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Dr Kerry Hempenstall
Educational psychologist, senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT University in Melbourne

In the field of literacy instruction, research on phonemic awareness has led to a renewed emphasis on the structure of our written alphabetic language, and this has gradually tipped the scales in a long-running debate. Is student literacy most efficiently promoted by an emphasis on teaching children to recognise whole words, or by focusing on how to deconstruct words into their constituent sounds? Learning to read by forming pictures of whole words and recalling those pictures when the same word appears in text appears intuitively more efficient than sounding out.

However, the first principles approach known as phonics-based teaching directs students’ attention towards the way alphabetic languages are based upon sensitivity to the sounds in the spoken word (phonemic awareness). The appreciation allows for a generative reading strategy when students learn each sound for the letters and common letter clusters, become adept at blending those sounds together to make words, and in segmenting spoken words into their sounds. When the alphabetic principle is understood, we can read and write any words that we can say, not only the words that we’ve seen before and managed to recognise. The process becomes automatic with practice, leading to the fluency hoped for, but not achieved, by the whole word method. It is only by becoming alert to evidence from well-designed research that this question has been answered.