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Mass Literacy

Phonological Skills Can Be an Underlying Cause of Difficulties With Fluent Word Reading

Difficulties with reading can stem from different underlying causes. Phonological skills, which involve hearing and manipulating sounds in spoken language (e.g. phonemes, syllables) are necessary for developing strong word reading skills. Phonological skills help children understand how letters and letter patterns work to represent language in print. Problems in developing phonological awareness can contribute to difficulties with fluent word reading, and, in turn, often cause problems with comprehension.

How Problems With Phonological Skills May Present

Difficulty with phonological skills might become evident in classroom observations or assessments, even before the start of formal schooling. Children might display difficulty with:

  • noticing rhymes, alliteration, or repetition of sounds
  • remembering how to pronounce new words or names; distinguishing difference(s) in similar sounding words
  • clapping out syllables or separating a compound word
  • identifying the first sound in a word or separating a word into its individual sounds
  • adding, subtracting, or substituting single sounds within a word (; Ehri et al., 2001)
  • recognizing and producing the correct sound for phonics/spelling patterns, even after practicing with them
  • decoding new words
  • after sounding out a word correctly, blending those sounds back together to read the word
  • remembering and automatically recognizing words, even after repeated opportunities to practice reading them (Kilpatrick, 2015)

Screening for Phonological Skills

Universal screening starting in Kindergarten should assess phonological skills, in order to identify children who are experiencing problems with phonological awareness and require instructional support to prevent future difficulties. For more information about universal screening and a list of Massachusetts-approved screening assessments, see Early Literacy Screening Assessments.

Underlying Causes of Difficulty With Phonological Skills

Possible root cause(s) of phonological difficulty include:

  • lack of explicit instruction and practice in phonological and phonemic awareness
  • a core problem in the phonological processing system of language (Moats & Tolman, 2019)

Phonological difficulties can be linked specifically to dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (International Dyslexia Association).

For more information about early identification and continued access to evidence-based instruction as it relates to dyslexia, see the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines .

Preventing Problems With Phonological Skills

Many children who experience problems with phonological skills did not receive adequate instruction and opportunities to practice. These problems with phonological skills can be prevented with strong core instruction. Students with dyslexia, however, have a neurological difference which makes it harder for them to develop phonological awareness. Some of these students need much more deliberate instruction in phonological awareness and related phonics knowledge and additional support delivered through Tier 2 and/or 3.

Norma Hancock
"When I meet [struggling readers], there is not a lot of joy and many of them have already internalized failure by third grade. But when they're given this evidence-based instruction, there's just this look of pride and joy and happiness and a rebuilding of confidence in their lives. And it's not just in reading, it's a confidence that you can see that spreads out throughout their whole academic experience."

Norma Hancock
Reading Specialist and Doctoral Research Fellow
Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab at MGH Institute

Approaches to Intervention for Students Who Have Difficulty With Phonological Skills

Intervention is necessary when children do not make adequate progress with phonological skills even after receiving strong core instruction with opportunities to practice. Children with phonological difficulties benefit from intensive practice with phonological awareness; practice associating phonemes (sounds) to spelling patterns; and practice decoding words (Snowling, 2013).

Signs of dyslexia can be observed as early as the preschool years. Interventions can be effective in supporting students to read, and earlier intervention is more effective than waiting until 2nd or 3rd grade. Evidence showing that children with dyslexic difficulties can be helped by specific interventions underlines the need for timely action (Snowling, 2013).

Nadine Gaab
"What usually happens is that children have to fail to learn to read over a significant period of time before someone pays attention and says, 'this child seems to have a reading difficulty.'… This 'wait to fail' approach really is detrimental to the child's academic outcome, but also for the child's mental health."

Nadine Gaab
Associate Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Culturally Responsive Practice

For older students who are experiencing difficulties reading, having to work on "babyish" phonological awareness tasks can be especially discouraging. In particular, Black and Latino students may perceive remedial intervention as a confirmation of race-based stereotypes that they are less capable than their peers, a phenomenon known as stereotype threat (Steele, 2010). However, evidence-based interventions targeted at students’ demonstrated needs are crucial for their success. Teachers can reduce stereotype threat and support students who need to practice foundational skills by positioning themselves as the student's ally or learning partner (Hammond, 2013). Hammond suggests that teachers can form a trusting allyship with a student in this situation with strategies such as:

  • Asking the student to share her perspective on what is causing her reading difficulty
  • Setting specific learning goals with the student, and tracking her progress towards those goals
  • Letting the student know explicitly that the work will be difficult but that you are her partner, and naming what you will specifically do to help her make progress
  • Communicating your belief in the student's capacity to succeed (Hammond, 2013).

For Additional Information

Scientific Information About Phonological Difficulties

  • Bus, A. G., & van Izendoorn, M. H. (1999). Phonological awareness and early reading: A meta-analysis of experimental training studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 403–414.
  • National Institute for Literacy (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National early literacy panel .
  • 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.
  • Anthony, J.L., & Francis, D.J. (2005). Development of phonological awareness. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(5), 255–259.


Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D., M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250–287.

Hammond, Z. (2013). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (Essentials of psychological assessment). Boston: John Wiley and Sons

Moats. L.C.& Tolman, C. A. (2019). LETRS (3rd edition). Voyager Sopris Learning.

Steele, C. M. (2010). Issues of our time. Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. W W Norton & Co.

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Last Updated: June 22, 2021

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