Before learning to read, we first must learn to hear.
What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic Awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the individual sounds that form words. For instance, the word cat is formed by the following individual sounds (or phonemes): /c/ /a/ /t/. Using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), this word would be represented like this: “kæt”. Obviously, this is for your reference only. Do not try to teach this to a young child!
But the number of letters does not always match the number of sounds on a word. Take a look at these examples:
• Chat: It has 4 letters but 3 phonemes. /ch/ /a/ /t/
In order to represent the first sound on this word (that in the phonics alphabet is represented as ʧ), we use the letter combination ch. International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) representation: ʧæt
• Book: Again 4 letter, but 3 phonemes. /b/ /u/ /k/ IPA: bʊk
- Laugh: 5 letters, but 3 phonemes /l/ /a/ /f/ IPA: læf
A person with Phonemic Awareness is trained to identify these individual sounds that make up words, called phonemes.
Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonological Awareness
Phonemic Awareness should not be confused with Phonological Awareness. Many people think that these two terms are the same, and use them as if there were synonyms. But this is wrong.
Phonemic Awareness is in fact a sub-category of Phonological Awareness.
Phonological Awareness includes the Phonemic Awareness ability, but it also includes the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate larger units of sound such as rimes, onsets and syllables.
For example, someone with Phonological Awareness would be able to recognize words that rhyme, would be able to segment sentences into words and words into syllables.
Think of Phonological Awareness as a broad skill. And, of Phonemic Awareness, as a narrow skill… When you end up with the minimal units of sound that form words (phonemes) and you are able to manipulate these, you have Phonemic Awareness.
Why is Phonemic Awareness So Important?
Phonemic Awareness is one of the most important pre-reading skills that children can develop. It plays a critical role in helping children learn to read and spell.
In fact, it has been recognized by the National Reading Panel (NRP)* as the basis for learning phonics, improving children’s word reading and reading comprehension, and helping children learn to spell.
Teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness. – statement made by the National Reading Pane
Furthermore, the National Reading Panel research stated that these beneficial effects of phonemic awareness teaching goes well beyond the end of training period.
The NRP phonemic awareness research also found that the most effective teaching method was to systematically teach children to manipulate phonemes with letters, and teaching children in small groups.
Studies have found that Phonemic Awareness is the best predictor of reading success in young children, and subsequent reading progress. In fact, it has been found that Phonemic Awareness is far better than IQ at predicting the reading and spelling abilities of young children.* Hence, it is crucial to encourage phonemic awareness at home from an early age.
Students with reading difficulties tend to have lower levels of Phonemic Awareness. “The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units (phonemic awareness)”*(see sources / references).
The good news is that there are ways to teach and encourage Phonemic Awareness!
Look at the exercises below (go to the section entitled “Phonemic Awareness Activities and Exercises”). You can use these exercises and activities with young children and with struggling older readers.
Levels of Phonemic Awareness skills:
• Phonemic identity: Being able to recognize common sounds in different words. Example: /s/ is the common sound for “sat”, “sit”, and “sink”.
• Phonemic isolation: Being able to recognize the individual sounds of words. Example: /b/ is the initial sound of the word “bus” and /s/ is the ending sound of the word “bus”.
• Phoneme substitution: Being able to change one word to another by substituting one phoneme. For example, when you change the /h/ sound in “hat” to a /p/ sound you get the word “pat”. Phoneme substitution can take place for initial sounds (hat-pat), middle sounds (hat-hot) or ending sounds (hat-ham).
• Word Segmenting: Being able to isolate the individual sounds of a given word. Example: parent says the word “mat”, and the child says the individual sounds: /m/, /a/, and /t/.
• Oral blending: Being able to push all the individual sounds together to actually end up with a word. For instance, the parent says the individual sounds /b/, /e/, and /d/, and the child forms the word from the sounds and says “bed”.
• Sound deletion: Being able to delete sounds in given words. You say a word and ask your child to repeat the word without the first sound/last sound, etc. For example, you say the word “cat” and ask your child to repeat the word without the “/c/” sound.
Why Teaching Phonemic Awareness can be Difficult?
Phonemic Awareness does not happen naturally and needs to be taught and encouraged at home.
- Sometimes adults themselves lack the ability of phonemic awareness, and need to be trained themselves. This can be even more complicated if adults relax their diction without being aware that they are doing such thing. This habit is copied by the child and makes the development of Phonemic Awareness more complicated. For instance, some adults tend to relax the ending sound in words, such us the /d/ sound in the word “hand”.
Other challenges in the development of Phonemic Awareness are:
- English has way more sounds that letters. To be precise, English has 44 + sounds, but only 26 letters to represent those sounds. To make up for those extra sounds, we resort to letter combination sounds, such us the “c”+ “h”, letter combination sound, that we find in words, such us “chat”, “church” or “chase”. Or the “s” + “h” letter combination sound that we find in words such us, “shoe”, “ship” or “shine”. As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, the number of letters in a word doesn’t necessarily match with the number of individual sounds in a word. This can be a really tricky concept to grasp.
- Sounds in English can be represented in various ways. Think of the sound /k/, which can be represented with a “c”, as in cat, or with a “k”, as in “kite”, or “ck”, as in “brick”, or even “ch”, as in “school”. In order to teach your child all of this, it would be recommended to get familiar with the 44+ English sounds and its possible spellings.
You can download our FREE chart of the 44 + English sounds here!
- To make things even more confusing for children, sounds can be coarticulated. We really need to make an effort to separate them from each other because we don’t speak in single sounds! And when we speak normal words and sentences every sound influences its surrounding sounds (preceding and following sounds).
As we said before, this is a skill that needs to be trained, because it does not happen naturally, as speaking does.
Below you will find some exercises to train your child’s ears and encourage Phonemic Awareness skills.
Phonemic Awareness Activities and Exercises
Phonemic Awareness Activity #1:
What is the first sound that you hear in these words?
Phonemic Awareness Activity #2:
Which of these words starts with a different sound?
Phonemic Awareness Activity #3:
What is the last sound that you hear on these words?
Phonemic Awareness Activity #4:
What is the common sound in these words?
Phonemic Awareness Activity #5:
Clap as many times as the number of sounds you hear in this word.
Develop phonemic awareness from an early age…
At home… In sneaky ways!
- When you are reading bedtime stories to your child… Try mixing word segmenting and oral blending when reading bedtime stories!
This is a great method because it doesn’t take any extra time or effort since reading bedtime stories is probably something that you already do.
You can very easily start to /implement this strategy with very little children!Confusing? Ok, let’s put an example!Let’s say that you’re reading a nursery rhyme to your child:“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water”.Instead of reading all straight through the rhyme, you can randomly mix in oral blending on various words in the rhyme. You can read like this: “J-ack and J-ill went up the h-ill to f-etch a pale of water”.Simply make an effort to separate the first letter sounds from the words such as /J/ from Jack and Jill, /h/ from hill or /f/ from fetch.As your child begins to grasp the concept of individual sounds making up words, you can slowly increase the difficulty by breaking down each word further.For example: “J-a-ck and J-i-ll went up the h-i-ll…”Repeating this type of word segmenting and blending will slowly help your child develop a sense and an understanding of the concept of words made up by individual sounds.In other words, you are teaching Phonemic Awareness to your children during bedtime stories without them even knowing that they are being taught to.
- Read/ Listen to Nursery rhymes
We picked the example of a nursery rhyme before for a reason.
Reading nursery rhymes is an excellent way to encourage Phonemic and Phonological Awareness on your child from an early age.As the name implies, they all full of rhymes!Nursery Rhymes will also help your child develop other pre-reading skills.By the way, you can download our beautiful book of nursery rhymes completely for FREE here.
- Take words from your everyday speaking to your child and include oral blending sounds into your sentences.For example, if you wanted to ask your child to sit on his bottom you could say: “Joe, s-it on your b-ottom”.The words sit and bottom are sounded out slowly and distinctly.
You could also pick different words and play blending sounds games with your child.Some sample words which you can use to play blending sounds activities with your child are:s-i-t
As you may have noticed, the first word on the examples is more segmented than the second word and will be more difficult to sound out. This strategy can be applied to words with increasing difficulty.
- Come up with words that begin with the same sound, such as “Sarah, sand, soup, sit, sound”. Then, make up a silly story with all the words that you have come up with. “Sarah was sitting on the sand having soup when she heard a sound”
- Play rhyming games. Come up with words that rhyme: call, mall, fall, tall, small…
Practice and Repetition!
Please always keep in mind that not all children can easily blend the sounds to hear the word from day one so you must be patient. Continue to do this on a regular basis. Consistency and frequency is the key to success here
It is also important to remember that with these techniques you are not teaching the names of the letters to them. You are focusing on the sounds instead.
This type of ear training for Phonics and Phonemic Awareness should continue throughout the teaching process even well after your time your child has understood this concept.
How to recognize if there is a lack of Phonemic Awareness?
Do you suspect that your child may lack phonemic awareness? This is what you need to pay attention to…
Children lacking Phonemic Awareness Skills cannot*:
• group words with similar and dissimilar sounds (mat, mug, sun)
• blend and split syllables (f oot) blend sounds into words (m_a_n)
• segment a word as a sequence of sounds (e.g., fish is made up of three phonemes, /f/ , /i/, /sh/)
• detect and manipulate sounds within words (change r in run to s).
Phonemic Awareness at school
Phonemic Awareness should be a top priority in reading instruction, especially during the first two years of schooling.
Some students may need to devote more time to activities aimed at the development of Phonemic Awareness, but, in general, it has been found* that as little as 10-20 minutes of Phonemic Awareness instruction 3 times a week is enough to increase Phonemic Awareness performance in children significantly.
Some groups of students that tend to require more time / more individualized Phonemic Awareness instruction are dyslexic students, students with hearing disorders or students whose first language is not English.
The good news is that these groups of students can also develop Phonemic Awareness. It just takes more time, a more individualized approach and continuous repetition until they have grasped the concept of Phonemic Awareness.
What are the next steps after developing Phonemic Awareness?
The development of phonemic awareness is a means to an end. Our final purpose is to make the journey of learning to read easier for your child, avoiding reading difficulties.
After your child has mastered the concept of Phonemic Awareness, and therefore is able to recognize and manipulate the phonemes in words, it is time to start teaching Phonics.
Ideally, you should start teaching your child the alphabet letters and its corresponding sounds AT THE SAME TIME.
This is very important: teach letter names and letter sounds at the same time. Studies* have found that there is little value in teaching letter names and/or letter sounds separately.
Besides, instruction incorporating Phonemic Awareness activities and explicit teaching of letter-sound reinforces children’s phonemic awareness and understanding of the alphabetic principle.
The effects of training phonemic awareness and learning to read are mutually supportive. “Reading and phonemic awareness are mutually reinforcing: Phonemic awareness is necessary for reading, and reading, in turn, improves phonemic awareness still further.” (Shaywitz, 2003)
In other words, when you start teaching your child letter names and letter sounds you are improving his/her Phonemic Awareness skills.
These skills will be key for future successful reading instruction. Learning to read itself using phonics will also increase his/her Phonemic Awareness skills even further.
References / Sources:
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. 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: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Cognition. 1991 Sep;40(3):219-49.
The relationship of phonemic awareness to reading acquisition: more consequence than precondition but still important. Wimmer H, Landerl K, Linortner R, Hummer P. University of Salzburg, Austria.
Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui. (1997). Vocabulary acquisition: Research bases. In Simmons, D. C. & Kame’enui, E. J. (Eds.), What reading research tells us about children with diverse learning needs: Bases and basics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Supporting Phonemic Awareness Development in the Classroom
Hallie Kay Yopp and Ruth Helen Yopp
The Reading Teacher
Vol. 54, No. 2, Children’s Choices for 2000 Phonemic Awareness Multiple Sign Systems (Oct., 2000), pp. 130-143 (14 pages)
Published By: International Literacy Association
J Exp Child Psychol. 2009 Sep;104(1):68-88. Epub 2009 Mar 5.
The genesis of reading ability: what helps children learn letter-sound correspondences? Castles A, Coltheart M, Wilson K, Valpied J, Wedgwood J. Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.
Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children.
“The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units (phonemic awareness)” Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.