The NFER blog

Evidence for excellence in education

Reading is easy – so why bother to assess phonological awareness in young children?

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By Diane King

We live in a society that places a high value on literacy skills and, if nothing else, we expect schools to teach our children to read and write. However, literacy difficulties are common and can be persistent, impacting not only on school experience, academic achievement and later life choices, but also on many practical issues of daily living.

For most of us, it is hard to envisage how we could get through a day without the ability to read written text. Travelling on public transport, shopping, paying bills and using the internet are relatively straightforward tasks yet all present challenges for those who struggle with literacy. Although schools (often with the use of assistive technology) can provide a supportive environment for children with literacy difficulties, those who leave unable to read and write face poor employment prospects and risk becoming caught in a cycle of low confidence and self esteem (de Beer et al, 2014; Humphrey, 2002). The implications of this cannot be underestimated.

Job prospects aside, poor readers have an increased vulnerability to emotional and behavioural problems (Russell et al, 2015; Carroll,2005) and, whilst it would certainly not be correct to say that all those who struggle with reading turn to crime, it must be of concern that 50% of the prison population are estimated to have reading difficulties.

If you are reading this blog, then it is safe to assume that you have good reading skills. You are able to ‘decode’ the printed words on the page and understand what they mean. As adults, many of us find reading effortless and we often forget what it was like learning to read as a child. It can be hard, therefore, for us to appreciate why some children experience difficulties. Multiple factors influence both early and later reading development and difficulties can be underpinned by genetic, social or cognitive factors. Poor readers often have parents or other family members who also struggle with reading but other factors such as exposure to books and a rich language environment, oral language skills and reading instruction all impact on reading development.

If schools are to help poor readers improve their skills, then it is important that we have a good understanding of the processes children go through in learning to read. We know from research that reading is comprised of several components and that, to be a proficient reader, children need to have both good word recognition skills and good language comprehension. Reading comprehension is known to be underpinned by language ability, in particular by vocabulary and grammatical skills, but the strongest predictor of word reading ability is a child’s phonological awareness (Muter et al, 2004).

Phonological awareness is the knowledge that spoken words are patterns of sounds as well as signifiers of meaning. This knowledge enables children to identify and manipulate the sound structure of language, in particular, through the segmentation of words into syllables (units of a word that can be spoken without interruption) and phonemes (the smallest unit of speech sound) and by blending these together to form words. Both are important for early progress in learning to read (Muter et al, 1998). Indeed, studies have shown that a child’s skills in segmentation and blending at the start of school predict reading ability two years later (Wagner et al, 1997). There is also convincing evidence to show that children can improve their word recognition skills significantly through instruction and interventions designed to support the development of phonological awareness and letter knowledge (Elbro & Peterson, 2004).

What are the implications of these findings for classroom practice? The research evidence is clear – children need to have good skills in both language and phonological awareness if they are to be successful readers. In their early years, therefore, they need a solid foundation in language and communication and the opportunity to develop their phonological skills. For some children, these skills will develop with relative ease, but others will experience various degrees of difficulty. Studies have shown that early intervention can significantly improve the outcome for these children so there are strong arguments for early assessment to help identify children who may benefit from extra support. For this reason, the new NFER Reception Baseline Assessment, completed on school entry, includes tasks and checklists designed to assess a child’s abilities in both language and phonological awareness. It provides teachers with information on their vocabulary, grammatical skills and their abilities to segment and blend words. We take the view that it is helpful for teachers to have this information at the beginning of the school year to complement the information they gather from their own observations and assist them to plan accordingly.

Reading is easy – if you know how.

Author: thenferblog

National Foundation for Educational Research

One thought on “Reading is easy – so why bother to assess phonological awareness in young children?

  1. “children need to have good skills in both language and phonological awareness if they are to be successful readers” in order to do that they have to have good auditory processing. As yet we do not screen children for their ability to process sounds. We also do not look at children’s ability to use two eyes together and to integrate sound and vision. If we did (and then sorted out any underlying physiological problems) then reading would be easy!

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