Foundational Skills Necessary For

 Proficient Phonologic Processing


Correct phonologic processing is a complex process and requires integration of many different fundamental subskills. Students need to convert print to sound so they can tap into the brains phonologic processors designed for effortlessly processing spoken sound. To do this efficiently the student must recognize the sound structure of language (phonemic awareness), directly and automatically know the phonemic code including the complexities (knowledge of the complete code). They must process print from left to right (tracking), smoothly combine sounds (blending)  and pay close attention to all the letters in the words (attention to detail). Learning the individual components in isolation is not sufficient. The student must not only master these individual skills but also integrate and automatically apply these skills when they read. In addition, as with all learned skills, practice with correct phonologic processing is essential to developing proficiency.

This article reviews individual skills necessary for developing correct phonologic processing.  Additional information on complete skills necessary for proficient or skilled reading is found in the article Overview and Visual Representation of Overall Processes Required for Proficient Reading.  Remember, reading English is a complex learned skill. The most effective and efficient way to ensure a student learns all these necessary skills is to directly teach these skills to the individual.


Fundamental Skills Necessary for Proficient Phonologic Processing:


1.  Phonemic Awareness


Phonemic awareness is literally ‘sound’ awareness. Phonemic awareness is understanding words are made up of sounds and being able to hear, recognize and manipulate the individual sounds that form the word. Phonemic awareness is primarily an auditory skill of distinguishing and recognizing the sound structure of language. For example, phonemic awareness is realizing the word ‘puppy’ is made up of the sounds /p/ /u/ /p/ /ee/ or the word the word ‘shape’ is formed by the sounds /sh/ /ay/ /p/. Phonemic awareness is developing an ‘ear for sounds’ and it is critically important to reading and spelling success.


Complete information on phonemic awareness can be found in the article Phonemic Awareness Explained. 



2. Knowledge of Complete Phonetic Code


The complete phonemic code is the specific print=sound relationships written English is based on. The English phonemic code is complex. Letters and sounds do not have a one-to-one correspondence. There are 26 letters and 44 sounds. Some letters represent more than one sound. Many sounds are made from a combination of letters. There is overlap where one sound can be written several ways. Then to top it off, our language includes spellings from other languages and some irregular words. Although it is complex, English is not complete random chaos. English is mostly phonetic or follows predictable patterns. If all sounds are learned and patterns practiced, most words can be phonetically decoded.


The student needs to acquire knowledge of the complete phonetic code. Knowledge of the basic alphabet is not sufficient. The student needs to know the multiple vowel sounds, consonant digraphs, vowel-combinations, r-controlled vowels, and other complexities that comprise the vast majority of printed words.  Phonograms are the distinct printed letters or combinations of letters that symbolize specific sounds within written English words. Depending on exactly how they are classified, there are between 70 to 80 phonograms. In addition to the 26 single letters of the alphabet, the student needs to learn consonant digraphs (th, sh, ch, wh, ck, ph, wr…), vowel combinations (ee, oa, oe, ai, ay, oi, oy, ea, ow, ou, ue, au….),  r-controlled vowels (ar, or, ore, er, ur, ir, ear, eer, air...) and other combinations (a+l, w+a, c+e, igh, ough…).  It is no surprise the vowel combinations and other complexities are frequently the source of reading and spelling difficulties. Many students lack necessary knowledge of the complete phonetic code. Instruction often fails to teach these complexities or teaches them in an indirect, incomplete or haphazard manner. The most effective way to ensure students acquire complete and accurate knowledge of the complex phonemic code is to directly teach all phonograms to the student.


To read proficiently, the student must process print phonetically.  The student needs to accurately convert the printed phonograms directly to sound. To maximize efficiency, the processing of print needs to be accurate, direct and automatic. The student effectively learns this ‘printed letter=sound’ association through direct instruction and repeated practice. The goal is for the student to automatically know the printed  alphabetic character equals sound association (printed letter(s)=sound) of the complete phonemic code. When the sound is automatic, the student does not have to spend any effort consciously think about what it is and can then concentrate on higher reading skills.  By acquiring direct automatic print=sound knowledge for the complete phonemic code the student can then process print phonetically and establish proficient reader phonologic processing pathways. 


Additional information is found in the article The Building Blocks of Written English-The Phonemic Code.


3.  Directional Tracking


In English, we read and write from left-to-right. Proper directional tracking of looking at and processing all the letters in order from left-to-right is essential for reading success. Although this simple sub-skill may appear self evident, many students do not apply this essential element. Remember, scanning left-to-right in a straight line is not a natural process. Instinctively, looking all over is a superior way to gather information. Left-to-right processing is one of the arbitrary artificial components of our man made written English language that the student must learn and automatically apply.  Knowing the individual sounds is not sufficient. For accurate reading, the student must process sounds in order from left-to-right. The following words demonstrate order of the letters is important: (stop-pots-tops) (thorn-north) (no-on) (miles-limes-smile) (step-pets-pest) (every-very) (felt-left). Poor readers have frequent tracking errors where they improperly process letters out of order. Poor readers often exhibit erratic eye movement as they look around for ‘whole words’ or jump around searching for familiar hunks or word families. These incorrect tracking strategies contribute to reading difficulty. To read proficiently the student must not only know the individual sound but must process the letters in order left-to-right. The most effective way to ensure the student acquires this essential skill is to directly teach and require proper directional tracking. 


Additional information is found in the article Directional Tracking Explained: Why Directional Tracking is Important to Reading Development.


4.  Blending


To read proficiently, the student needs to learn to blend individual sounds smoothly together into words without choppy pauses between the sounds. This essential blending skill does not come easily and automatically for some students. Difficulties blending are usually evident as ‘choppy sounding out’.  Some student’s inability to blend smoothly creates a hurdle that blocks reading development. If the student is chopping sounds apart they are not able to put all the sounds together and ‘smoothly’ say the word, and build fluency. They might know the sounds in isolation but are unable to ‘hook’ the sounds together.  They may initially get by with short words but quickly run into trouble with longer words that contain four or more sounds. To avoid potential difficulty it is important to directly teach smooth blending skills from the beginning. For example this is teaching the student to read the word ‘mast’ with smoothly blended sounds /mmaasst/ instead of a choppy /m/…./a/…./s/…./t/. When sounding out it is essential the parent or teacher demonstrates the correct blending skills of not stopping between the sounds.  Teach smooth blending skills from the beginning and specifically work on this skill with any student that has difficulty blending smoothly.


For additional details and information see the article Blending Explained: Why Smooth Blending is Important to Reading Development and How to Help Children Develop Smooth Blending.


5. Attention to Detail


Attention to detail is carefully looking at all the letters/sounds in a word. The details are critical to accuracy. Skilled reading involves focus on the internal details of the word. The student must process all sounds in order, without skipping any sounds or adding sounds that are not actually there. Words are too similar (insist-insect-inspect) (stain-strain) (play-ploy) (stay-stray) (form-from) (tree-three-there) (then-than) (change-charge)(strange-strong-string).  Only 26 letters make up ALL our words!  Listen to a student who struggles with reading and you will quickly observe how they make numerous errors because they miss details. Many struggling readers have not developed skills in paying attention to detail. Students need to learn to look carefully at the details. Despite some claims, the fact is you can not read accurately by only looking at the first and last letter.  Not only are the details critical for accurate reading but careful attention to detail is also important in forming the accurate neural model of the word that allows development of fast/fluent reading.  You can help a student develop the attention to detail skill that is so critical to reading success. Paying attention to detail is closely intertwined with helping the student develop skills in proper tracking and correct phonologic processing.


Combining Fundamental Skills to Develop Efficient Phonologic Processing


In summary, to become a skilled reader the student needs to develop proficient phonologic processing pathways. This initial step of ‘sounding out’, the strong phonologic processing base, is essential to develop the advanced skill of ‘fast’ fluent reading. Neural research shows fluent or ‘fast’ reading is built word by word and based on repeated correct phonologic processing. Without the essential process of correct phonologic processing (sounding out) the student will not develop ‘fast’ reading/ fluent reading pathways. To develop these proficient phonologic processing pathways the student needs to integrate and apply individual skills in phonemic awareness, knowledge of the complete phonemic code, directional tracking, blending, and attention to detail in correct print to sound processing. The most effective and efficient method of insuring children develop phonologic processing pathways is to directly teach the student necessary skills. Parents and teachers can use targeted activities directly build necessary skills and intentionally develop correct phonologic processing pathways.


See the article Visual Representation; Overall Process of Proficient Reading for a visual representation of the necessary skills and the integration of these skills into correct phonologic processing of print and development of advanced skills that lead to proficient or skilled reading.  


NOT DONE YET! Proficient or skilled reading is more complex than correct phonologic processing. Correct phonologic processing provides the essential foundational process of accurate and effortless decoding. Proficient reading is more complex and requires higher level skills. While a strong direct systematic phonics program establishes the foundation of correct phonologic processing, this is only the beginning. The student still needs to develop higher level advanced skills in handling multisyllable words, building fluency, expanding vocabulary and improving comprehension. These skills are all enhanced by direct instruction. See the article Advanced Skills Necessary for Proficient Reading.



This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2007 Miscese R. Gagen