Notes from Dan

Phonemic Awareness


As an Audiologist, I see children for evaluation of Auditory Processing. Children with auditory processing problems frequently have reading problems as well. Auditory Processing problems are not related to intelligence. Many Auditory Processing problems are phonemic and the real reason for the referral to Audiology is reading problems. Phonemic awareness is a very trainable skill that is remembered. Improving phonemic awareness is not enough to change a struggling reader into a good reader...this child’s reading program needs to be will be discussed.

The best practices for teaching Phonemic Awareness:

  • Clear consistent pronunciation of phonemes.
  • Good listening environment with background noise minimized
  • Phonemes are produced in isolation without needless co-articulation
  • Phonemes are prolonged slightly when possible.
  • Presentation rate is one phoneme per second when multiple phonemes are presented. Work up to the syllable level...never beyond
  • Auditory only approach
  • Discovery Learning. Children are never told the correct answer...they are allowed to listen only. Repeated auditory exposure enables phonemic awareness.
  • Children are rewarded for attending behavior not for the correctness of their responses.


I reviewed my earlier work teaching deaf children to speak

It is hearing that enables normal language and speech...the auditory basis for spoken language and written language is a recurring theme in this presentation.

Speech is a very an extremely complex process...but most of us master speech production to the point that it is automatic. Speech automaticity allows us to think about what we want to say not how to say it (i.e. we do not have to think about the rapidly changing positions of the tongue, lips, and teeth and well as breath control and voicing as we produce 10-15 phonemes per second).

We will be coming back to this point later. Automatic decoding is necessary when this process is reversed during reading. Fluent oral reading and reading comprehension require decoding that is developed to automaticity.

When the Child’s Brain reads

fMRIs of good readers all look the same regardless of what method/program was used to teach reading. All good readers read the same way. Their neural pathways always go through the phonemic areas in the brain.

fMRI of poor readers looked random and dissimilar.

fMRIs of the poor readers improved after intensive phonologically-based reading intervention.

Pictographs and Sight Reading

The Sumerians used picture symbols to represent words in 3000BC.

All word-based writing systems on planet Earth have been replaced by alphabetic systems. Alphabets transcribe the sounds of the spoken language using a written sound /letter code.

Despite the irregularity of the American English code...this is a code that all good readers understand whether or not it was taught directly....this brings up our 50/50 rule....about 50% of American children will have a built in aptitude for phonemic awareness and reading (not related to intelligence!)...these children will be successful in any reading program...even a poorly constructed program. The lower 50% will become poor readers or non-readers unless they are taught with a high quality phonemically-based phonics reading program (see below: “Evaluating a Phonemically-based Phonics Reading Program”).

The human ability to retain sight words will “max out” at about 1500. This number of sight words takes years and years to learn...if we continued to work on this every year through grade 12, we could get up to 1500. There are 50,000 words commonly used in American English.

American English...the origins of Irregular spellings

English is considered to be a Germanic language whose written form dates back to the mid 7th century. Over the years , English has been significant influenced by foreign languages, notably Latin and French. In most cases, the English spelling and pronunciation were affected by those foreign influences. If that was not enough, dictionary writers have also altered the spelling of many words. In the beginning and continuing up until relatively modern times, there were many regional dialects and significant variation in pronunciation, spelling, and grammar . “Modern” dictionary writers in the 1700s and 1800s attempted to standardize English and often made the problem worse. America’s first dictionary author, Noah Webster, wrote The American Speller at age 25 in 1783; he wrote the final version of his 70,000 word dictionary about 50 years later. Webster tried to standardize American English in the same manner as his predecessors. He altered spellings, grammar, and pronunciations. He was not consistent in his application of spelling changes and, although he was a great linguist, he was not aware of all of the phonemes used in English. He is responsible for the “short”/”long” classification of vowels and believed that long and short vowels varied in temporal duration...his classification system has been proven to be incorrect but it persists today because it is commonly understood...not because it is scientifically correct. In the Magic Penny program we will frequently attribute the irregular spellings of words to “Mr. Webster” until the child is ready for a more etymologically-correct explanation.

Phonemic Awareness ...implications for choice of reading method.

If Phonemic awareness is the only reliable predictor of early success in reading. If speech and language are learned auditorally.

If the brain pathways of all good readers look the same no matter how they were taught, and, if those pathways always go through the phonemic area in the brain.

If our writing system is a transcription of speech.

Then, doesn’t a phonemically-driven Phonics approach make the most sense?

So which Basal should we use?

The literacy rate in America is about 70%.... this number includes many poor readers. A poor reader would have enough reading skills to get by but not enough reading skill to do well academically or become an adult who enjoys reading.

“Basal” reading programs published by large publishers dominate in American schools despite the fact that they are only 70% successful at best.

“Basals” use a combination of instructional methods...Whole Language, sight words, and some form of phonics.....and 30% of our children are reading failures ...and another 20% have low reading skills...thus, our 50/50 rule.

We know Whole Language doesn’t work well. We know a Sight Word approach cannot work well.

We should also realize that a combined approach that mixes in ineffective reading methods cannot be as effective as a program that only uses only effective methods.

If Phonemic Awareness is the only reliable predictor of reading success, shouldn’t we consider a phonemically-driven Phonics approach without mixing in strategies that are ineffective?

Ineffective strategies will slow the progress of the upper 50% and cause the lower 50% to become poor readers or non-readers.

There are no Basal programs that meet these requirements.

If we have the ability to use a phonemically-driven phonics reading approach, should we also use a Basal program that requires curriculum mapping and has built-in “planned obsolescence” for our literacy program, or, should we move directly into a literature program that offer a broader, richer presentation of children’s books that have lasting value?


Chopping up spoken words into phonemes is sometimes difficult. It is easier with some phonemes... harder for others.

The International Phonetic Alphabet can provide a reliable indication of the best pronunciation of the sounds of American English.

Producing phonemes correctly without needless co-articulation is absolutely essential to success in developing phonemic awareness, and, it is also essential as a phonics program progresses to sound – letter correspondences.

The Magic Penny website has a Pronunciation Guide that allows teachers, parents, and students to hear the correct pronunciation of the phonemes.

Evaluating a Phonemically-Based Phonics reading program

What percentage of words are decodable using their system? (99% with Magic Penny)

Is their phoneme production controlled and accurate? (Magic Penny has a Pronunciation Guide)

Are all of the phonemes of American English represented accurately? (Magic Penny represents all of the phonemes. Magic Penny pronunciations are phonetically correct.)

Are the sound-letter correspondences accurate? (With Magic Penny....yes.)

Do the sound -letter correspondences cover all of the irregular spellings ? (MP covers about 99%.)

What is the instructional unit? (phonemes, syllables, consonant clusters, word families, etc). The research speaks loudly on this point as does our success. The phoneme should be the only instructional unit. (Magic Penny uses the phoneme)

What method is used to handle irregular spellings? (Magic Penny’s “one-rule system” uses a carefully taught matrix that is based on the frequency of occurrence of each irregular spelling).

How many rules are used to handle the irregular spellings?....... Magic Penny has one basic rule that is developmentally-appropriate even at the pre-K level.

If rules are the logic within the cognitive ability of the pre-K student. Remember: Propositional Logic (if-then statements) usually requires the cognitive ability of a 3rd grader. (The logic used in Magic Penny is developmentally-appropriate even for the early reader).

What is the evidence-based support for their success ... (Magic Penny’s success rate is 99%). Restated..99% of children using the Magic Penny Reading program become successful readers. Please recall that the success rate of Basal approaches is about 70%. Often the research supporting a Basal program is offered as an improvement in percent as compared with the previous version of their program.

Is everything in the program connected so that the phonemic awareness piece flows into the beginning sound – letter combinations, etc? Is reversibility built-in so that the child learns to encode (spell) and write as soon as the child begins to read? This clear logic and this “connectedness” make the process explicit to the child. Once the child has success at this level, the activities now have purpose. This inherent explicitness is very motivational for the young child. (In Magic Penny...yes, yes, and yes).

Coming Soon:

“The Adventures of Peanut Butter and Jelly in the Enchanted Forest”

Magic Penny Reading Secrets Book 3. More great applications in reading comprehension, vocabulary building, critical thinking, and mathematics word problems.

Touch Screen applications

Please Remember

It’s hard to confuse children in the upper 50%; with the lower’s hard not to.

Next: Teacher Corner Free Downloads