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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107-110. Accessed
February 24, 2005 from
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