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Gillon, Gail T. (2004). Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice. NY: Guilford Press.

Pp. xiv + 270
$35   ISBN 1-57230-964-4

Reviewed by Cynthia Crosser
University of Maine

May 12, 2005

Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice is intended primarily for reading specialists and speech-language therapists. Language arts teachers will find it useful if they have some training in language development and its relationship to reading and spelling. The goal of the book is to synthesize and evaluate research on phonological awareness in regard to reading and spelling development for all populations of children and to present instructional interventions to meet diverse needs. This is a very ambitious undertaking. Fortunately, Gillon, a researcher in communication disorders with extensive experience with New Zealand classrooms, is up to the challenge.

The structure of the book is straightforward. Gillon begins her book with a discussion of reading theory and how it relates to phonological awareness. In the middle chapters Gillon presents the research evidence for the importance of phonological awareness in the development of reading and spelling in the general population and for children with reading difficulties. The final chapters discuss assessment and intervention for a diverse group of learners, including those who speak English as a second language.

Although Gillon begins chapter one with a section defining phonological awareness, her book is easier to follow if the reader has some background in phonology. Phonological awareness involves becoming conscious of the sound system that is used in a spoken language. Humans are born with an implicit knowledge of the sound categories used in human languages (Eimas, 1971). By the first year, children are tuning in to the sounds that are specific to their own language (Jusczyk, 1992). Phonological awareness in spoken English involves an awareness of the sounds and the sound rules that English speakers use. When we teach a child that book and ball start with the same sound that is called /b/, then we are helping them to develop a phonological awareness of spoken English. Teaching them a name for the sound allows them to mentally represent the sound. This is necessary for developing phonological awareness in an alphabetic language that represents sounds with letters.

In a true alphabetic language, the sounds of a language are represented by a one-to-one correspondence sounds and letters. However, in English the written language has remained the same while the spoken language has changed. This means that a child has to learn that fish and phone use different letters to represent the same initial sound and that /ough/ is pronounced differently in bough, rough, and through. Historically, reading theory has fluctuated between a whole language approach emphasizing sight-reading and a phonics approach emphasizing phonological awareness (Robinson, R.D., Baker E. & Clegg, L. (1998). Interest in phonological awareness as a mechanism of teaching reading has grown in recent years because its influence can be verified by quantitative research. An increased emphasis on using on using research-based methods for teaching reading is one of the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001).

The main topic of the first chapter is a discussion of phonological awareness in terms of levels of representation. This chapter presupposes some previous exposure to the concept of lexical representations. A lexical representation contains information about the word’s meaning and how the word is pronounced. Part of learning to read an alphabetic language involves learning that the lexical representation includes phonemes that represent the sounds. However, children do not usually begin the process of breaking down the representation of words at the phoneme level. Teachers usually begin by showing children that words can be broken down into syllables by activities such as having children clap out the number of syllables in a word. This is indirect teaching and helps children to recognize syllables. Gillon also believes strongly in teaching children the concepts of syllable and word. This is direct teaching of reading concepts, which is supported by the National Reading Panel (1999). Once the concepts of word and are understood, the syllable itself can be broken down into the structure of onset and rime. Gillon advises teaching this structure indirectly through rhyming games, which draw the child’s attention to the end and beginning of words. She suggests labeling the parts of the syllable as the beginning and rhyme rather than onset and rime. The last breakdown of the concept word is into phonemes, which involves teaching the link between the biologically based sound categories and the letters that represent them. Language arts teachers refer to this as teaching phonics. Unfortunately language arts teachers sometimes teach phonics in isolation. Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis (1994) illustrate the importance of including phonics as part of a comprehensive program in phonological awareness.

One of the strengths of Gillon’s book is that she includes both reading and spelling development. In chapter two she provides a discussion of recent reading and spelling theories, beginning with reading theory. English is based on an inconsistent alphabetic system. Because of this, a dual-route model for word recognition evolved to explain how children read English. A phonological route was theorized that worked by parsing all of the letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) rules of English. The visual route was theorized that allowed for direct recognition of entire words. In other words, children can either sound out a word or recognize it by sight. The weakness in this model is that it used two separate representations for each word. Because of this weakness a modified dual-route model evolved that combines visual and phonological information in word representations. An analogy model has also arisen that uses combined visual and phonological representations. The analogy model uses pattern-seeking behavior as a learning mechanism. Both the modified dual-route model and the analogy model are currently used as a basis for direct reading instruction. Gillon supports the use of both of these theories.

Gillon discusses both stage model spelling theories (see Ellis, 1994 for a review) and the self-teaching hypothesis (Share, 1995). Treiman and Bourassa (2000) contend a stage model is not adequate, since a review of the literature suggests that children use strategies from more than one stage at a time (p. 16). Gillon suggests that while stage model theories are useful for describing the major changes involved in children’s spelling, the development of individual children is better served by the self-teaching hypothesis. Gillon presents data from two children that support the self-teaching approach. However, such a small sample size has to be considered anecdotal. Since reading development and spelling development influence each other, phonemic awareness training is related to spelling development. Determining causality is a research question that may require further research.

Gillon discusses the development of phonological awareness in chapters three through five. She begins with a general discussion of the development of phonological awareness in chapter three. Gillon discusses the bi-directionality of the interaction between phonological awareness and literacy development. She stresses the importance of alphabet knowledge. She also discusses the underlying phonological representations of words and how they change from holistic units to segmented units containing the information that is necessary for phonemic awareness. This chapter is supported by the literature and is not controversial. Readers without a background in phonology may find this chapter difficult to follow.

Gillon discusses the development of phonological awareness for children with dyslexia in chapter four. Dyslexia refers to a specific language-based reading disorder. Children with dyslexia have weak phonological awareness, and this deficit is believed to play an important role in their difficulties with reading and spelling. Children with dyslexia are not a homogenous group. Each child requires in-depth evaluation of spoken language abilities by a speech pathologist so that an intervention can be planned. This intervention will always include training in phonological processing skills such as the teaching of phoneme segmentation, phoneme blending, and phoneme manipulation. This chapter is very straightforward and is strongly supported by the literature.

In chapter five Gillon discusses children with spoken language impairment. This term refers to children who have spoken language difficulties despite a favorable learning environment and normal cognitive development. Children with spoken language impairment need to be evaluated by a speech therapist to plan an individualized intervention. Gillon points out that not all children with spoken language impairment have difficulties with reading and spelling. Children whose impairment includes phonological impairment will benefit from training in phoneme processing skills to develop phoneme awareness. This chapter is also supported by the literature.

Chapter six is devoted to phonological awareness assessment. Gillon advocates screening procedures for all preschoolers to identify children at risk for reading and spelling difficulties. Children identified as high risk would then be provided with in-depth evaluation to provide information for specific intervention. Gillon provides information on both standardized and criterion-referenced assessment for phonological awareness. Since the National Research Council (Snow at al, 1998) rejected universal screening of preschoolers as too costly, it is unlikely that Gillon’s proposals for preschool screening can be implemented for all children. The discussion is useful for the assessment of children labeled at risk for reading difficulties.

In chapter seven Gillon discusses the guiding principles of phonological awareness intervention. Gillon begins with a list of the populations for which phonological awareness has been proven to be useful in the research literature: older children with dyslexia, young children at risk from low socioeconomic backgrounds, kindergarten children and children beginning school with poor phonological processing skills, school-age children with spoken language impairments, preschool children aged three to four years with expressive phonological impairment, preschool and school-aged non-native speakers (p. 134). The lack of universal screening for phonological awareness deficits, the mainstreaming of special populations, and the pressures of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) to bring all populations to read at grade level have led to increased usage of commercial phonemics programs that teach phoneme segmentation, phoneme blending and phoneme manipulation to all students through skill and drill workbooks.

Gillon advocates phonological awareness training that is based on strategies proven to be effective in the research literature. Gillon discusses a number of findings that have influenced her thinking. In what follows, I have organized them slightly differently than her, but they are all taken from sources that are cited in chapter seven.

The first finding is that phoneme awareness training should not be taught as an isolated skill. Ayers (1995) found that phonological awareness training is more effective following general language instruction. Ehri et al. (2001) have shown that integrating letter-sound knowledge with phoneme awareness improves skill transfer. Gillon argues for comprehensive language training and for the explicit teaching of the speech to print link.

The second finding is that children with reading difficulty benefit from training at the phoneme level. Both Ayres (1995) and Ehri et al. (2001) found that phoneme level training improved reading and spelling performance. Gillon is a strong advocate for teaching phoneme level. This is not surprising since children with difficulty in reading frequently need help in forging the link between implicit sound categories used in spoken language and the more abstract categories of phonemes.

The third research finding is that training within small groups is more successful than training in regular classroom settings. Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley (1995) conducted research with general population preschoolers indicating that preschoolers trained in small groups of four to six outperformed children trained in normal classroom settings. The results of this study are complicated by the fact that the trainers for the small groups were highly specialized researchers while the trainers in the normal classroom setting were preschool teachers with a limited background in phonology. Gillon uses the study’s results to argue for training in small groups. Gillon is correct in that small groups will show greater benefits. However, it could also be argued that language arts teachers providing phonemic awareness instruction need more training in language development and phonology.

The fourth finding is that children with severe phonological awareness deficits may require individual training. Torgesen et al (1992) conducted a training study for children designated as being at-risk for reading difficulties on the basis of a screen test for phonological awareness. The results indicated demonstrated that 30% did not succeed in acquiring phonological awareness from small group training. Brady et al (1994) illustrate the importance of adapting training to child’s individual learning pace. Gillon argues that individual training may be required for some children with reading difficulties. This fact should be considered by classroom teachers dealing with special populations. Collaboration between classroom teachers and speech pathologists is critical for success in teaching children with difficulties in learning to read.

Gillon deals with instructional frameworks in chapter eight. She presents three general frameworks. Gillon’s approach for the first framework, based on teaching phonological awareness in general classroom settings, is dependent on assessment and teacher knowledge of phonological processing. Without both these elements phonological awareness training can degenerate into boring skill and drill activities that do not achieve their goal. Gillon stresses the importance of making sure that children understand the concepts necessary for developing phonemic awareness. Some of the concepts involve meta-awareness of language such as word, syllable, and letter. Other concepts involve the tasks involved with phonemic processing such as first, last, same, and different. Gillon provides examples of activities at the onset-rime and the phonemic representational level. Page 149 contains a useful guide for adjusting phonological awareness to task difficulty. Gillon also provides a list of commercial programs that she recommends for regular classroom use (p. 156).

Gillon’s second framework is a preventive model for children who are at risk or children who are experiencing early reading difficulties. She presents a detailed structured approach for activities at the onset-rime and phoneme level. Gillon describes a game called Picture Rhyme Bingo (p. 162) that works with the onset-rime level. She gives the materials needed to play the game, an activity simplification, an activity extension, and an activity that can be used to integrate letter knowledge with the game.

Gillon’s third framework is an intervention for older children with dyslexia that uses the same structured approach as framework two. She stresses that children with dyslexia have a phonological processing deficit that will persist into adulthood unless directly targeted as part of a comprehensive intervention. Interventions for dyslexic children must be implemented through small group or individual training with a reading specialist or a speech-language pathologist. Gillon suggests regular evaluations so that programs can be altered to meet individual learning needs.

Gillon and several co-authors extend the discussion to include the evidence for the role of phonological awareness in the reading and spelling development of children with special learning needs in chapter nine. For me this was the most interesting chapter in the book. Some of the sections are straightforward. For example, the section on a child with cerebral palsy describes how an intervention can be modified to accommodate this disability. (p. 19). However, some sections such as the one concerning children with severe hearing loss raised many questions in my mind. Children with normal hearing develop speech sound categories that are then linked to the letters of our writing system. Phoneme representation contains both visual and sound information. I wanted to know the effects of having incomplete or no-sound information on the functioning of phonemic representation. If phonemic representations in children with severe hearing loss are primarily or entirely based on visual information, how does this change the nature of phonemic awareness? If the representations of children with severe hearing loss do not contain sound information, is it useful to teach them about rhyme? Perhaps a more effective phonemic awareness training could be designed with activities that deal with visual information. I enjoyed this chapter as much for the questions it raised as for the information it provided.

I really liked this book. I highly recommend it for speech-language therapists, reading specialists, language arts teachers working with mainstreamed children with disabilities, and graduate students in literacy.

References

Ayres, L. (1995). The efficacy of three training conditions on phonological awareness of kindergarten children and the longitudinal effect of each on later reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 30 (4), 604-606.

Byrne, B. & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1995). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 488-503.

Eimas, P.D. Siqueland E.R, Jusczyk P. & Vigorito J. (1971). Speech perception in infants. Science, 171, 303-306

Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S., Willows, D., Schuster, B., Yaghoub-Zadeh, & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36 (3), 250-287.

Ellis, N. C., (1994). Longitudinal studies of spelling development. In G. Brown & N. Ellis (Eds). Handbook of spelling. West Sussex, UK: Wiley, 155-178.

Hatcher, P. J., Hulme, C., & Ellis, A. (1994). Ameliorating early reading failure by integrating the teaching of reading and phonological skills: The phonological linkage hypothesis. Child Development, 65, 41-57.

Jusczyk. P. W., (1992). Developing phonological categories from the speech signal. In (Eds.) C.A. Ferguson, L. Menn and C. Stoel-Gammon, Phonological development: models, research, implications. Timonium, Maryland: York Press.

Robinson, R.D., Baker E. and Clegg, L. (1998). “Literacy and the pendulum of change:

Lessons from the 21st century.” Peabody Journal of Education, 73, 3/4. Pp 15-30.

Accessed from EBSCOhost on July 14, 2004.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Treiman, R., & Bourassa, D. C. (2000). The development of spelling skill. Topics in language disorders. 20 (3), 1-18.

National Reading Panel (1999).Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research on reading and its implication for reading instruction. Accessed February 23, 2005 from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/smallbook.pdf.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107-110. Accessed February 24, 2005 from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/index.html.

About the Reviewer

Cynthia Crosser is a Social Science and Humanities Reference Librarian/Education and Psychology Bibliographer at the University of Maine. In addition to her M.S. in Library Studies from Florida State University, she has an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Florida with a specialization in language acquisition.

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