Classroom phonological awareness instruction and literacy outcomes in the first year of school

For #ResearchTuesday I went in search of some current research on phonological awareness (PA) skill development as part of learning to read. I did a quick search and found an article that was PERFECT for what our department has been thinking about and working on lately; helping teachers understand how PA skills are important to reading skills and are different from phonics. I was not surprised but very pleased to see that one of my favourite researchers in the world, Gail Gillon, was involved. Any of you who know me know that she and Laura Justice are my two personal literacy heroes in life. Anyhow, I digress.

Just so we’re clear from the outset: PA skills occur only while listening and speaking and basically entail if a person understands that language is built upon sounds (phonemes) and that these can be combined and recombined to make new meaning (words). Notice that PA skills are not letter-sound correspondence – that is phonics. Phonemic awareness is under phonological awareness and captures tasks at the phoneme level.

literacy pyramid

The introduction has a very nice review of several literacy interventions that include PA skills. They discuss how these interventions vary from broad (including many different aspects of literacy such as whole word, phonics, print/book concepts, and PA skills) to narrow (focusing on only one aspect of reading skills), and also range in intensity and duration. They propose that for classroom teachers to be able to employ a certain intervention to a whole classroom, it is better if it is short in duration and intensity (e.g. less than 2 hours a week).

The researchers note that the usual classroom curriculum for literacy in New Zealand (where the study occurred) is focused on whole language and phonics, but does not have a focus on PA skills.

This study has 2 hypotheses:

  • Children exposed to teacher-delivered PA instruction at the phoneme level for 20 hours over a 10-week period in the classroom will demonstrate significantly higher phoneme awareness, reading, and spelling skills and that this will be sustained to the end of the year (compared to children who receive the usual literacy curriculum only)
  • Children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) will demonstrate significant improvements in phoneme awareness, reading, and spelling following this same instruction but may show less growth than typically developing (TD) children.


129 children aged 5;0 to 5;2 were included in classrooms with 12 different teachers at various different schools with average SES. Two teachers from different schools were trained in the PA program and their students formed group A (n=18) and group B (n=16) and the other 10 teachers performed the usual reading curriculum in their classrooms (n=95) as a control group. Four children in group A and 3 children in group B presented with SLI based on standardized assessment.

They used a quasi experimental design because it’s too difficulty to control for everything in a classroom environment. In New Zealand, 4 school terms are broken into 10-week sessions. Term 1 everyone received regular literacy instruction. Term 2, group A had PA instruction and B and C had regular. Term 3, group B had PA instruction and Groups A and C were regular. In Term 4 everyone had regular literacy instruction again.

The teachers doing PA instruction were trained first in the background theory of the program, then in the program guide with resources and activities. The lead researcher co-taught the PA program with the teachers for the first 4 weeks and then the teachers were independent for weeks 6-10. All in, it was 8 hours of instruction for the teachers.

All students were tested for language, articulation, non-verbal intelligence, reading ability, and PA skills at the beginning of the school year. PA, reading, and spelling skills were informally measured at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. There was no difference between participants at the beginning of the school year.

The program

The PAT (Gillon, 2000) was adapted for classroom use. It covers onset-rime knowledge as well as sound recognition, isolation, segmentation, blending, and linking speech to print (phonics). They adapted the program to fit in with the classroom resources (books, topics) and by giving the teachers the instruction time, including how to make tasks easier or harder depending on a student’s skill level. This way, students would still be exposed to multiple PA tasks, but only be challenged at their own skill level for optimal skill development. Teachers did four 30 minute PA sessions per week in the class alongside whole language and Jolly Phonics instruction (the regular program).

Two important things to note here are 1) the PA program comprised about 20% of total in-class literacy instruction time per week and 2) other than one week on onset-rime knowledge, most of the time (9/10 weeks) focused on PA skills at the phoneme level and not word or syllable level.


The students who had PA instruction in their class for 10 weeks (a short time, really) did do significantly better on reading and spelling compared to the children who did the typical whole language and phonics approach. By the end of the school year (age 6) only around 6% of the PA instruction students performed below age-expected level in word decoding. Compare this to 26% of the control group and you see a big difference for such a small change. Similarly, 6% of the PA groups were below age-expected level in reading comprehension compared to 31.5% of the control group. This change in how teachers approached reading instruction resulted in a 20% reduction in students with reading difficulties by the end of kindergarten. This difference in performance lasted at least 6 months after PA instruction stopped. The researchers stressed 2 factors about this – it was a short period of intense instruction delivered effectively in the classroom setting and it focused on the phoneme level, which is critical to early reading skills.

Additionally, the students with SLI demonstrated significant gains on all PA, reading, and spelling measures but they showed less ability to transfer phoneme knowledge to an untrained PA task compared to the TD children. Specifically, the children with SLI showed greater gains in initial sound identification and onset-rhyme than TD children, which likely speaks to their need for explicit teaching on phoneme-level skills. Otherwise, there was no big change or difference in onset-rime knowledge for any of the other students in the study.

The TD students with PA instruction had significantly higher gains in reading and spelling compared to students with SLI, suggesting the SLI students may need ongoing support to apply their enhanced PA skills. However, the children with SLI performed at a similar reading and spelling level to the children in the comparison group. This strongly suggested that children with SLI who have PA skill development as part of their early literacy instruction are positively influenced in their reading outcomes, even though they are at increased risk for a reading disorder. Small sample size of the SLI group is a limitation to the generalizability of these findings, however.

Small sample size, quasi experimental research design, and teacher/student individuality factors are limitations of this study, but I would posit that it is far more realistically designed than typical clinical studies in which you can control for most variables. Therefore, I (personally) suspect that these results would be replicable in other classroom environments with at least similar results.

How does this relate to my practice?

It relates to me very highly in that we are attempting to add a phonological awareness component to all students (SLI) on the therapy caseload, with specific goals for each student based on assessment results with the Pro-PA. So that means these students at increased risk are getting focused PA instruction. However, I set goals the way I would expect typically developing students to achieve these skills – starting with larger chunks (rhyme, syllables) and moving to phoneme level. Perhaps I should reconsider this and put more priority on phoneme-level goals for these students.

Which is interesting this should come up since I’ve lately been thinking along these lines somewhat already. In a conversation I had with a CDA, I suggested she leave rhyme for a while (the student REALLY wasn’t getting it) and focus on sound isolation instead since it is more specifically helpful/relatable to reading skills than rhyming is. Also, many students who have reading difficulty on caseload but have had PA intervention seem to be able to do most of the PA skills I assess (most of which are at phoneme level, including substituting the first sound) and yet continue not to be able to identify or produce rhyme. But that’s a different research paper to discuss.

This also relates to my current practice because it strongly suggests that I can help all students with reading if I can help teachers understand the link and power between PA skills and reading and spelling skills. This is a common theme in our department and we’ve been talking to teachers about PA skills for some time now. I often ask teachers about reading skills when I am about to assess a student and the conversation almost always goes like this:

Me: How are Billy’s phonological awareness skills?

Teachers: Pretty good – he knows all the sound-letter correspondences.

Me: Ah, OK – uh – thanks.

Then I have to make a mental note that that teacher does not know the difference between phonics and phonological awareness. Actually, I’ve realigned my mental note to be those teachers who DO understand the difference; it’s a shorter list. This happens in almost all cases. I have frequent conversations with teachers and resource teachers (special education teachers) about the specific phonological awareness skills of students on my caseload and am consistently surprised by their lack of knowledge and the sorts of questions I get about it. Teachers seem mostly to think of phonics, not PA, and typically only think of rhyme and possibly first sound identification as the extent of PA skills. This is confirmed to me every time I look at games, apps, and TPT materials designed to work on early reading skills. So, this research will further help our department educate teachers on the important role PA skills play in reading acquisition and to empower teachers to make a big difference for their students.

What do you think about this? Do you work with teachers who do a lot of PA or not? Do you even know what teachers you work with are doing as part of their classroom literacy instruction? Do you have thoughts or resources to help teachers with literacy instruction? I’d love to hear what you are doing in your practice!

Carson, K., Gillon, G, & Boustead, T. (2013). Classroom phonological awareness instruction and literacy outcomes in the first year of school. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 44,147-160.