Teaching to the Edges

Reading instruction that takes all students’ needs into account helps everyone learn more effectively. This principle holds for instruction in phonemic awareness. Thinking about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which we talked about in Unit 1, can help parapros think about how to help all students.

English learners often need special attention as they work to develop phonemic awareness. Perhaps their first language is written in a way that is symbolic rather than alphabetic, like the Chinese student in the Introductory Challenge. Perhaps a student speaks a language that uses a different set of phonemes than English. The way those differences work in practice can be surprising and interesting.

Phonemic Awareness and English Learners

Different languages have unique phonemes. In the last unit you saw how English has its own special set of phonemes, but they do not line up perfectly with the English alphabet. Sometimes it takes two English letters to make a single phoneme. “Th” is an example.

Sometimes English speakers notice what seem like phonemic gaps in other languages, but not in their own language. For example, most speakers of the Korean language do not distinguish the sounds for /l/ and /r/ in the way an English speaker would. In Korean, these two sounds aren’t really different, so sometimes Korean speakers who are learning English mix them up. But English lacks plenty of phonemes found in other languages too! Did you know that while English has only one phoneme for consonants formed in the back of the mouth, Arabic has three?

(Kilpatrick, 2016, p. 16)

Because phonemes are about sounds, you might think that students with hearing impairments would find it hard or impossible to develop phonemic awareness. But this isn’t the case! Students with hearing impairments can and absolutely should develop phonemic awareness on the road to becoming strong readers. They just need a kind of instruction that identifies phonemes visually.

There are a few ways to do this, but the best way is by using something called fingerspelling. Fingerspelling is a means of using signs to communicate the individual letters in a word rather than using the sign for that word. For example, you might sign the letter “C” then “A” then “T” instead of signing the word “cat.” When instructors link all the different types of visual sign together in working with a student—the printed word “cat,” the fingerspelling for C-A-T, and the sign for the word “cat”—students with hearing impairments can learn phonemic awareness.

A recent research study showed that when instructors used this method with beginning readers who had hearing impairments, these students scored roughly as well as students with typical sensory abilities on tests of phonemic awareness (Lederberg et al., 2019). These tests measured phonemic awareness skills like segmenting and blending

Some students with disabilities like dyslexia also need intentional work on phonemic awareness. Studies have shown that developing phonemic awareness directly improves reading efficiency in learners with dyslexia by helping link their working memory of words to what they see on the page (Knoop-van Campen et al., 2018).



A dialect is a variety of a language spoken by a specific group. The group that speaks the dialect might be determined by several factors: geography, ethnicity, or social class, for instance. Speakers of different dialects of the same language can usually understand each other fully even though they speak in different ways. Differences in dialect can be lexical (use of special words), phonological, and even grammatical. Most importantly for us, dialects can affect phonemic awareness in students who are learning to read. Let’s look at a few examples of how dialects work.

Lexical Dialect Differences

Sometimes, everyday objects acquire special names within dialects. For instance, Appalachians use the word “poke” to mean “bag” (as in “pig in a poke”). Midwesterners call vacuum cleaners “sweepers.”

Sometimes everyday phrases differ. Southern Americans often use the contraction “y’all” as a second-person-plural pronoun to mean “you.” In New York City, “you” is often said as “youse” and in Pittsburgh, “yinz.”

Grammatical Dialect Differences

Dialects can use different sentence and word structures to convey concepts. Double-negatives are one example of this. While “standard” American English grammar does not use double-negatives to express something like “I have no idea,” some American dialects might express this same sentence as “I haven’t got no idea” or even “I ain’t got no idea,” using the common lexical dialect contraction “ain’t.”

Phonological Dialect Differences

When we’re talking about phonemic awareness, phonological differences associated with dialects are what’s important. Dialects commonly include differences of pronunciation that many people call accents. These differences can affect which phonemes a speaker uses, whether words rhyme, and even the number of syllables in a word! Some words that a speaker of Standard American English would say using only one syllable, such as “fail” or the name “Ann,” would be pronounced by some Southern Americans with two syllables: “fay-ul” and “Ay-un.”

The same two speakers might hear and say phonemes differently. Some Southern speakers do not distinguish the /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ vowels, as in the words “pin” and “pen,” for example. These speakers would say those two words in exactly the same way; and they would think that words like “grim” and “phlegm” rhyme.

These differences are important to keep in mind when working with students on exercises to develop phonemic awareness. The sound-symbol connections in Standard American English are somewhat different from those in some dialects—but that doesn’t make dialects wrong or Standard English better. As UDL teaches us, differences among people are a good thing.

African-American Vernacular English

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)

African-American Vernacular English is a dialect of the English language spoken by many Black people in the United States. As a dialect, AAVE has its own rules (syntax and grammar). Let’s look at one rule: multiple negation. This rule means that the more negatives used, the more negative the idea. Take this sentence: “He ain’t never got no toys now.” The speaker of this sentence is not just saying that the subject doesn’t have toys in the moment, but that he never has toys.

We might hear this sentence, though, and think it’s an incorrect way of expressing this idea. But, in fact, speech that knits together the many rules of AAVE demonstrates complexity. And students who understand this complexity tend to have strong language skills. This is to say, AAVE is not just poorly-spoken English!

As educators, we need to be particularly attuned to these issues. It’s simply not the case that high usage of a dialect indicates low language competence. This is especially important to remember when considering assessments. In the classroom, our assessments typically focus on standard academic English only. This means that our assessments don’t actually measure dialect users’ language abilities, just their knowledge of academic English. Instead, speakers who use lots of dialect should be thought of as closer to bilingual. We should teach them standard academic English alongside their dialect instead of as a replacement for it.

Because phonemic awareness depends on auditory skills, it can also be a challenge for students who have difficulty hearing. But many students who are hard of hearing can still develop it. Some can hear rhythm and cadence in speech, for example, so exercises that work on helping them notice syllables can be useful. Some students with hearing difficulties may also be able to notice words that rhyme. Since rhyming involves recognizing similarities and differences in words, exercises with rhyming also help improve phonemic awareness. Choosing appropriate words for a rhyming exercise, and supplementing the exercise with visual cues for these words (like pictures of the things the words refer to), is one way to provide support to students with hearing difficulties (Miller et al., 2013).