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Phonemic Awareness Interventions for Tier 1 and Tier 2 Instruction

by Lynn M. Edwards, PhD

A common cause of student reading difficulties is inadequate mastery of foundational reading skills such as phonemic awareness (Kilpatrick, 2016). Phonemic awareness is an essential building block for helping students to understand the alphabetic principle which in turn sets the stage for learning to read (Keesey, Konrad, & Joseph, 2015).

What is Phonemic Awareness?

I’ve written before about the importance of phonemic awareness, which refers to the ability to identify and manipulate sounds (phonemes) in spoken words (Ehri, 2004; National Reading Panel, 2000). A child who has developed phonemic awareness can easily recognize that spoken words can be broken down into smaller parts of sound called phonemes. For example, when asked to identify the sounds in the word, cat, a child should be able to identify that there are 3 phonemes in the word cat, including /c/, /a/, /t/. In this example, the child is able to hear, recognize and isolate each of these phonemes and recognizes that these individual sounds make up the word cat.

Why Focus on Phonemic Awareness?

We know that effective reading instruction in early elementary grades (e.g, Kindergarten through grade 2) includes explicitly and systematically teaching phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondence (National Reading Panel, 2000; Wagner, Torgesen, Laughon, Simmons, & Rashotte, 1993). Phonemic awareness instruction helps students acquire phonemic awareness along with word reading and even comprehension skills (Ehri et al., 2003). Common aspects of phonemic awareness instruction include identifying different phonemes, finding common phonemes in word pairs, blending phonemes to make words, segmenting phonemes of a word, deletion of phonemes, and substituting phonemes. Overall, teaching phonemic awareness skills increases the likelihood that students will master the necessary foundational literacy skills and continue to meet expected reading proficiency goals.

Identifying Students in Need of Phonemic Awareness Interventions

Teachers can identify students in need of phonemic awareness intervention by using FAST earlyReading™ assessment results. Subtests within the earlyReading suite that target phonemic awareness include Word Rhyming, Onset Sounds, Word Segmenting, and Word Blending. These assessments may also be used to monitor intervention progress. One of these subtests, Word Segmenting, is included in the earlyReading screening Composite score in the winter and spring of kindergarten and in the fall, winter, and spring of first grade. The earlyReading Composite includes four subtests and that score can be used to identify students who are not on track (at-risk) for performance at grade level. Then, it is recommended teachers look at specific earlyReading™ subtests to determine specific student difficulties with phonemic awareness. If a student’s score on Word Segmenting is very low, it might indicate a need for phonemic awareness instruction. Teachers can also consider a few common indicators that may assist them in identifying students in need of phonemic awareness instruction or intervention, including students who have difficulty with:

  • rhyming;
  • hearing, isolating, and discriminating sounds that make up words;
  • adding, moving, and deleting sounds in words;
  • breaking a word into individual sounds

If a student only knows a few letter names or sounds, it is also possible he or she may not have mastered phonemic awareness skills and we recommend checking to determine the level of mastery with phonemic awareness. If a student’s Word Segmenting score is a very low number or zero, it can be helpful to conduct an additional assessment with one or more other earlyReading
subtests, including Word Blending, Onset Sounds, and Word Rhyming.

Phonemic Awareness Interventions Available in FAST™

Given phonemic awareness is a foundational skill in learning to read, how can we support students who need to develop it? To meet the needs of your students, Fastbridge Learning® now offers class-wide and small group reading interventions that target phonemic awareness. The interventions are research-based and are aligned with FAST assessments and the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts for grades K-5. The phonemic awareness interventions are available within the Fastbridge Learning®  Training & Resources section of the online system. For each intervention, there is a series of eight lessons to build an understanding of each intervention and when to use it for which students.

The lessons include:

  • Lesson 1: An introduction to the intervention
  • Lesson 2: Standardized administration information with a short video
  • Lesson 3: Whole group step-by-step administration guide with student and teacher materials to use
  • Lesson 4: Small group step-by-step administration guide with student and teacher materials to use
  • Lesson 5: Formative assessment with progress monitoring recommendations
  • Lesson 6: Practice options, including a checklist to monitor intervention fidelity
  • Lesson 7: Certification for implementing the intervention (this section is coming soon)
  • Lesson 8: Resources such as references

Currently, Blending & Segmenting Sounds is available for teachers to use. The objective of this phonemic awareness intervention is for students to increase their accuracy and automaticity with blending and segmenting phonemes in spoken words. This intervention is designed to be used at the whole group (tier 1) or small group (tier 2) levels. For this intervention, the teacher will use the provided word list and pictures to help students blend and segment words with 2, 3, and 4 phonemes. Each student will have a sound mat with bingo markers or pennies to follow along as sounds and words are pronounced. The daily lesson plan involves introducing students to 2 to 3 new words from the word list as well as reviewing some of the same words from previous lessons by following the step-by-step instructional procedures provided. These instruction procedures outline how to prepare materials, explain the activity to students, model the activity and provide guided practice, group practice, and applied practice. Additional accommodations and instructional extensions are provided as well.

Future FAST™ Phonemic Awareness Interventions

We are continuing to develop additional Fastbridge Learning®  phonemic awareness interventions at Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels. By early October 2018, this domain will soon include a sequence of interventions that more closely target individual phonemic awareness skills from easier to more difficult, aligning with the FAST earlyReading™ assessments. Additional interventions will include:

  • Rhyming Words
  • Understanding Syllables
    • Deletion using Two Syllable Words
    • Deletion using Three Syllable Words
  • Understanding Onset-Rimes
    • Onset Sound Deletion
    • Rime Deletion
    • Onset Sound Substitution
    • Rime Substitution
  • Manipulating Phonemes in Words
    • Manipulating Sounds with Deletion
    • Manipulating Sounds with Substitution

Further information will be provided about these interventions when they are available.

Lynn M. Edwards, PhD, is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota and school psychologist at an elementary charter school in Minneapolis. Her current work is focused on leading the effort to develop and conduct research for the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) project in collaboration with colleagues and FastBridge Learning.  PSI is a computerized cloud-based instructional software program that will streamline the use of assessment to continuously inform instruction. Dr. Edwards’ primary research interests focus on identifying causal mechanisms of learning and designing effective technology-based instructional systems, resources and tools for educators.


Ehri, L. C. (2004). Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics: An explanation of the National Reading Panel meta-analysis. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 153–186). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Ehri, L., Nunes, S., Willows, D., Schuster, B., 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

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step-by-step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Syracuse, NY: Casey & Kirsch.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Wagner, R. K., Torgesen, J. K., Laughon, P., Simmons, K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1993). Development of young readers’ phonological processing abilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 83–103.



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