Author: Kilpatrick, David A
Date published: March 1, 2012
Based upon extensive evidence, researchers have almost universally accepted that phonological awareness (also called phonological sensitivity) is strongly associated with the development of word-level reading skills (Perfetti, Beck, Bell, & Hughes, 1987; Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & ScanIon, 2004; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994), with rare voices that either deny (Smith, 1999) or downplay (Hammill, 2004) its significance. Phonological awareness is a construct that includes the ability to notice that spoken words can be divided into smaller units such as syllables, onsets, rimes, and phonemes. For example, most young children eventually notice that the oral word red has three sounds (i.e., phonemes; /r/ /e/ /d/) while the word shoe has two sounds (/J/ /u/). Students who develop phonological awareness are able to quickly and easily map printed words to permanent memory (H0ien, Lundberg, Stanovich, & Bjaalid, 1995; Laing & Hulme, 1999). Students who do not develop phonological awareness typically struggle in reading (Greenberg, Ehri, & Perm, 1997; Vellutino et al., 2004).
The goal of the present article is to address a practical question that is rarely addressed in the research literature. Simply put: What is the most useful way for school psychologists or teachers to assess a student's phonological awareness skills? There are different types of tasks that have been used to measure phonological awareness, and it is important to determine which of them is most well-suited for school-based screening and/or assessment.
This question is not so simple to answer for two reasons. First, researchers have measured the construct of phonological awareness in so many different ways that establishing best practice is a complex endeavor. Second, while researchers have been using these various approaches to assess phonological awareness in countless studies, surprisingly, there has been no concerted effort to address the applied question regarding which approach to phonological awareness assessment should the research community recommend to practitioners workingwith school-age children. Itwouldbe very easy for practitioners to infer from the popularity of phonological segmentation within educational contexts (via DIBELS, AIMSweb, PALS, easyCBM, Yopp-Singer) that the choice of phonological segmentation over other phonological awareness tasks was made based upon a body of best practice literature. This is not the case.
MEASURING THE CONSTRUCT OF PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS
Throughout the research literature, phonological awareness has been assessed via rhyming, segmentation, blending, isolation, identification, and manipulation. Rhyming, as the name implies, expects children to perform a task involving rhyming or rhyme recognition. Segmentation consists of breaking a word into segments. With blending, parts of words are provided and the student must blend them together to determine the word (e.g., the sounds /t/ /r/ /1/ /p/ make trip). Isolation involves determining the position of a sound within a word (e.g., where the /d/ is in dog or bed). Categorization typically involves the oddity task, in which a student must indicate which word begins or ends with a different sound (e.g., "Which word ends with a different sound than the others: bike, brush, truck?"). An important limitation to categorization is that it appears to confound phonological awareness and working memory. Oakhill and Kyle (2000) found that a substantial amount of variance in categorization tasks can be accounted for by working memory, but they did not find this with their phonological manipulation task. Manipulation tasks can take various forms, such as deleting a sound from the beginning, middle, or end of a word (e.g., "Say sat without out the /s/"), substituting sounds (e.g., "Say sat and change the /t/ to /d/"), or reversing sounds ("Say pai backwards"; Kroese, Hynd, Knight, Hiemenz, & Hall, 2000; Lenchner, Gerber, & Routh, 1990; Lundberg, Olofsson, & Wall, 1980; Mclnnis, 1999; Rosner 8c Simon, 1971; Wagner, Torgesen, 8c Rashotte, 1999).
This listing of the ways that the construct of phonological awareness has been examined represents an oversimplification of the wide range of tasks found in the research literature. Most of these ways of assessing phonological awareness (isolation, segmentation, manipulation, etc.) can be represented by more than one type of task. For example, segmentation could involve tapping out the number of phonemes in a word (Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer, 8c Carter, 1974) or having the student orally segment each sound in the word (Yopp, 1988). Rhyming can involve rhyme recognition, rhyme matching, or rhyme production (Stanovich, Cunningham, 8c Cramer, 1984; Yopp, 1988). As mentioned, manipulation can involve deletion, substitution, or reversal.
Researchers have also demonstrated that there are other factors that affect phonological awareness task performance, including different levels of linguistic complexity within phonological awareness, such as awareness of words, syllables, onset-rimes, and phonemes. Even within phoneme-level awareness, there are different levels of difficulty, depending on whether the student is expected to attend to beginning, middle, or ending sounds, whether or not the phoneme is part of a blend, or what type of phoneme is being manipulated, such as voiced or unvoiced (Anthony, Lonigan, Driscoll, Phillips, 8c Burgess, 2003; Seymour 8c Evans, 1994; Stahl 8c Murray, 1994; Treiman, Broderick, Tincoff, 8c Rodriguez, 1998).
All of these considerations mentioned above should make it clear that there are a staggering number of possibilities for phonological awareness assessment. Indeed, such a state of affairs is a powerful testimony to the profound relationship between phonological awareness and reading, because all of these phonological awareness tasks and levels correlate significantly with reading achievement at one or more points in a child's reading development.
LACK OF BEST-PRACTICE RESEARCH INTO PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS ASSESSMENT
Numerous studies have incorporated multiple phonological awareness tasks (e.g., Anthony et al., 2003; H0ien et al., 1995; Lenchner et al., 1990; Lundberg et al., 1980; Schatschneider, Fletcher, Francis, Carlson, 8c Foorman, 2004; Schatscheider, Francis, Foorman, Fletcher, 8c Mehta, 1999; Seymour 8c Evans, 1994; Stahl 8c Murray, 1994; Stanovich et al., 1984; Vloedgraven 8c Verhoeven, 2009; Yopp, 1988), though they almost never address the best practice question we are posing. Rather, they have used the multiple measures of phonological awareness to either (a) determine the factor structure underlying those tasks or (b) derive a latent phonological awareness variable that is then used to study either the development ofthat variable or to study its relationship to reading. However, despite the critical importance of phonological awareness for reading development, there has been no concerted effort by researchers to determine which phonological task or test is the most suitable for educators to use in the context of a reading assessment. Two notable exceptions are Chafouleas, Lewandowski, Smith and Blachman, (1997) and Swank and Catts (1994). In 1994, Swank and Catts could say, "it remains unclear which measures of phonological awareness will be the most effective in clinical practice for identifying children who lack sufficient phonological awareness" (Swank 8c Catts, 1994, p. 10). This quote is as relevant today as it was in 1994. Unfortunately, these studies have not had a substantial impact on the field, based upon how rarely they have been cited by later researchers (according to the citations forward feature in PsychINFO).
We must also recognize that there is likely to be no single best approach to the assessment of phonological awareness that is suitable for all developmental levels. For example, rhyming skills in kindergarten correlate with concurrent and future reading achievement (Stanovich et al., 1984; Yopp, 1988) . However, rhyming measures taken in first grade have little or no concurrent or predictive validity (Hulme et al., 2002). So, as an index of phonological awareness, rhyming possesses a limited window of opportunity. Wagner, Torgesen, Laughon, Simmons, and Rashotte (1993) found that some tasks had stronger correlations with reading than others, and this strength changed between kindergarten and second grade. They found that in kindergarten, word recognition skills correlated best with an isolation task (r = .43), followed by segmentation (r = .38), and manipulation/deletion (r = .18). Yet in their second grade sample, rather than have the weakest correlation, the manipulation task had the strongest (r = .51), followed at a distance by the others (segmentation, r = .27; isolation, r =.25). This supports the conclusion that different tasks appear to vary in clinical utility at different points in a child's development. It also suggests that like rhyming, there is a developmental issue with phoneme manipulation tasks. Manipulation can be very sensitive to reading difficulties and even predict later reading outcomes when taken in first grade or later (e.g., Lenchner et al., 1990). However, some of these manipulation tasks cannot be used with most kindergarteners because they are too difficult (Rosner 8c Simon, 1971; Stanovich et al., 1984; Yopp, 1988).
Anthony et al. (2003) looked at a variety of phonological awareness tasks and phonological developmental levels with preschool and kindergarten children. Their finding is consistent with the concern raised here. Different phonological awareness tasks (e.g., blending, segmentation, manipulation), which assess the same phonological awareness levels (e.g., word, syllable, onset-rime, and phoneme), emerge at different points in a student's development. So, if a student can segment at the phoneme level, but cannot manipulate at the phoneme level, can he or she be considered as having reached the phoneme level of phonological awareness?
Thus, it appears that some tasks, like rhyming, provide an early windowinto a child's phonological awareness during preschool and early kindergarten. However, because most children can rhyme by late kindergarten to first grade, it loses its discriminant validity. Likewise, manipulation tasks, particularly phoneme-level tasks, are very difficult in kindergarten, so they have little utility in assessing phonological awareness at that level. However, from first grade and beyond, manipulation tasks appear to distinguish among individuals with differing abilities in the area of phonological awareness and reading (Brück, 1992; Greenberg et al., 1997; Lenchner et al., 1990; Swank & Catts, 1994). Thus, it is possible, or even likely, that there will be no simple answer to the best practice question. However, these appliedissues should be addressed to provide school psychologists and other educational evaluators with a firm, empirical foundation to determine what are the best practices in the assessment of phonological awareness at any given point in a child's reading development.
ADDRESSING THE QUESTION OF BEST PRACTICE
So what data is available upon which to determine current, best practice? It turns out, there is a fair amount of data, but it requires a somewhat piecemeal investigation, given what was said above about the lack of direct research into best assessment practice. It what follows, it will be seen that from first grade and beyond, phonological manipulation has more to offer school psychologists in terms of practical, clinical validity than phonological segmentation, despite the latter's current popularity in educational contexts.
Correlational studies. While little attention has been drawn to this fact, numerous researchers have reported that manipulation tasks display higher correlations with reading than segmentation tasks (e.g., Backman, 1983; Kroese et al., 2000; Lenchner et al., 1990; Lundberg et al., 1980; Perfetti, Beck, Bell, 8c Hughes, 1987; Swank 8c Catts, 1994; Wagner et al., 1993). This difference is almost never mentioned by the authors, but must be determined by examining their reported correlation tables. In rare instances, authors make explicit comments about the comparison For example, Catts, Fey, Zhang, and Tomblin (2001) said they selected a manipulation task (deletion) for their study because such a task "ranks highly among phonological awareness tasks in predicting reading achievement" (p.4o).Inaddition,Lenchneretal., (1990) stated that the manipulation task they used (also deletion) with poor eighth grade readers had a higher correlation with timed and untimed decoding (r = .78 8c r = .74) than any segmentation task reported in the literature.
Regression studies. Swank and Catts (1994) did a regression analysis with their first grade students andfoundthattheirsegmeniationtaskaoeou^ achievement beyond what was found in their manipulation task, which contributed its own unique variance beyond segmentation. I gave an unselected sample of 67 first graders and 47 second graders the segmentation, blending, and manipulation subtests from the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP), along with the Word Identification and Word Attack subtests form the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised. At both grade levels and with both reading subtests, the manipulation and blending tests each accounted for unique variance above and beyond segmentation, but segmentation did not account for unique variance beyond those other tests (Kilpatrick, in press).
Factor analytic studies. Which taskmostcloselyapproximatesthevery construct of phonological awareness? One way to answerthis questionisi multiple phonological awareness and other reading-related tasks and determining which task loads highest on the phonological awareness factor. Unfortunately, while there have been several factor analytic studies, different studies used different measures at different grade levels, and any direct comparisons between segmentation and manipulation have a limited number of studies from which to draw helpful information. This makes any conclusions at this point very tentative. From the limited information available, it seems that the findings roughly parallel what has been found in the correlational studies. In kindergarten, rhyming and segmentation load more highly on a phonological awareness factor than manipulation However, beyond kindergarten, phonological manipulation has slightly higher loadings on the phonological awareness factor than segmentation (Stanovich et al., 1984; Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1997; Yopp, 1988). However, whether these differences are clinically meaningful is uncertain.
Examining task expectations. A simple, informal task analysis of what is involved in phonological manipulation may help understand why it presents itself as a strong candidate for assessing the construct of phonological awareness. To do a deletion task (e.g., to change sneak to seek by deleting /n/), or a substitution task (go from roof 'to room by changing /f/ to /m/), it appears that the student must make use of segmentation, isolation, andblending. For example, to delete the /n/ from sneak, the student must be able to separate the sounds via segmentation. Then, the student must isolate where /n/ is located in the word, delete it (i.e., manipulation), and then blend the remaining sounds to get seek. Thus, manipulation tasks automatically incorporate some of the cognitive and psycholinguistic requirements found in the other phonological awareness tasks.
Hit rate analyses. While classification accuracy (or hit rate) has been considered for phonological awareness tasks along with other reading related measures (Jenkins, Hudson, 8c Johnson, 2007; Speece, Mills, Ritchey, 8c Hillman, 2003), direct comparisons of classification accuracy between different phonological awareness tasks have not been forthcoming. One exception is Swank and Catts (1994) with first graders. Their results indicated that their phonological manipulation task had a substantially higher ability to correctly classify those students who had (or who would later have) reading deficits compared to either segmentation or blending.
CONCLUSIONS: WHAT EXACTLY IS THE STATE OF THE ART?
School psychologists continually seek to use research-based approaches in assessment. Every phonological awareness task can be called research-based because they all have been shown via research to correlate with reading at some age level or another. The question, however, is about best practice.
Despite the lack of direct, best practice studies, we can come to some tentative conclusions based on what has been gleaned from the existing phonological awareness literature. It appears that rhyming and segmentation have concurrent and predictive value when administered in pre-Kandkindergarten,whilephonological manipulation tasks are often too challenging at those levels. However, for first grade and beyond, the information presented above suggests that while it is commonly incorporated into popular batteries, segmentation appears tobe less clinically useful than phonological manipulation, regardless of the index of validity considered (e.g., correlation, hit rate, etc.).
It is interesting to note that (a) phonological awareness drops out of the major CBMbased screening batteries after first grade, and (b) once reading begins, current reading skill becomes the best predictor of future reading skill (Hammill, 2004). Some may infer from these facts that after first grade, phonological awareness loses its importance. This is an incorrect inference. Researchhas demonstrated that phonological awareness deficits, if not addressed, can be an ongoing source of reading difficulty throughout adolescence and into adulthood (Brück, 1992; Greenberg et al., 1997; Lenchner et al., 1990). A likely reason that phonological awareness disappears from the popular screening batteries after first grade is that these batteries rely on segmentation, and segmentation skills level out by first grade (Vloedgraven8cVerhoeven,2009). Inmy study offirst and second graders, there was no difference in raw scores on the segmentation task between the first and second grade samples, while for the manipulation task, the raw score between the first and second graders increased substantially. This, along with other studies (Perfetti et al., 1987; Wagner et al. 1993-1994), suggests that phonological awareness continues to grow well into second grade before leveling off. If that degree of phonological awareness is not achieved, reading development can be affected (Brück, 1992; Greenberg et aL, 1997; Lenchner et al., 1990).
So, when an evaluation is conductedwith weak readers,an important clinical question school psychologists can help answer is whether those reading difficulties are affected by deficitsin phonological awareness. Suchdeficits can hinder reading skills throughout adolescence (Lenchner et al., 1990) andinto adulthood (Brück, 1992; Greenberg et al., 1997). When studentspresentthemselveswith reading d^iculties,itisimperativethatpractitionersusea test most likely to validly determine if phonological awareness is a factor contributing to the reading difficulties. This means that if educators rely on segmentation to assess phonological awareness in reading assessments, they may fail to recognize phonological awareness difficulties in a meaningful percentage of students with such difficulties. If phonological awareness difficulties are ruled out based upon good performance on a segmentation task, some students may not get the phonological awareness training they need to assist them in their reading progress.
None of this is intended to suggest that the skill of phonological segmentation is unimportant for reading. On the contrary, it is very important. Rather, the findings described above, along with our informal task analysis, suggest that manipulation tasks, by their very nature, incorporate segmentation but have additional psycholinguistic features that account for more variance and may do a better job of accessing the construct of phonological awareness than a simple segmentation task. Thus, while segmentation appears to be relied upon in some of the most popular screening batteries, it seems it does not provide the clinical validity that a phonological manipulation task can. This is not to downplay the value of these batteries. They are based on a substantial amount of research and provide valuable information. It does suggest, however, that for first grade and beyond, clinicians should consider supplementing these batteries with a phonological manipulation task in order to better assess the phonological substrates of a student's reading skills. What might be good phonological manipulation tests?
The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP) from PRO-ED and The Phonological Awareness Test - 2 (PAT-2) from Linguisystems both offer normative and standardized assessments of phonological manipulation (as well as other tasks). Either of these could be used in themselves or as a supplement to existing screening batteries. I would however, caution against relying on the phonological composite scores from these tests and encourage practitioners to consider a student's subtest performance. It is true that phonological blending and phonological analysis tasks (which include segmentation and manipulation) all load on a single phonological factor (Schatschneider et al., 1999, 2004). However, Jenkins et al. (2007) have argued that group data (correlations, factor analyses, etc.) may not always hold for individual assessment. First, the hit rate study of Swank and Catts (1994) cited above suggests that it maybe advisable to consider blending and manipulation tasks separately rather than lump them together into a composite. Do we want to combine a test that has strong hit rate with a test that has a weak one? Second, my study found they each contributed unique variance in reading achievement at first and second grade. Third, from personal experience giving the CTOPP to hundreds of students in school-based referrals, I have found that many students with reading difficulties do well on the blending task (e.g., a scaled score of 11 or higher) but poorly on the manipulation/deletion task (a scaled score of 7 or lower). The resulting composite score is average (low/mid 90s standard score), which masks what the manipulation task was trying to tell us: This student likely has a phonological awareness difficulty that is contributing to his or her reading difficulties.
The goal of this review was twofold. First, my intention is to alert practitioners to the fact that it seems inadvisable based on current evidence to rely on phonological segmentation to assess the construct of phonological awareness beyond kindergarten. Phonological manipulation appears have additional practical validity in this regard. Second, I hope this article functions as a catalyst for researchers to address the best practice questions in order to assist school psychologists with their evaluations of students with reading difficulties.*
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DAVID A. KILPATRICK, PhD, is assistant professor of psychology for the State University of New York, College at Cortland, and a school psychologist with the East Syracuse-Minoa Central School District.