Reading & Literacy

How Much Time Should Teachers Spend on a Foundational Reading Skill? Research Offers Clues

By Sarah Schwartz — February 09, 2024 4 min read
A conceptual vector image of a person pronouncing phonemes while another person observes the soundwaves under a magnifying glass.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A reading block in an elementary school classroom can feel like a carefully choreographed 120-minute dance.

Time is a finite resource, and it often falls to teachers to make decisions about how much instructional time to devote to the many interrelated components of reading. What’s the dosage of each that will ensure kids get it?

A new study offers insight into that question for one key component of early reading development: phonemic awareness. It finds, in essence, that you can have too much of a good thing.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds in words—to blend the sounds /c/, /a/, and /t/, into the word cat, for instance. It serves as a kind of springboard for reading and spelling by giving young children knowledge they can map onto written letters, aiding them in sounding out words.

Instruction in this skill is important. But at some point, students master this ability, and don’t need further teaching. The new study, from a team at Texas A&M University, aimed to figure out where that point might be.

The researchers examined 16 experimental and quasi-experimental studies on phonemic awareness instruction, all conducted in small groups or one-on-one settings with students in grades pre-K-1. They found that the more time teachers spent, the better students became at the skill compared to a control group—but only up to a certain point: 10.2 hours total. Programs that spent longer on phonemic awareness instruction after that point showed diminishing returns.

Practice with this skill is crucial, the study concludes, but also that an “overemphasis” on phonemic awareness may not be beneficial, said Florina Erbeli, an assistant professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M and the lead author on the paper.

“We have to remember that phonemic awareness is not the goal of the whole instruction. The goal is to teach the students to read,” she said. “Phonemic awareness instruction is just one of the steps that will bring us to kids starting to read and spell. … After a while, you wouldn’t expect a typical child to go on forever and ever needing this.”

Research doesn’t provide a ‘magic number’

As the “science of reading” movement has spread across the country, more schools have taken up phonemic awareness instruction as part of their early literacy approach. A 2022 EdWeek Research Center survey found that about a quarter of preK-2 and special education teachers use Heggerty, an early literacy curriculum provider that offers popular daily phonemic awareness lessons.

The study is one of the first to provide research-based guidance on dosage for phonemic awareness. It comes at a time when questions about how to structure classroom time loom large in the science of reading movement.

While many states have passed new legislation mandating that schools use evidence-based practice, these laws and accompanying state guidance don’t often come with a roadmap for structuring an effective literacy block. The lack of concrete instructions can leave some teachers feeling frustrated—wanting to change their practice, but not knowing exactly how. Some educators have offered examples of what their lessons look like.

But there’s not one singular research-based schedule, in part because dosage is difficult to study, said Matt Burns, a professor of special education at the University of Florida who studies reading interventions. Burns was not involved with the Texas A&M study.

The same amount of cumulative time can have different effects depending on how it’s divided up, he said. For example, 30 minutes once a week of practice with a skill might lead to different outcomes than 10 minutes three times a week. Many studies don’t report this kind of detailed information about dosage. And then students’ needs vary—some may need more practice and repetitions, and others fewer, Burns said.

Such differences should be considered in interpreting the study, Erbeli said.

“10.2 hours is not some magic number,” she added. “We say in the paper that this number does not tell us anything about a particular class, a particular individual.” Teachers should plan phonemic awareness instruction based on the needs of students in front of them, she said.

Still, this study can provide a useful guidepost, Burns said. “If you’re spending more than [10.2 hours], take a look at your practice. If you’re spending much less than that, take a look at your practice.”

Phonemic awareness: With or without letters?

The study also touches on a distinction that has become a source of debate in the reading field: Whether it’s better to teach phonemic awareness orally, or alongside written letters.

Many teachers use materials that are designed for oral practice only. The teacher will say a word, and then ask students to segment the sounds within it, for example. But some researchers argue that having students look at the letters in a word as they practice this skill can reinforce their understanding—and some studies have shown that students’ reading and spelling outcomes are better when phonemic awareness instruction includes letters.

In the Texas A&M study, the researchers found that phonemic awareness instruction with letters led to bigger returns over a longer period of time—the intervention groups continued to show better phonemic awareness skills than control groups after 16 hours of instruction over the course of the program. (These programs also spanned grades pre-K-1.)

That may be because phonemic awareness and decoding ability are reciprocal skills, Erbeli said. Seeing how sounds are connected to letters could help students manipulate sounds more precisely.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy How One District Moved to a 'Knowledge-Building' Curriculum: 3 Key Takeaways
Don't expect teachers to be experts in every subject, and make sure to address comprehension strategies, too, say district leaders.
4 min read
First grade students illustrate a story they wrote together in Megan Gose’s classroom at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.
First grade students illustrate a story they wrote together in Megan Gose’s classroom at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.
Emily Elconin for Education Week
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Quiz
Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Foundational Reading Skills?
Answer 9 questions about foundational reading skills.
Content provided by WordFlight
Reading & Literacy Opinion How to Help Students With Their Writing. 4 Educators Share Their Secrets
In many classrooms, students are handcuffed by restrictive templates for assignments instead of getting to practice how to create.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Reading & Literacy Spotlight Spotlight on Early Childhood Literacy
This Spotlight will help you analyze early literacy gains from tutoring, learn how science of reading can boost achievement, and more.