When students have difficulty learning to read, parents may be told by their child’s teacher, “Your child has difficulty with phonemic awareness.” Many parents walk away from such statement and don’t fully understand what that means. What is phonemic awareness?
Researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have made the following statements:
“Phonemic awareness is more highly related to learning to read… than tests of general intelligence, reading readiness, and listening comprehension.”
“The lack of phonemic awareness is the most powerful determinant of the likelihood of failure to learn to read.” “
Phonemic awareness is the most important core and causal factor for separating normal and disabled readers.”
Based on the statements above, it is clear that phonemic awareness is a critical early reading skill for all children, but such statements still don’t explain exactly what phonemic awareness is. What are those skills, and how can we help children develop them?
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken language. Students who lack these skills cannot distinguish between or manipulate sounds in spoken words. Phonemic awareness is NOT the same as phonics. Phonemic awareness involves sounds only in spoken words therefore tasks are oral. Phonics involves the relationship between sounds and written symbols (letters), and phonics tasks involve print. Phonemic awareness skills are developed before phonics skills.
Specific Phonemic Awareness Skills:
- Phoneme matching: recognizing the same sound in different words. Do mat and mop start with the same sound?
- Phoneme segmentation: breaking a word into its separate sounds. What sounds do you hear in the word dog? What’s the last sound you hear in the word cat?
- Phoneme deletion: recognizing the word that remains when a phoneme is removed. What word is left if the /p/ sound was taken away from pit?
- Phoneme counting: recognizing show many sounds are in a word. How many sounds do you hear in the word bus?
- Phoneme blending: combining separately spoken phonemes by blending them into a real word. What word would you have if you put these sounds together? /c/ /a/ /t/
- Phoneme substitution: substituting one phoneme for another to make a new word. What word would you have if you changed the /m/ in mop to /h/?
- Rhyming: providing a word that rhymes with a given word. Tell me as many words as you can that rhyme with the word hot.
Children with high phonemic awareness skills will learn to read easily, however, a child with limited ability to perform the above tasks will struggle with phonics and reading.
Phonemic Awareness Skill Development:
Many students seem to learn phonemic awareness skills early and easily, with little direct instruction. Others do require direct instruction, but when addressed early, students can be taught these foundational skills for reading and avoid later reading difficulties.
Reading Resources offers some wonderful free activities and materials for building phonemic awareness skills early at home or school.
Many older students who haven’t developed these skills will have an ongoing struggle with reading. These students are the one in five who are identified with a reading disability or dyslexia, and need a structured language approach to reading. It is never too late for these students, because good programs, like Wilson Language Training and the Barton Reading & Spelling System, teach phonemic awareness skills and then build on them.
Written by Elizabeth Hipwell, M.Ed.