Understanding the Science of Reading

The Foundational Importance of Phonemic Awareness

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Phonemic awareness, although of great importance, is one of the least understood components of reading instruction. Less than a third of teacher prep programs reviewed by the National Council for Teacher Quality are providing training in phonemic awareness. This is probably why many teachers and teacher educators have misconceptions about phonemic awareness and have trouble identifying the definition and applying the skill, like counting the number of phonemes within words. Yet, phonemic awareness is the foundation for instruction in word-level reading skills and the typical deficit of a student with dyslexia.

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to distinguish, synthesize, and manipulate the smallest sounds (or phonemes) in words that make a difference in the word’s meaning. There are 4 phonemes in the words clap (/k/, /l/, /ă/, /p/), shapes (/sh/, /ā/, /p/, /s/), box (/b/, /ŏ/, /k/, /s/), and quick (/k/, /w/, /ĭ/, /k/) even though each of those words has a different number of letters.

Levels of phonemic awareness organized by complexity

To demonstrate phonemic awareness, try each of the following tasks:

The answers are at the bottom of the post!

Why does phonemic awareness matter?

According to research, phonemic analysis skills in kindergarten are the best predictors of later reading achievement (even better than word reading or IQ). Deficits in phonemic awareness abilities consistently separate children with and without a disability in word-level reading (i.e., dyslexia). These deficits persist into adulthood if adequate intervention is not given. We also have a large body of research evidence that suggests instruction in phonemic awareness promotes the acquisition of reading skills.

In order to sound out a word, a child must not only match each letter in the word to its corresponding sound, but then also synthesize, or blend, those sounds together. Even if children have all of the phonics knowledge in the world, without phonemic awareness the child will be left at guessing what the actual words on the page say. For example, one little boy in my first grade class at the beginning of the year picked up the book, “The Hill” to read to me. He promptly said “the” (had clearly memorized it in Kindergarten) and then went on to sounding out the next word. /h/….. /ĭ/…… /l/……, /h/….. /ĭ/…… /l/……, /h/….. /ĭ/…… /l/……, /h/… /ĭ/…. /l/…, /h/… /ĭ/…. /l/…, /h/… /ĭ/…. /l/… He couldn’t synthesize the sounds together and pronounce the word “Hill.”

A few children come into PreK with this skill. Some pick up this skill more naturally along the way. Others don’t. For children at-risk of reading difficulties, phonemic awareness is the most common deficit. Yet studies suggest this is the skill least likely to be taught in intervention for students with reading difficulties, accounting for less than 2% of total reading intervention time.

What are some common misconceptions about phonemic awareness?

There are still many misconceptions around phonemic awareness. Many people conflate phonemic awareness with phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to distinguish, synthesize, and manipulate the sounds of the English language. This is the bigger umbrella term over phonemic awareness. It includes rhyming, word awareness (separating words in sentences), syllable awareness, onset-rime awareness (str-ing, spl-ash, b-ig), and phonemic awareness skills.

The problem with conflating the two is that phonemic skills are the high-impact skills. These are the ones that are directly correlated with reading (to sound out and read a word, you must have phonemic blending skills) and spelling (to break apart the sounds and connect them to letters, you must be able to segment phonemes). So when teachers work on rhyming or clapping syllables, there is no direct effect on word reading. If this time was spent instead on phonemic awareness skills, more direct benefits would ensue.

Another misconception is that you must first teach students how to rhyme or segment syllables before moving onto phonemic awareness tasks. This is not true. Although rhyming and syllable awareness are less complex skills, it does not mean they are prerequisites to phonemic awareness or even that working on these skills first will show a benefit to phonemic awareness lessons in the future. Teachers can go straight to phonemic awareness games and tasks with students before they even know their letter sounds. These two skills of phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondences can be taught simultaneously–that is where the most “bang for your buck” will be found in the early grades. Phonemic awareness also plays a large role in orthographic mapping–or turning unfamiliar words into familiar, sight words (but that is a whole other future post).

The last is more of a misunderstanding than a misconception. When pronouncing the phonemes, it’s important to hold continuous sounds (like /fffff/, /shhhhh/, /sssss/, /lllllll/, /mmmm/) and make sure to not add an “uh” at the end of clipped sounds (like “buh” for /b/ or “juh” for /j/). Saying the sounds in the most pure way possible will help students to better understand how to segment and blend sounds themselves.

How can this look in a PreK or Kindergarten classroom?

When I taught PreK and Kindergarten, these are some of the games we played to work specifically on phonemic awareness:

Phonemic awareness is the foundation underlying all of reading. It’s what separates poor word readers from skilled word readers. And, it can be taught.

So go have fun! Teach your 2, 3, or 4 year old phonemic awareness skills at home to get them on the path to reading. Share this info with their teachers. And include the neighbors in on your games too!

[Answers to phonemic tasks: /s/, “cute,” /s/-/w/-/ĭ/-/sh/-/t/, quite, whip, quick]

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