While to a confused parent, the reversals in teaching approaches may seem to be nothing more than pendulum swings, new research usually feeds each movement, heating up an old idea with fresh knowledge.
The "hot" topic of the moment is phonemics, or more precisely, phonemic awareness. To the layman, that means if you can hear the sounds, you're ready to read the sounds.
Diane Levin, a reading specialist with the California Department of Education, explains. "Say the word, 'bag.' Phonemic awareness means being able to hear the 'b,' 'a' and 'g' sounds separately, so that if you change the first letter to say, 't,' the kids understand the sounds are separate and can make the word 'tag' without getting confused."
Ms. Levin says when kids understand that words are made up of sounds, they are ready for phonics, which is the next stage.
She points out with a laugh that teachers have done this sort of work with children for years, but now new research has solidified the importance of what is being called early phonemic awareness training.
Armed with this knowledge, Levin explains, teachers now know that phonemic awareness is a critical insight that children must possess and that having it naturally is actually a good predictor of future success in reading.
The new emphasis on this early stage has been codified in California's Reading Program Advisory, issued earlier this year. It enables teachers to identify and focus on what Levin says is the "20 percent or so of children who don't have phonemic awareness naturally."
Levin adds that targeting these children early, usually in the preschool and kindergarten years, helps ensure they have the preparation to keep up with phonics work later on.
In addition, teachers are now armed with specific tests to determine if children can actually hear the different sounds in a word. Levin points out that phonemic awareness is more than simple auditory discrimination between similar sounds such as "s" and "z." It means being able to hear the phonemes, or separate sounds that, when blended together by the ear, create words.