting that kids struggling with word-level reading should no longer be exposed to grade-level texts and content. What I am suggesting is that it is incumbent on teachers at any level (and schools) to be knowledgeable enough of foundational skills and grade-level content and skills to scale their instruction accordingly. And yes, this is a heavy lift indeed. There’s never enough time in the day.
Yet I’ve found Kilpatrick’s materials promising in this regard, because some of the phonemic awareness activities are “1 minute” practice sessions. Every single minute we have with a student is precious time, all too easily squandered.
I recognize there’s many other aspects to this, such as administering a phonics screen or oral fluency task and pairing students with different programs depending on the need. But I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m going to start small to see if my hypothesis is verified and if I can help to enact instruction that will target those needs. This is where the rubber hits the road.
I may fail. This whole thing is, ironically enough, a pet project of mine. It is no official aspect of my duties and role in the schools I support. And I take on too many side projects as it is. I’ve got a book I’m supposed to be writing, by the way, but can no longer find the time for, let alone post on this blog. But I have a hard time thinking of anything more important than getting this right. So I’m saying this publicly so the network I’ve begun connecting to can help support me, so I can better help support the students and teachers I touch each day.
If you are on a similar journey, please connect with me here or on Twitter @mandercorn and let’s work through this together. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, we just have to each individually connect the dots.
Thank you in advance, and thank you for reading. In solidarity.
You might assume I know something about teaching kids to read. I studied English at UCLA and obtained my master’s in education at The City College of NY. I taught special education grades 5-8 for 7 years, and I’ve supported schools and teachers throughout the Bronx with K-8 ELA instruction over the past 3 years.
Yet you’d be wrong. I’ve come to realize I know next to nothing.
In case you haven’t been aware, there’s been a firestorm of educators on platforms like Twitter gaining newfound awareness of the science of reading, with an urgent bellows inflamed by the ace reporting of Emily Hanford. For a great background on this movement, with links, refer to this post by Karen Vaites. And make sure you check out Hanford’s most recent podcast (as of today!!! It’s amazing!) outlining how current classroom practice is misaligned to research.
Impelled by this burgeoning national and international conversation, I’ve sought to educate myself about the science of reading. I began with Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight, took a linguistics course, and have just completed David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Seidenberg is not only pithy, but furthermore impassioned, while Kilpatrick is deeply versed in both the research and application in practice as a former school psychologist. Both experts provide an incendiary takedown of more than a few sacred cows in the educational establishment.
It’s been fascinating to learn more about the science of reading while simultaneously working with a school where I could see problems elucidated by reading researchers and advocates play out in real-time. It has made what I’m learning gain an even greater sense of urgency. I would read pages critiquing the “three-cueing system” and balanced literacy approaches on the bus in the morning, then walk into classrooms where I saw teachers instructing students, when uncertain about a word, to use guessing strategies such as “look at the picture” and the “first letter of the word,” rather than stress the need to be able to decode the entire word (for more on the problems with current classroom practice, listen to Hanford’s podcast).
There’s so much to digest and apply from all of this. This post is my attempt to begin synthesizing the information I’ve read. I’ll start general and then focus on the word-level reading aspect of the research in this post. And there’s so much more I want to cover, but I’ll be leaving tons of stuff out that I would love to explore further. Someday . . .
Reading Can Be Simple
First off, though reading is complicated, it can be outlined by a simple model, known aptly enough as The Simple View of Reading. It can even be put into the form of an equation. The theory was first developed in 1986 by researchers Gough and Tunmer. The original formulation was D (decoding) X LC (linguistic or language comprehension) = Reading Comprehension.
After years of further research, this distinction has mostly held up, though it has become greatly expanded, especially in our understanding of what constitutes language comprehension.
Decoding has been clarified as one umbrella aspect of word-level reading, which is composed of many sub-skills. A more updated formula, courtesy of Kilpatrick, is:
Word Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.
If you struggle with word recognition (such as with dyslexia), or if you struggle with language comprehension (English language learner), then you have difficulty reading.
Protip: if you are an educator in NY, know that this distinction can be framed around the language from Advanced Literacy as code-based (word recognition) and meaning-based (language comprehension) skills. And if you are a NYC educator, you can furthermore align this to the Instructional Leadership Framework. Bonus points for alignment to state and city initiatives! Yay!
Within each of these two domains lie the various sub-skills and knowledge that make reading so very complicated. Here’s a chart I made to visualize the “Expanded” Simple View:
Protip: Most educators are already familiar with the “five pillars” or “Big 5” of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, so it can be helpful to build a bridge between that knowledge and the Simple View. At a recent session I facilitated, I asked teachers to consider the Big 5, introduced the notion that they are composed of subskills, then asked them to sort those subskills into code-based or meaning-based groups. Here’s a print-out you could use to create the sorting strips.
Note that word recognition skills are mostly mastery-based. And a key point experts like Seidenberg and Kilpatrick make about word recognition is that word recognition can be acquired by all children. IQ discrepancy is not a factor.
“For children who are poor readers, IQ is not a strong predictor of intervention responses or longer-term outcomes. Moreover, the behavioral characteristics of poor readers are very similar across a wide IQ range. . . Within this broad range of IQs, poor readers struggle in the same ways, need help in the same areas, and respond similarly to interventions. In short, the skills that pose difficulties for children are not closely related to the skills that IQ tests measure. The primary question is about children’s reading—whether it is below age-expected levels—not their intelligence.”
“Discrepancies between IQ and achievement do not cause word-reading problems. Rather, deficits in the skills that underlie word-level reading cause those problems. The component skills of word reading can be strong or weak, independently of IQ test performance.”
“A common belief that continues to be recommended is that some students with severe reading disabilities simply cannot learn phonics and they should be shifted to a whole-word type of approach. This recommendation is inconsistent with the accumulated research on the nature of reading development and reading disabilities
“The simple view of reading applies to poor readers with IDEA disabilities (SLD, SLI, ID, ED/BD, TBI) and poor readers not considered disabled. Thus, when asked the question, ‘Why is this child struggling in reading?’ we would no longer answer, ‘because the child has an intellectual disability (or SLI or ED/BD or whatever).’ Those disability categories do not cause reading difficulties—specific reading-related skill deficits cause reading difficulties.”
What this means for educators: there is simply no excuse for any student to graduate from any of our schools without the ability to decode words in print. As Kilpatrick stated in a presentation (thanks to Tania James for her wonderful notes), “If a child can speak, they can learn phonics.”
Language comprehension, on the other hand, may be a tougher beast to tackle. Linguistic skills and knowledge are cumulative and on-going. Most importantly, a core component of language comprehension is background and topical knowledge, in addition to grammatical and syntactical knowledge — both which are inadequately taught in most schools due to the lack of a strong and coherent core curriculum.
I should note that Siedenberg doesn’t seem to fully subscribe to the Simple View, and that by no means should we begin to think any one model can adequately describe something so complex as reading. In his endnotes he states, “The main weakness in Gough’s theory is that it did not make sufficient room for the ways that the components influence each other. Vocabulary, for example, is jointly determined by spoken language and reading. Vocabulary can also be considered a component of both basic skills and comprehension.”
Kilpatrick contradicts this view when he states, “In the context of the simple view of reading, it appears that vocabulary belongs primarily on the language comprehension side of the simple view equation, not necessarily on the word-reading side.”
Seidenberg proposes his own model, based on computational simulations, which looks something like this (Figure 6.2 from Chapter 6):
I think this model is useful for conveying why reading is complicated and can be hard to learn, but maybe not quite as useful for guiding school-based assessment and instruction.
Why is The Simple View of Reading important?
Having a clear model for reading comprehension means we have a guide for aligned assessment, prevention, and intervention. Unfortunately, many schools base ELA instruction primarily on state assessments, which tell you very little about a student’s reading needs. People seem to forget that the function of a state assessment is for school, district, and state level accountability, not to direct classroom instruction.
Protip: One “research snapshot” I found useful from Nonie Lesaux and Emily Galloway’s Advanced Literacy framework is the distinction they make between “literacy performances” and “specific skills and competencies.”
“There is a tendency to examine the results of outcome assessments at the item level—to figure out the types of items groups of students struggled with and then go back and teach to support this understanding. Perhaps the most universal example is ‘finding the main idea’ in a passage . . . the problem is that finding the main idea—among many other similar performances or exercises—is just that—a reading performance. It is not a specific skill. That is, to perform the task at hand, in this case to find the main idea, the reader draws on many component skills and composite competencies and initiates those in concert with one another. In turn, when a student is not able to find the main idea, we still do not know why.”
In order to know why, we need assessments that can better pinpoint where the breakdown occurs, whether in word recognition or in language comprehension, or both. And then we need to do something about it. This is where it gets hard.
Reading is Hard
Though we can draw on a simple model to explain it, in actuality reading is complicated.
First of all, it’s completely unnatural. While we acquire spoken language organically, reading requires the imposition of an abstract system onto that language, a grafting of a fragmented alphabet onto a river of sound. Writing is something our species invented, an ingenious mechanism to convey information across space and time. While the first writing appeared around 3,200 BC, humans have been speaking for anywhere between 50,000 to 2 million years prior (we don’t know for sure because we couldn’t record anything yet, duh).
There are many irregular words in the English language, which would appear to make the teaching of something like phonics a daunting endeavor. We assume that kids need to be taught the rules, and then memorize the exceptions (these are known as “sight words.”) Makes sense, right?
Yet research has made it clear we don’t acquire most sight words through memorization. Instead, we draw upon our letter-sound knowledge and phonological analysis skills to recognize new written words and unconsciously add them to our “orthographic lexicon.”
What’s interesting on this point is there appears to be some disagreement between the models Seidenberg and Kilpatrick use to explain this process. Seidenberg calls it statistical learning, meaning that we learn to recognize patterns in common words, from which we then can recognize many others, including ones with irregularities. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, terms it orthographic mapping, which is the process of instantaneously pulling apart and putting back together the sounds in words, drawing upon letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness. In either model, what is acknowledged is that children learn to recognize a large volume of new words primarily on their own, but that such an ability is founded upon a strong understanding of sounds (phonology) and their correspondences in written form (orthography).
Honestly, I find both concepts—statistical learning and orthographic mapping—hard to wrap my head around.
It’s also possible they describe different things. Seidenberg’s term seems more global, explaining how we acquire vocabulary, while orthographic mapping refers more specifically to the relationship between decoding and acquiring vocabulary. I should note here that Kilpatrick did not come up with the term, “orthographic mapping,” but rather draws on the research of Linnea Ehri.
Here’s Seidenberg on statistical learning:
“…learning vocabulary is a Big Data problem solved with a small amount of timely instruction and a lot of statistical learning. The beauty part is that statistical learning incorporates a mechanism for expanding vocabulary without explicit instruction or deliberate practice. The mechanism relies on the fact that words that are similar in meaning tend to occur in similar linguistic environments.”
Here’s Kilpatrick on orthographic mapping:
“Roughly speaking, think of phonic decoding as going from text to brain and orthographic mapping as going from brain to text. This is, however, an oversimplification because orthographic mapping involves an interactive back and forth between the letters and sounds. However, it is important that we do not confuse orthographic mapping with phonic decoding. They use some of the same raw materials (i.e., letter-sound knowledge and phonological long-term memory), but they use different aspects of phonological awareness, and the actual process is different. Phonic decoding uses phonological blending, which goes from “part to whole” (i.e., phonemes to words) while orthographic mapping requires the efficient use of phonological awareness/analysis, which goes from “whole to part” (i.e., oral words to their constituent phonemes).”
Kilpatrick notes that “The vast majority of exception words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship.” This means that if a reader knows their letter-sound relationships well, they will be able to negotiate the majority of words with exceptions and irregularities.
What this means is that students need to be provided with sufficient practice to master phonological awareness and phonics skills. And we can not blame the failure of a student to learn to decode on the irregularity of the English language.
Phonology: What We Can Hear and Speak is the Root of Written Language
In Seidenberg’s book, he argues that phonemes are the first abstraction on the road to the written word. A phoneme is the individual sound that a letter can represent (e.g. the sound of “p”). While we learn many such sounds as we acquire spoken language, the need to disaggregate a single component sound into a phoneme only becomes necessary in the translation of speech into the written form. As Seidenberg puts it:
“Phonemes are abstractions because they are discrete, whereas the speech signal is continuous. . . The invaluable illusion that speech consists of phonemes is only completed with further exposure to print, often starting with learning to spell and write one’s name.”
No wonder “phonemic awareness” is central to learning to read! The ability to know and discern individual sounds, and then to be able to play with them and put them back together, is the core skill of reading. In other words, if you struggle with blending and manipulating the sounds in words, you struggle with reading.
And indeed, this is why far too many of our kids have problems with reading. As Kilpatrick puts it, “The phonological-core deficit is far and away the most common reason why children struggle in word-level reading.”
Once I grasped this deceptively simple idea—that fluent reading is dependent on the ability to hear and speak the sounds of letters within words—prevention and intervention began to make more sense to me. Before, my understanding of the distinction between phonological awareness and phonics and what this meant for instruction was muddy. Now, I know that before even looking at a letter or a word, a student needs to practice hearing and speaking the sounds. This is how the student develops phonemic awareness. Phonics, on the other hand, is taught when those sounds are then applied to letters.
Protip: “A good way to remember the difference…is that phonemic awareness can be done with your eyes closed, while phonics cannot” (Kilpatrick, 2015a, p. 15).
The Importance of Advanced Phonemic Awareness
That may sound straightforward (no pun intended), but one of the key understandings I gained from Kilpatrick is that we too often stop at basic phonological awareness, both in our assessments and in our intervention. While sound instruction in grades K-1 in phonological awareness and phonics should help to prevent most word reading difficulties (“Intervention researchers estimate that if the best prevention and intervention approaches were widely used, the percentage of elementary school students reading below a basic level would be about 5% rather than the current 30% to 34%”), there are some students who will present with more severe difficulties. And those difficulties often stem from lacking more advanced phonemic awareness. He also points out that these advanced phonemic skills continue to typically develop in grades 3 and 4, well past the point that most schools provide systematic phonemic and phonics instruction.
Kilpatrick stresses that intervention and remediation for such students requires explicitly teaching advanced phonological skills.
So What Can We Do?
The great thing about Kilpatrick’s book—and why you should buy it—is that unlike many writers in the field of education, he actually goes through what assessments you can use and what you can do instructionally, both for prevention (K-1) and for intervention (grades 2 and up), to address reading needs. He calls out programs by name and praises or critiques them based on key understandings from the research, and some of it was pretty surprising to me.
But I’m going to stop here for this post before it gets overlong. When I can find time to post again (it’s seriously hard with a 2 year old and 9 month old and the school year is about to begin), I’ll share some of the assessments and programs that I think are most accessible from Kilpatrick, as well as dig into some of the sacred cows that Kilpatrick, Seidenberg, and Hanford have slayed.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention what I learned from my linguistics course, which was just an online series. It was fine, but I only found it useful insofar as it equipped me with some terms like lexicon, morphology, semantics, or pragmatics. If you have any recommendations for further learning in linguistics, please let me know.
Also, if I’ve demonstrated any misconceptions in this piece or you would like to challenge or add to anything I wrote, please share!