Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


11th International Conference; Dublin, Ireland; 2022

Event Details

Previous Page


Invited Paper Session #50
Phonological Abstraction is a Critical Prereading Skill - Without it, Learning to Decode (Sound Out) Untaught Words is Severely Compromised
Friday, September 2, 2022
3:00 PM–3:50 PM
Area: EDC/EAB; Domain: Basic Research
Chair: Deisy De Souza (Universidade Federal de São Carlos)
CE Instructor: Kathryn Saunders, Ph.D.
Presenting Author: KATHRYN SAUNDERS (The University of Kansas)

Reading is required to thrive in our culture. Yet approximately 20% of children have great difficulty learning to read, including many who have received phonics-based instruction. Unfortunately, problems often occur in developing the foundation upon which further growth depends––reading words that have not been taught directly. That is, many children have difficulty “sounding out” (also called “decoding”) words that are new to them. The absence of this skill has a cascading, long-term negative impact on reading achievement. Over the last few decades, reading scientists have identified previously underappreciated prerequisite and component skills that are critical to success in learning to read novel words. One of the most important skills is termed “phonemic awareness.” Phonemic awareness conforms precisely to Skinner’s conceptualization of abstraction, in that it involves responding to individual elements—small units of sound (phonemes)—that are “smeared together” is within larger complex auditory stimuli (whole syllables). Abstracting phonemes from whole spoken syllables is critical to learning relations between letters and sounds within whole words. Learning the sounds of individual letters, although helpful, does not provide the examples, nonexamples, and contrasts necessary to promote abstraction. The relevance of laboratory work on developing abstraction to problems in reading instruction, especially for children with ID and speech impairments, has made my collaborations with researchers from Speech/Language, Communication Disorders, and Educational Psychology a seamless, not to mention essential, process. I will discuss scientific ties to the reading literature, the inherently interdisciplinary nature of behavior analysis, and illustrate the acceptance of behavior-analytic thinking among researchers who are working together to solve a problem.

Instruction Level: Intermediate
Target Audience:

Scientists interested in determinants of abstraction and concept formation and teachers and speech-language therapists responsible for teaching early prereading skills.

Learning Objectives: At the conclusion of the presentation, participants will be able to: (1) Name the behavioral process that drives phonemic awareness; (2) Explain how to choose exemplar stimuli to promote abstraction, including how the stimuli should relate to one another; (3) Provide a minimal set of examples that would promote attention to and abstraction of vowel sounds in three-letter, consonant-vowel-consonant words.
KATHRYN SAUNDERS (The University of Kansas)
Dr. Saunders is a Senior Scientist in the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, where she is a member of the NICHD-funded Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. Her current primary research interest is in the basic-process informed development of computerized instructional programming for early reading skills, with a specific focus on phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle. There is incontrovertible evidence that the skill of phonemic awareness greatly enhances the benefit that children derive from phonics instruction. Phonemic awareness can be defined as the abstraction of individual phonemes from whole syllables. As such, the conceptualization of how to promote abstraction provided by Skinner (in Verbal Behavior), Englemann and Carnine (In Theory of Instruction) is a scientific interest in common with Speech-Language and Special Education Instructors. In addition to crossing scientific disciplines, her career has combined basic research on relational learning with applied research on the development of individualized instructional programming, and her publication record reflects a combination of publications in both basic and applied journals, the latter in both Behavior Analytic and Speech-Language journals. Her work has been funded nearly continuously for over two decades, primarily by NICHD, but recently by the Institute of Education Sciences. She also has been the PI for two NIH postdoctoral training grants. Dr. Saunders is a Fellow and former President of Division 25 of the American Psychological Association, a Fellow and a former member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), a voting member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, and the 2019 winner of the Distinguished Contribution Award for substantial long-term contributions to the Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior (ABAI). She has served several terms on the editorial boards of JABA, JEAB, and The Behavior Analyst, and as an Associate Editor for the latter two journals, as well as numerous guest reviews for other journals in the fields of BA, Speech-Language, and Intellectual Disabilities.



Back to Top
Modifed by Eddie Soh