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Volume 14, Number 6
November/December 1998

Learning to Listen May Help Children Learn to Read

Researchers examine whether lessons in "phonemic awareness" can prevent reading problems


In the early 1990s, language arts coordinator Marguerite Held was put in charge of working with students who, for some reason, were not reading at all by January of their 1st-grade year. The school was in a suburban district outside Houston, TX. The students were largely middle-class, with parents who had read to them at home. Their teachers had introduced them to phonics as part of the district's literature-based program, yet some students were still unable to read.

Held, a teacher for 17 years, had a hunch what was wrong. "They all had a similar problem, and that was that they could identify the individual sounds [of the alphabet], but they couldn't blend them. They couldn't take the word mat and make it into cat, bat, or rat without really thinking about it." In other words, these students didn't understand that the "m" of "mat" was separable from the "at," that the letter "m" represented that particular sound, and that putting the sounds (represented by other letters) into the same slot in the word would generate different words. This understanding constitutes "phonemic awareness." In short, their prognosis for becoming "real readers," Held realized, was poor.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

"Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children," 1998. National Research Council, National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW, Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055.

Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening Program(PALS), 125-A, Ruffner Hall, 405 Emmet St., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903.

G. Coles. Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy. New York: Hill & Wang, 1998.

M.J. Adams et al. Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, 1998.

B.R. Foorman et al. "The Role of Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Reading Failure in At-Risk Children." Journal of Educational Psychology 90, no. 1 (1998): 37-55.