Phonological Processing

Phonological Processing and Its Role in Literacy Programs: 

Empirical Foundations for Literacy Links

UROK Learning Institute


Reading is a skill that is emphasized in almost all aspects of an individual’s life: school, work, travel, etc. “However, nearly 40% of all fourth graders in this country cannot read at grade level, and this number rises to 60% for children coming from poor families” (Blaunstein & Lyon 2006). The source of these difficulties can include reading disorders, low exposure to reading, language differences, and the way reading is taught. There have been different techniques and strategies developed and researched in the past 35 years about how children learn to read and what makes a “good reader”. Based on the literature, Literacy Links was developed to address the specific factors identified as directly related to reading skills.

Literature Review:

Over the past 35 years literacy has been one focus of educational research. Researchers have addressed how children learn to read, what abilities and skills a child must possess to read, and what teaching strategies are most effective in teaching children how to read. In fact, the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) funded the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) to develop a publication denoting the standards for teaching children to read. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read (2001) was published by the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U. S. Department of Education to make reading research available to those with an interest in helping individuals learn to read. More than 100,000 studies were reviewed to carefully identify key skills and methods central to reading achievement. This guide addresses five areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. Phonemic awareness is defined in these guidelines as the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. In addition, it is emphasized that “before children learn to read print, they need to become aware of how the sounds in words work.” There has been some debate around the issue of “the best way” to teach reading. Consistent with the Put Reading First guidelines it is well supported in the literature that phonemic awareness is an important factor in developing reading skills (Share, Jorm, MacLean, & Matthews, 1984; Stanovich, Cunningham, & Cramer, 1984; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987). In addition, a review by Beitchman and Young (1997) reported the accumulated evidence from numerous studies indicates that in most cases “reading disabled children have a deficit in phonological processing skills (p. 1025)” and research has supported the finding that children with phonological awareness are better readers (Cunningham, 1990; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986; McGuinness, McGuinness, & Donahue, 1995; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994; Wagner, Torgesen, Rashotte, Hecht, Barker, Burgess, Donahue, & Garon, 1997). The percentage of children with learning disabilities (LD) is rising and accounts for more than half of all students enrolled in special-education program.  Reading disabilities are the most common affecting 80 percent of students with LD. “If children receive effective instruction early and intensively, they can make large gains in general academic achievement” (Lyon & Fletcher 2001).  Stanovich, et al. (1984) found that children with well developed phonologicwal awareness before reading begins in kindergarten learned to read more quickly than children who did not have well developed phonological awareness. In fact, they found that the predictive accuracy of phonological tasks were equal to or better than global measures of intelligence or reading readiness tests in predicting later reading ability. In addition, Wagner, et al (1997) found that individual differences in phonological awareness “substantially influenced” individual differences in word-level reading across kindergarten, first, second, third and fourth grades. Even more startling is the finding by Juel (1988) that in a sample of first-grade readers, the poor readers continued to be poor readers through at least fourth grade when the study stopped tracking their progress. Juel also found that the children who became poor readers entered first grade with little phonemic awareness and had not achieved the level of decoding that the good readers had achieved by the beginning of second grade. These findings are important because it supports the notion that teaching phonological skills past the pre-reading stage can still be a very effective method for teaching reading skills and if the skills are not taught the students are likely to continue to be poor readers.

Now that it is apparent that phonological awareness is an important factor in reading, how can this information be used to assist children who are struggling to develop reading skills? Several researchers set out to examine whether phonological awareness could be taught and what effect it had on the child’s reading skills. Ball & Blachman (1991) found that instruction on phonemic awareness and phonemic segmentation significantly improved the reading and spelling skills of kindergarten children. In fact, when compared to a matched group of children receiving general language instruction and a control group the children who received training in phonemic awareness performed significantly better on a phoneme segmentation, word identification, and spelling tests. In addition, Torgeson, Morgan, & Davis (1992) found that following an 8-week training program there was a significant growth in phonological awareness in the majority of their sample supporting the notion that phonological awareness can indeed be taught.

In addition, while teaching phonological awareness is a very important factor in teaching reading skills, further research has shown that when phonological awareness training is combined with other aspects of reading the development of literacy skills is significantly higher. Hatcher, Hulme, and Ellis (1994) found that integrating phonological tasks with the general teaching of reading was most effective in improving literacy skills. While the group of children that was taught phonological skills alone made the most progress in phonological awareness, the group that combined phonological skills and general reading skills made the most progress in overall reading improvement. Hatcher, et. al hypothesize “training that forms explicit links between the children’s underlying phonological skills and their experiences in learning to read (p. 42)” as being the most effective and term it the phonological linkage hypothesis. Schneider, et al. (2000) also found support for the linkage hypothesis. They found that combining phonological awareness training and letter-sound knowledge were more effective in teaching literacy skills to kindergarten children than teaching either letter-sound knowledge or phonological training alone. Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley (1991) completed a similar study and also found that phonological awareness training was more successful when combined with letter-sound correspondence training.

In general, the research has indicated that phonological skills are taught directly, however most studies do not indicate the depth to which each topic is discussed and explained. Cunningham (1990) completed a study that found first grade children who received explicit discussion about the value, application, and utility of phonemic awareness performed significantly better on a measure of general reading achievement than the children who were simply taught the skills without discussion of how they related to reading in general. While both groups of children made similar improvements on measures of phonemic awareness the group who were engaged in discussions about the value and application of the skills made more gains in applying those skills to reading. This finding is important because it indicates that discussing and explaining the phonological properties of letters and words is likely to provide additional benefit to a student learning to read.

Phonological awareness training has been a general term used to define all training programs that focus on a specific aspect of phonological awareness. However, attempts have been made to identify specific strategies and skills to address in a literacy program to make the largest improvement in reading skills.

McGuinness (1997) completed a review of school-based and clinic-based reading programs and based on her review outlined several areas that she considered problems with reading programs and several areas that she considered important to include in reading programs. A few of the problems that she listed are that they take too long, fail to teach all 44 phonemes, fail to teach phoneme manipulation, segmenting, and blending, and teach lots of decoding and spelling “rules” (p. 204). After her review of literacy research and many remedial reading programs she expressed that it is essential to include direct teaching about phonemes and how to blend and segment the sounds in words. In fact, she wrote “NEVER enroll your child in a clinic where they teach ‘sight words’…There is only one right way to teach reading effectively (p. 340).” While most authors do not express such strong opinions about there only being one way to teach reading, it is consistently shown that teaching phonological awareness is a very important component in reading programs.


Rationale for Literacy Links:

Literacy Links was developed by a clinical team at Calgary Academy in Canada as a program to enhance and improve the reading skills of individuals who are struggling to learn them in the mainstream manner. To develop the Literacy Links program several education specialists, including general and special education teachers, clinicians, and speech and language pathologists examined and were trained to use various literacy programs throughout Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and England. The goal was to develop a comprehensive program that combined all of the components of programs that research showed to be effective.

There were several factors that were found to be important in developing a literacy program. First, the goal was to have a program that did not require many hours and months to complete. Literacy Links was designed to be a short, but intensive program. To complete the Literacy Links program students that participated completed an average of 23 hours of instruction with 1 or 2 two-hour sessions per week, for a total of 6 to 12 weeks.  One technique that makes this possible is the consistency of teaching methods for each lesson. Each lesson introduces a new idea, such as crazy R’s, prefixes and suffixes, however the manner in which they are presented is the same for each lesson. There are a variety of methods used to teach a new concept in each lesson (letter sort, tracking, application, etc.), however the series of methods is the same across each lesson. Therefore, after the first lesson or two the student knows exactly what to expect and does not need to learn a new methodology each session.

Second, the developers were looking to design a program that addressed each of the four processors of Adams’ (1990) Four Processor Model. Adams (1990) discussed four cognitive processors as being integral in establishing literacy skills: orthographic processor, phonological processor, meaning processor, and context processor. These processors extend from identifying the symbol of each letter (orthographic processor) to putting the word that is read into context (context processor). Much of the research on reading has focused on the phonological processor and phonological awareness. Wagner, et. al (1997) defines phonological awareness as one’s awareness of and access to the sound structure of oral language. There were several programs that were assessed that addressed the orthographic and phonological processors, however not the meaning and context processors. The Literacy Links program addresses this by introducing the students to using meaning and context in reading to assist them in comprehending the material. An example of one technique that addresses meaning and context is flexing. If a student is unsure of a word, they are taught to say different options out loud. They are then taught to try each option in the sentence and assess which word correctly fits with the context and meaning of the sentence.

Third, it was important for the program to integrate repetition and practice into the lessons. A goal for the students when participating in the program is not only to gain the specific skills to read but to also establish fluency and automaticity in their reading. This level of proficiency is gained through repetition and practice. Because concepts are reviewed each session, a student does not need to establish mastery of a concept before moving to the next lesson. In addition, a student will be presented the same concept again even if mastery was achieved (albeit faster).

Fourth, it was very important to develop a program that was taught using different modalities of teaching, including tactile, visual, and auditory. Each student has a different style of learning, therefore the different modalities enable the student to learn the information using different senses. For example, the Literacy Links program uses magnet letter tiles that are manipulated on a white board to manipulate letter and syllable combinations. This enables them to use tactile and visual means of learning. Also, the clinician regularly models for the student how to make sounds and decode words, therefore they are learning through oral listening.

Fifth, it was important to integrate the participant’s school work into the curriculum. Based on the work of researchers such as Adams (1990), Cunningham (1990), Hatcher, Hulme and Ellis (1994) it was important to identify a way to generalize the skills the students were learning at the clinic into academic work at school. Therefore, once they learned the basic skills being taught they were encouraged to bring in their schoolwork so that the clinicians could assist them in applying the skills they had acquired into their daily work. In addition, homework is assigned to the students so that they can begin to practice the skills independently.

Overall, Literacy Links was developed to best present phonological information to students and to assist them in generalizing their skills to their everyday reading practices. Literacy Links is a dynamic program that keeps the students engaged and allows flexibility to focus on a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

 Literacy Links Results:

An extensive study has been done on the effectiveness of Literacy Links students spanning over 10 years in California.  Data has been obtained on 9,403 students in grades K-12 that completed the Literacy Links Intervention Program between 2005 and 2016. Students completed an average of 23 hours and typically had 2 hour sessions once or twice per week, for a total of 6 to 12 weeks.  Students were administered the UROK Sound Symbol Assessment (USSA), which measures a student’s phonemic awareness, as well as the Woodcock Johnson-III Reading Fluency test (WCJ III), which measures a student’s reading comprehension before services began and again upon completion of the program.  On the UROK Sound Symbol Assessment (Table 1), out of 122 test items, the average pre-test score was 68 and the average post-test score was 101. The 33 point increase (weighted average) demonstrates increased phonemic awareness of 48.5%.  On the Woodcock Johnson-III Reading Fluency Test (Table 2) students showed impressive gains as well.  The average pre-test score was 3.1 GE (grade equivalent) and the average post-test score was 4.1 GE, an average gain of 1.0 GE.  Not only can consistent gains be seen overall, but by grade level groupings as well (Table 3).

Table 1. 2005-2016 – UROK Sound Symbol (USSA)

# Students USSA
K-5th 6897 64 98 34
6-8th 1945 80 110 30
9-12th 601 80 106 26
All Grades 9443 68 101 33

Table 2. 2005-2016 – Woodcock Johnson III Reading Fluency (WJIII)

# Students WCJ III
K-5th 6897 2.4 3.1 0.7
6-8th 1945 4.8 6.5 1.7
9-12th 601 5.9 7.6 1.7
All Grades 9443 3.1 4.1 1.0


Table 3. 2005-2016 – All Grades

# Students Sound
K 707 26 65 39 0.8 1.1 0.3
1 1143 51 90 39 1.2 1.8 0.6
2 1398 65 99 34 2.0 2.7 0.7
3 1410 71 104 33 2.6 3.4 0.8
4 1251 75 107 32 3.2 4.2 1.0
5 988 77 108 31 3.8 5.0 1.2
6 828 80 110 30 4.2 5.8 1.6
7 631 80 111 31 5.0 6.9 1.9
8 486 79 110 31 5.4 7.2 1.8
9 308 81 107 26 5.7 7.4 1.7
10 178 81 106 25 6.2 7.8 1.6
11 81 76 107 31 5.9 7.9 2.0
12 34 77 101 24 6.4 7.9 1.5
K-5th 6897 64 98 34 2.4 3.1 0.7
6-8th 1945 80 110 30 4.8 6.5 1.7
9-12th 601 80 106 26 5.9 7.6 1.7
All Grades 9443 68 101 33 3.1 4.1 1.0



Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Allington, R. L. (2009). If they don’t read much … 30 years later. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better (pp. 30–54). New York: Guilford.

Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Ball, E. W. & Blachman, B. A. (1988). Phoneme segmentation training: Effect on reading readiness. Annals of Dyslexia, 38, 208-225.

Ball, E. W. & Blachman, B. A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 49-66.

Blaunstein, P, & Lyon, G.R. (2006). Why kids can’t read: Challenging the status quo in education.  Boston: Rowan & Littlefield.

Bradley, L & Bryant, P. E. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read – a causal connection. Nature, 301 (3), 419-421.

Byrne, B. & Feilding-Barnsley, R. (1989). Phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in the child’s acquisition of the alphabet principle. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 313-321.

Byrne, B. & Feilding-Barnsley, R. (1993). Evaluation to teach phonemic awareness to young children: A 1-year follow-up. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 104-111.

Cunningham, A. E. (1990). Explicit versus implicit instruction in phonemic awareness.

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50, 429-444.

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

Herron, J. (2008). Special Topic / Why Phonics Teaching Must Change. Educational Leadership: The Positive Classroom. (pp 77-81).

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-477.

Juel, C. Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B. (1986). Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78 (4), 243-255.

Lewkowicz, N. K. (1980). Phonemic awareness training: What to teach and how to teach it. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72 (5), 686-700.

Lyon, G.R. & Chhabra, V. (2004).   The science of reading research.   Educational Leadership, 61, 12-17.

Lyon, G.R. & Fletcher, J.M. (2001).  Early warning system:  How to prevent reading disabilities.  Education Matters, summer, 22-29.

Lyon, G.R., Fletcher, J.M., Torgesen, J.K., Shaywitz, S.E., & Chhabra, V. (2004).  Preventing and remediating reading failure:  A response to Allington.  Educational Leadership, 6, 86-87.

Lyon, G.R., Thomas, A. (2002, January 1). The Right to Read and the Responsibility to Teach. The Center for Development & Learning.

Lyon, R. (1996, October 27). Why Johnny can’t decode. The Washington Post.

McGuinness, D. (1997). A scientific revolution in reading: Why our children can’t read and what we can do about it. New York: Touchstone.

McGuinness, D., McGuinness, C., & Donahue, J. (1995). Phonological training and the alphabet principle: Evidence for reciprocal causality. Reading Research Quarterly39 (4), 830-852.

Schneider, W., Roth, E., & Ennemoser, M. (2000). Training phonological skills and letter knowledge in children at risk for dyslexia: A comparison of three kindergarten intervention programs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (2), 284-295.

Share, D. L., Jorm, A. F., MacLean, R., & Matthews, R. (1984). Sources of individual differences in reading acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76 (6), 1309-1324.

Stanovich, K. E., Cunningham, A. E. & Cramer, B. B. (1984). Assessing phonological awareness in kindergarten children: Issues of task comparability. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 175-190.

Torgesen, J. K., Morgan, S., & Davis, c. (1992). The effects of two types of phonological awareness training on word learning in kindergarten children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 364-370.

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Longitudinal studies of phonological processing and reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27 (5), 276-286.

Wagner, R. K., & Torgesen, J. K. (1987). The nature of phonological processing and its causal role in the acquisition of reading skills. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 192-212.

Wagner, R. K., Torgesen, J. K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Development of reading- related phonological processing abilities: New evidence of bi-directional causality from a latent variable longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 30 (1), 73- 87.

Wagner, R.K., Torgesen, J. K., Rashotte, C. A., Hecht, S. A., Barker, T. A., Burgess, S. R., Donahue, J., & Garon, T. (1997). Changing relations between phonological processing abilities and word-level reading as children develop from beginning to skilled readers: A 5-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 33 (3), 468-479.