You use the phrase phonemic awareness, but the school uses the word phonics. What is the difference?
Phonics describes a teaching method that focuses on letters as sounds. Phonemic awareness explains a child’s ability to hear a phoneme or letter sound and then to use that phoneme to sound out words. Phonics and phonemic awareness are not the same (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001). The word phonics is being used by so many people in so many different ways that you must be careful. The phonics method that your school is using may be helpful or it may not be.
The National Reading Panel (2000) identified six different methods for teaching phonics:
(1) Systematic phonics instruction entails the direct teaching of letter-sound relationships and uses a specific sequence or learning pattern. Systematic phonics instruction has been shown through research to be the most effective of the phonics methods, but be careful. There are many different approaches for teaching systematic phonics. To be effective, systematic phonics must teach decoding and encoding instead of memorization or a list of rules.
(2) Analytic phonics instruction does not teach breaking sounds down into isolated phonemes (sounds); instead, the analytic approach concentrates on the first letter of the word. For example, if your child is given a list of words to memorize that all start with a T, then the instructor is using an analytic approach. Unfortunately, analytic phonics has been proven not to be effective (Johnson & Watson, 2004). It simply doesn’t work.
(3) Analog based phonics instruction uses word families. Children are taught to look for similar word families: can, cantaloupe, canary, canine. As you can see from my list of words, this method is very confusing for children because words that start with c-a-n do not always use the same vowel sound. Again, the National Reading Panel stated that this method does not work.
(4) Learning phonics through spelling teaches children to segment words into phonemes, but all words are not spelled phonemically: phone, whose, earth.
(5) Embedded phonics is what many whole language advocates contend that they teach. In other words, they are teaching children to look for letter relationships within a story which means that children may encounter a host of different vowel and consonant sounds on just one page of a beginning reader. The brain cannot process and assimilate that many different sounds at one time. The brain does not learn new sounds when they are jumbled together.
(6) Onset-rhyme phonics instruction is where teachers try to help children identify words by matching similar sounds that appear at the beginning of a word before the first vowel: train, try, trash. With this method, you are asking children to learn three different vowel sounds at the same time. It’s impossible for children who struggle in reading.
From their evaluation of over 100,000 different studies, the National Reading Panel concluded that a systematic method of phonics instruction had the greatest impact on reading and comprehension and even works with children from low socioeconomic neighborhoods. A systematic method, if introduced early, can reduce reading failure. For a systematic approach to be successful, though, it must teach letter shapes and sounds. For a systematic method to be effective in correcting reading failure, it must teach how to write alphabet letters, words, sentences, and stories. It is especially important that a systematic phonics approach teach lowercase alphabet letters, since we primarily use lowercase letters in reading. To be effective, the systematic phonics teaching approach must also teach decoding and encoding word skills.
Vowels are crucial, and an effective program needs to focus on letter sounds, not whole words. Children need to be taught to sound words out letter-by-letter (Yoncheva, Wise, and McCandliss 2015). Phonemic awareness requires that children recognize that letters represent sounds and that words are composed of letters that systematically represent sounds (sometimes even blended or new sounds). Children must have phonemic awareness or letter sound knowledge in order to learn to read.
For both Camp Sharigan and the Reading Orienteering Club, I use a method of instruction that focuses on phonemic (learning to recognize letter sounds) and phonological (learning to work with letter sounds) awareness. The method that I use is called vowel clustering (Clanton Harpine 2010, 2011 & 2013).
The word phonics has become so misunderstood and distorted that I simply do not use it. You can never tell exactly what the word phonics is being used to describe. I prefer the terms phonemic awareness and phonological awareness.
So, to answer your question, systematic phonics can be effective. It depends on how the word is being used and the actual program it describes.