There is an urgent need for literacy instruction and activities to enable efficient learning, especially in young, disadvantaged learners. Why young learners? Research in literacy points to early learning as a pivotal phase in a learner’s journey. Gaps that build up due to various reasons during the early years are not easily bridged/mitigated as the learner progresses to higher classes.[1]

How should instruction be designed to ensure effective learning? At times, classroom instruction and content (for classroom aides or technological interventions) are designed using an unwarranted dependence on intuition or ‘gut feeling’, often with a tendency to re-invent the wheel. A reliable way to enable efficient learning is to ensure that the design of content and classroom instruction is in accordance with the latest research on strategies that help or hinder children’s learning.

Research in literacy points overwhelmingly to Oral Language Proficiency during the early years (prior to school entry) for successful reading comprehension in higher grades.[2] [3]  Oral Language involves multiple aspects:

Fig 1. Aspects of Oral Language

Let us take a closer look at one of these aspects – Phonological awareness – to see how research could inform instructional design.

Phonological awareness is related to the sounds of a spoken language. It is the ability to recognise that spoken language words can be split into constituent sounds. For example, the word ‘bat’ has one syllable; it can be split into an onset and rime (‘b’ and ‘at’) and further down to the phoneme level as (‘b’, ‘a’, ‘t’).

The word ‘hand’ is shown split in Table 1:

Syllable HAND
Onset – Rime H – AND
Onset – Vowel – Coda H – A – ND
Phoneme H – A – N – D

Table 1. An example of how the word ‘hand’ is split into sound units.

Typically, activities around phonological awareness include the use of a combination of images and auditory input (held up and spoken by the teacher / via technological intervention) or auditory input alone. The use of images also provides opportunities for  learners to expand their vocabulary.

Here are a few examples of activities addressing phonological awareness:

Syllable Onset-Rime Phoneme
How many syllables are there in the word ‘toffee’? (tof-fee) Which word rhymes with the word ‘hat’? (bat) What is the first sound of the word ‘hat’? (h)
Which word does NOT belong in this group – sorry, lorry, curry, cry? (cry) Which word does NOT belong in this group – hat, mat, bud, bat? (bud) Which word does NOT belong in this group – hat, hut, leg, hip? (leg)
What is this word – ‘h’…’at’? (hat) What is this word – ‘h’…’a’…’t’? (hat)
Can you split the word ‘hat’? Try ‘h’…and __? (at) Can you split the word into its smallest sounds? (‘h’…’a’…’t’)

Table 2. A subset of activities addressing Phonological Awareness

While phonological awareness is usually developed using spoken language in the classroom, there is evidence to show that the use of letters during instruction is more effective in the long run as it helps students make an easier transition to reading and writing.[4] This is especially helpful for students who enter school with low phonological awareness, and have already been exposed to letters.

Many activities involving phonological awareness can be carried out across each of the sound unit levels (as shown in Table 2) but research shows that focusing on fewer but crucial activities can bring about a significant gain in phonological awareness.[5]

As pointed out by Helen Abadzi, ‘…the more limited phonological awareness and language use of the poor create early disadvantages that do not disappear in subsequent grades without intervention…Thus, an important early school activity is to build vocabulary and phonological awareness.’ [6]

Thus, taking these points into consideration, there seems to be an advantage in:

  • Identifying gaps in phonological awareness and addressing them at the earliest,
  • focusing on a restricted number of activities for phonological awareness (g.: focus on blending and segmenting of phonemes as it is most closely related to decoding and spelling) and
  • including letters in some parts of phonological awareness activities, even at the early stages.

These are just a few ways in which we can use evidence from the large body of research in literacy to direct instructional design for this aspect of Oral Language. Phonological awareness lays the foundation for phonics instruction, which has been shown to be far more effective than the ‘whole word’ approach for disadvantaged learners as well as non-native speakers of English.[7]  This is reflected even as a long-term benefit at age 11 for students in reading comprehension, based on a study conducted to compare instruction methods.[8]

This is not to say that older students having limited phonological awareness have missed the bus entirely – they will only need a more customised mode of instruction. In a study comparing two phonics programs, students with low initial phonological awareness scores tended to do better with interventions that focused only on the most consistent sound-letter mappings along with high-frequency sight words.[9] Having said this, while there may be methods of remediation at later stages, the sooner we can address these issues (early years), the better it is for the learner.

Similarly, an evidence-based approach should be taken to design instruction and activities that focus on other aspects of oral language like vocabulary, pragmatics and grammar, as well as further language learning for reading comprehension, writing and communication. This will enable us to provide students with rich, structured and effective instruction and activities, putting them on a stable path to learning in the higher classes.




[1] Abadzi, Helen. (2008). Efficient Learning for the Poor: New Insights into Literacy Acquisition for Children. International Review of Education. 54. 581-604.

[2]   Hulme, C., Nash, H. M., Gooch, D., Lervåg, A., & Snowling, M. J. (2015). The Foundations of Literacy Development in Children at Familial Risk of Dyslexia. Psychological Science, 26(12), 1877–1886.

[3] Lervåg, A., Hulme, C. and Melby-Lervåg, M. (2018), Unpicking the Developmental Relationship Between Oral Language Skills and Reading Comprehension: It’s Simple, But Complex. Child Dev, 89: 1821-1838.

[4] Ehri, Linnea & Nunes, Simone & Willows, Dale & Schuster, Barbara & Yaghoub-Zadeh, Zohreh & Shanahan, Timothy. (2001). Phonemic Awareness Instruction Helps Children Learn to Read: Evidence From the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly. 250-287.

[5] Shapiro, Laura & Solity, Jonathan. (2008). Delivering phonological and phonics training within whole‐class teaching. The British journal of educational psychology. 78. 597-620.

[6] Abadzi, Helen. (2008). Efficient Learning for the Poor: New Insights into Literacy Acquisition for Children. International Review of Education. 54. 581-604.

[7]   Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.

[8] Machin, Stephen & McNally, Sandra & Viarengo, Martina. (2018). Changing How Literacy Is Taught: Evidence on Synthetic Phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 10. 217-241.

[9] Shapiro, L. R., & Solity, J. (2016). Differing effects of two synthetic phonics programmes on early reading development. The British journal of educational psychology86(2), 182–203.

Meghna Kumar

Heads Test Development at EI and enjoys finding out what's happening in classrooms. She is interested in how children think and the ways in which we can use information from assessment in the classroom. She also loves Bangalore's trees!