What is Alphabetics?
Alphabetics is a combination of skills that come together to make the foundation of reading instruction.
So now you may ask, "what is phonemic awareness?" Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in spoken language. Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect those units within words.
As successful readers, we take our ability to manipulate sounds in language for granted. As children, we demonstrated our phonemic awareness skills through the use of rhyming games. How many times have you said phrases such as, "snug as a bug in a rug," or "see you later, alligator"?
Phonemic awareness is not just acquired naturally. Many of our students who come to us in adult literacy programs may have missed out on the acquisition of these foundational skills, which are necessary for good reading.
According to McShane (2005), when we are building phonemic awareness skills, there are six tasks that should be addressed:
The Importance of Phonemic Awareness
Without phonemic awareness, learners can't develop decoding skills. In order to decode words, learners must accomplish three tasks:
- Know and be able to produce the sounds the letters represent
- Blend those individual sounds as they are heard in a sequence
- Recognize the word
Early beginning reading instruction focus heavily on the first ability but may incorrectly assume that the other two are a natural result. A struggling reader without phonemic awareness skills can't manipulate sounds and words to make sense of their meaning.
Many adult basic education students who read at the very lowest literacy levels and at the higher levels have problems with phonemic awareness or lack decoding skills. "Approximately 75% of poor readers in third grade continue to be poor readers in ninth grade, and, unfortunately, reading disabilities persist into adulthood," (Mercer, 2000, p. 179) (.pdf).
Their difficulty began in childhood. Since no further phonemic awareness instruction is provided beyond elementary school, "many adolescents and adults who graduate from adult basic-education programs ... fail to attain automatic word recognition and therefore have to expend considerable effort to understand texts they are trying to read" (Royer, 2004, p. 57). Lack of alphabetic skills will affect these students in fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension, thereby slowing down their progress in literacy, adult basic education, or GED® classes.
Effective Phonemic Awareness Training
Phonemic awareness should be taught explicitly and systematically. Adoption of a structured phonics curriculum that makes use of letters and sounds and has a focus on segmenting and blending is recommended.
Many phonemic awareness activities, however, seem childish. It is often a sticky situation to use materials developed for children with adults. Teachers should be sensitive to issues of privacy if the learner is in a mixed-ability class.
It is also important to explain the need for such activities. Adult learners need to know how they are connected to their longer-term reading goals and why they are important.
Phonemic awareness should not be taught in isolation from other skills. It is not necessary for learners to have perfect mastery of phonemic awareness skills in order to begin to work on decoding skills.
Here is a list of structured reading programs that have successfully been used with adults. (.pdf)
An activity that you may use with learners to help them develop these phonemic tasks is a word sort. Instructions for using word sorts as well as additional references can be found here.
We've also provided you with some word sort templates to get you started. (.pdf)
Another activity that you can try to help learners develop phonemic awareness through the study of word families using inexpensive, plastic Easter eggs is described in this video.
You can also find additional word families here.
Now on to the second part of our alphabetics equation, decoding.
What is Decoding?
Think about what you do when you encounter a new word. Do you ignore it? Or do you pause and try to sound it out?
Decoding is a word identification skill that involves using letter-sound correspondence to recognize words in print. Beginning learners use decoding to identify words when reading and to approximate the spelling of words when writing.
Phonics is an instructional strategy for teaching decoding that enables readers to read words independently and accurately.
The Importance of Decoding
Research has shown that if students don't learn effective decoding skills, they will be unable to read with the fluency required for comprehension. The English language is a code that uses letters to represent sounds. Students need to learn this code in order to become fluent readers. If they did not, they would have to memorize thousands of words in order to read even simple texts. As you can imagine, this is a very inefficient process.
Obviously, phonics instruction is necessary for beginning readers; however, it can also be helpful for intermediate readers whose decoding skills aren't automatic.
Effective Phonemic Awareness Training
Just as with phonemic awareness, phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic for beginning readers. For intermediate readers, instruction can be targeted to needs as they arise.
McShane (2005) describes a number of systematic approaches to phonics instruction:
Many of the studies of the National Reading Panel used one or more of these approaches, sometimes in combination.
No matter whether your students are beginning level or intermediate readers, decoding practice is essential to help them improve their reading skills. This can be achieved through controlled-vocabulary texts that feature words that model skills previously taught. As with phonemic awareness instruction, some of these texts can seem childish: your communication with your students about how these materials connect to their learning goals is essential.
Motivation and Persistence
It can be difficult to keep adult learners interested in staying with a program if they need intensive phonics instruction. Students often cannot see the connection between these activities and their reading goals. To maintain their motivation and encourage persistence, you need to meet their immediate needs while providing appropriate instruction.
Introduce reading materials that are of interest to them. Provide evidence of their progress through journals, observations, and previous lessons learned.
Tell learners that as with losing weight or training for a 5K run, reading development does not develop in a linear progression. Instead, they are interwoven with each other and reinforce each other. To this end, instructors may need to teach high frequency words as sight words to beginning readers (from 3-5 per lesson).
Project-based instruction may also help you keep motivation high with your learners. Stronger students working collaboratively with weaker students can help the weaker students to build their skills.
The use of taped readings or computer-based text readers is another valuable strategy to meet the immediate needs of adult learners while they are learning to read.
Read our Alphabetics Tips in a Nutshell for a synopsis of the key points regarding Alphabetics instruction. (.pdf)
Websites and Additional Resources
Each lesson will present you with a selection of websites to visit that are related to the lesson's topic. These websites are not required reading for this course; however, they will add significantly to your study of the topic of developing reading skills in adults and we highly recommend that you explore them.
Chapter 4 of Applying Research in Reading Instructions for Adults by Susan McShane
This chapter of McShane's book focuses on the topic of alphabetics. (.pdf)
The National Reading Panel Subgroup Report on Phonemic Awareness Instruction
This report contains an executive summary from each subgroup that introduces the topic area, outlines the group's methodology, and highlights the questions and results from each subgroup. In addition to the executive summary, the report provides detailed explanations of each subgroup's research methodology and the findings for each group. This is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to understand the science and methodology behind the evidence-based assessment conducted by the NRP. (.pdf)
Alphabetics: Research and Teaching Strategies by the California Department of Education
This research digest on alphabetics is one of a series that reviews the four components of reading. This digest contains a discussion of current research on alphabetics, provides references, and suggests strategies for teaching alphabetics to adult learners. (.pdf)
Alphabetics: Closed Syllable video by CALPRO
In this video, teacher Guillermo Verdin demonstrates how to teach closed syllables to his class.
Making Sense of Decoding and Spelling: An Adult Reading Course of Study by Charles MacArthur, Judith Alamprese, and Deborah Knight
This publication is an evidence-based course of study designed to teach adult learners to decode and spell words accurately and fluently.
Structured Reading Programs That Have Been Used with Adult Learners
This is a list of structured programs that have been used in reading instruction with adult learners. It is by no means an exhaustive list and should not be viewed as an endorsement of any specific program. (.pdf)
Inspire a Life of Reading: Lesson Plans to Engage Adult Beginning Readers by Cheryl Knight, Appalachian State University
This manual includes activities in the areas of assessment, phonemic awareness, word analysis, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Activities are complete with goals and objectives, directions, handouts, game boards, and materials lists. All activities are correlated with reading competencies and are appropriate for individuals, teams, or large groups. (.pdf)
Comprehension & Phonemic Awareness
North Carolina middle school teacher Cara Pohlman summarizes current reading research, including the importance of phonemic awareness
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