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Dyslexia and Structured Literacy: Why I Fell in Love with Phonemic Awareness

Naval Academy, Primary School
Updated on October 15, 2020
  • Dyslexia
  • Literacy
  • Structured Literacy
Editor's Note: In recognition of Dyslexia Awareness Month, this is Part 2 of a two-blog series about overcoming reading challenges. Read Part 1 here.

Hanging on the bulletin board in my classroom is a piece of paper that says, “Memorization is Not Understanding.” It’s a quote from Megan McGowan, head of the Lower and Middle School at Jemicy School near Baltimore, MD. (Jemicy is an internationally recognized school for bright students with dyslexia and other related language-based learning differences.) Those four simple words inspire every lesson I create for the young children in my class learning early phonological skills.

Structured Literacy, Balanced Literacy, and Guided Reading

Literacy instruction in many schools is not highly explicit or systematic. Important foundational skills (e.g., phonemic awareness and decoding) often receive limited emphasis, even for beginners or struggling decoders.” —Dr. Louisa Moats

While teachers have the same overall goal for their students—to help them acquire skills that will allow them to enjoy reading books—the approaches used to achieve that goal can be quite different. Structured Literacy is often associated with the terms “explicit” (constant teacher-student interaction) and “systematic” (organized sequence of concepts progressing from basic to more difficult). It is phonics-based and centered around what researchers at the University of Michigan describe as “phonological instruction, phonemic decoding, and sequential instruction.”

Why phonemic awareness works in my classroom

The Structured Literacy approach has been found to be particularly effective with learners with dyslexia because it focuses on decoding skills, which are critical components of finding success in reading. By emphasizing spelling patterns (instead of specific words), I can lead my students toward using decoding as a strategy, rather than them trying to memorize words by their appearance. It’s true—“Memorization is Not Understanding.”

Balanced Literacy and Guided Reading place equal emphasis on reading and writing and share components such as the read aloud, guided reading, shared reading and writing, independent reading, and word study. Students see modeling and learn to use comprehension strategies.

Thought by some to be a perfect combination of “whole language” and phonics, both Balanced Literacy and Guided Reading programs include phonics and decoding, but do not introduce skills in a truly systematic way. Students are also encouraged to guess at words by using pictures or context clues. The problem is, Balanced Literacy and Guided Reading approaches work well for some students, but not all. Structured Literacy is best for all students. According to the International Dyslexia Association®, “Evidence is strong that the majority of students learn to read better with structured teaching of basic language skills, and that the components and methods of Structured Literacy are critical for students with reading disabilities including dyslexia.”

I see every day the profound impact Structured Literacy can have on a child’s self-esteem. Accustomed to feeling defeated and frustrated in school, my students thrive with teacher-led instruction and gain a new sense of trust and confidence when they receive immediate feedback and are guided through error correction.

One of the most important jobs for the teacher of beginning reading or the teacher of students with reading problems is to foster awareness of phonemes (speech sounds) in words and to help children acquire the ability to articulate, compare, segment, and blend those phonemes.” —Dr. Louisa Moats

Phonemic awareness?...I’m all ears

The goal of phonemic awareness (one of the five core skills that come under the “umbrella” term of phonological awareness) is to help children hear specific sounds, identify sound sequence, and understand the role phonemes play in word formation. Research shows that a weakness in phonemic awareness is a predictor of future reading difficulties.

Teach phonemic awareness before phonics

While every child needs to learn phonics to read and write words, young children will have a much easier time mastering letter sounds and symbols if they learn phonemic awareness skills first. (I display a “picture alphabet” in my room before using traditional alphabet letters. This keeps the focus on the speech sounds they already know and allows for a gradual transition to letter recognition.)

The best part? Phonemic awareness is oral in nature so the games and activities you can play with your students are highly interactive, fun, and can be done in just a few minutes each day using both auditory and visual devices (chants, songs, picture cards, etc.)

My favorite read-aloud book for phonemic awareness is The Hungry Thing by Jan Slepian, featuring rhyming and manipulating beginning sounds. It’s about a silly monster who visits a village asking for food, but none of the townspeople understand what he is asking for, except for a small boy who always knows. Students quickly figure out the monster is changing the first sound of each food he wants and have fun “translating” words like “schmancakes,” which is, of course, pancakes. (Note: The Hungry Thing is out of print but can be found on Amazon. Two additional titles, The Hungry Thing Returns and The Hungry Thing Goes to a Restaurant are also delightful.)

Phonemic awareness skills by age*

3 yrsNursery rhymes; hearing alliteration and identifying words that rhyme
4 yrsIdentifying and producing rhyming words; clapping syllables; segmenting sentences into words/counting the number of words in a sentence
5 yrsIdentifying words that do not rhyme within a group; blend together onsets and rimes followed by phoneme blending. Focus on blending at this level.
6 yrsBlending sounds together to create words; segmenting sounds (beginning/middle/end) to identify parts of words (phoneme isolation)
6–7 yrsCounting sounds in words; identifying individual sounds in a word (phoneme segmentation); begin to spell phonetically
7–8 yrsManipulating sounds within words (adding, deleting, and substituting beginning consonant sounds) to form new words

*Adapted from these sources: “Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum”, by Marilyn Jager Adams; “Equipped for Reading Success”, by David Kilpatrick, Ph.D; and “Phonological and Phonemic Awareness “Cheat Sheet” from Clever Classroom (available for free on teacherspayteachers.com)

I love phonemic awareness for these reasons and so many more. By teaching students to play around with the sounds in words, we can not only prepare them for reading, but help them really succeed at literacy. Who knows? You might just fall in love like I did.

Structured Literacy Resources

About the Author
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Leslie Mata
Naval Academy, Primary School

Leslie Mata is an educator and dyslexia tutor at the Naval Academy Primary School, Annapolis, MD.

Learn more about Leslie Mata