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Wow! Have times changed. I received my initial Orton Gillingham certification over 20 years ago. I vividly remember the class where phonemic awareness was discussed. Here’s how it went: “phonemic awareness is a precursor to reading.” We spent about five minutes with Elkonin boxes. If you are unfamiliar with these, Elkonin boxes consist of a row of empty squares printed on paper.  As students segment a word into sounds, they place one token into a box for each sound they hear. That was it for the topic of phonemic awareness!  We moved right on to phonics instruction.


Phonological awareness is an umbrella term that covers skills like word awareness, syllable awareness, onset-rime awareness, and phonemic awareness. So, what is phonemic awareness? Phonemic awareness is defined as the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual speech sounds (called ‘phonemes’) that make up words.  For example, the word cap has three sounds or phonemes: /c/ /ă/ /p/. We are just talking about sound awareness, not letters associated with a sound. There is a continuum of instruction with these skills. For example, it is easier for a young student to identify the initial sound in a word than it is to identify the middle sound; it is easier to isolate the /b/ in the word bit than it is to isolate /ǐ/. It is easier for a child to blend sounds into a word /h/ /ŏ/ /p/ = hop, than it is to remove a sound from a word: say glad without /g/.


Unlike 20 years ago when I did my initial training, we now spend a huge amount of time assessing and remediating phonological deficits, and we do so based on solid science. Keith Stanovich is Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto and former Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science. His research in the field of reading has helped frame our current scientific understanding about what reading is and how it is developed. According to Dr.Stanovich, phonemic awareness is the most powerful predictor of success in learning to read, more highly related to reading than tests of general intelligence, reading readiness, and listening comprehension. (Stanovich, 1986, 1994)


The National Reading Panel assessed the effectiveness of various methods of teaching a child to read. Their findings list phonemic awareness as one of the key pillars to effective reading instruction, stating “PA instruction produced positive effects on both word reading and pseudoword reading, indicating that it helps children decode novel words as well as remember how to read familiar words.”


Dr. G. Reid Lyon is the former Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institute of Health (NIH). His research in the field of reading is extensive.  Dr. Lyon found that “the best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units” (Lyon, 1995, Toward a Definition of Dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.)


With all that we know about the importance solid phonemic awareness, we are thrilled to be offering two related presentations this fall: “Bridging Phonological Processing and Orthography” with Dr. David Kilpatrick on September 20 and “Assessment of Phonological Challenges” on October 26 with Dr. Elaine Holden.  We hope you will be able to join us at one or both of them.

Aileen Cormier  

President – New Hampshire Branch of the

International Dyslexia Association

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