Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. Before children learn to read print, they need to become aware of how the sounds in words work. They must understand that words are made up of speech sounds, or phonemes.
Phonemes are the smallest parts of sound in a spoken word that make a difference in the word's meaning. For example, changing the first phoneme in the word hat from /h/ to /p/ changes the word from hat to pat, and so changes the meaning. (A letter between slash marks shows the phoneme, or sound, that the letter represents, and not the name of the letter. For example, the letter h represents the sound /h/.)
Children can show us that they have phonemic awareness in several ways, including:
Children who have phonemic awareness skills are likely to have an easier time learning to read and spell than children who have few or none of these skills.
Although phonemic awareness is a widely used term in reading, it is often misunderstood. One misunderstanding is that phonemic awareness and phonics are the same thing. Phonemic awareness is not phonics. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words. Phonics is the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes and graphemes, the letters that represent those sounds in written language. If children are to benefit from phonics instruction, they need phonemic awareness.
The reason is obvious: children who cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words will have a difficult time learning how to relate these phonemes to the graphemes when they see them in written words.
Another misunderstanding about phonemic awareness is that it means the same as phonological awareness. The two names are not interchangeable. Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness. The focus of phonemic awareness is narrow--identifying and manipulating the individual sounds in words. The focus of phonological awareness is much broader. It includes identifying and manipulating larger parts of spoken language, such as words, syllables, and onsets and rimes--as well as phonemes. It also encompasses awareness of other aspects of sound, such as rhyming, alliteration, and intonation.
Children can show us that they have phonological awareness in several ways, including:
Broader phonological awareness
Identifying and making oral rhymes
Identifying and working with syllables in spoken words
Narrower phonological awareness
Identifying and working with onsets and rimes in spoken syllables
Identifying and working with individual phonemes in words spoken (phonemic awareness)
Here are some definitions of terms used frequently in reading instruction.
A phoneme is the smallest part of spoken language that makes a difference in the meaning of words. English has about 41 phonemes. A few words, such as a or oh, have only one phoneme. Most words, however, have more than one phoneme: The word if has two phonemes (/i/ /f/); check has three phonemes (/ch/ /e/ /k/), and stop has four phonemes (/s/ /t/ /o/ /p/). Sometimes one phoneme is represented by more than one letter.
A grapheme is the smallest part of written language that represents a phoneme in the spelling of a word. A grapheme may be just one letter, such as b, d, f, p, s; or several letters, such as ch, sh, th, -ck, ea, -igh.
Phonics is the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language).
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds--phonemes--in spoken words.
Phonological awareness is a broad term that includes phonemic awareness. In addition to phonemes, phonological awareness activities can involve work with rhymes, words, syllables, and onsets and rimes.
A syllable is a word part that contains a vowel or, in spoken language, a vowel sound (e-vent; news-pa-per; ver-y).
Onsets and rimes are parts of spoken language that are smaller than syllables but larger than phonemes. An onset is the initial consonant(s) sound of a syllable (the onset of bag is b-; of swim, sw-). A rime is the part of a syllable that contains the vowel and all that follows it (the rime of bag is -ag; of swim, -im).
Key findings from the scientific research on phonemic awareness instruction provide the following conclusions of particular interest and value to classroom teachers:
Effective phonemic awareness instruction teaches children to notice, think about, and work with (manipulate) sounds in spoken language. Teachers use many activities to build phonemic awareness, including:
Children recognize individual sounds in a word.
Teacher: What is the first sound in van?
Children: The first sound in van is /v/.
Children recognize the same sounds in different words.
Teacher: What sound is the same in fix, fall, and fun?
Children: The first sound, /f/, is the same.
Children recognize the word in a set of three or four words that has the "odd" sound.
Teacher: Which word doesn't belong? bus, bun, rug. Children: Rug does not belong. It doesn't begin with /b/.
Children listen to a sequence of separately spoken phonemes, and then combine the phonemes to form a word. Then they write and read the word.
Teacher: What word is /b/ /i/ /g/?
Children: /b/ /i/ /g/ is big.
Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in big: /b/, write b; /i/, write i; /g/, write g.
Teacher: (Writes big on the board.) Now we're going to read the word big.
Children break a word into its separate sounds, saying each sound as they tap out or count it. Then they write and read the word.
Teacher: How many sounds are in grab?
Children: /g/ /r/ /a/ /b/. Four sounds.
Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in grab: /g/, write g; /r/, write r; /a/, write a; /b/, write b.
Teacher: (Writes grab on the board.) Now we're going to read the word grab.
Children recognize the word that remains when a phoneme is removed from another word.
Teacher: What is smile without the /s/?
Children: Smile without the /s/ is mile.
Children make a new word by adding a phoneme to an existing word.
Teacher: What word do you have if you add /s/ to the beginning of park?
Children substitute one phoneme for another to make a new word.
Teacher: The word is bug. Change /g/ to /n/. What's the new word?
Phonemic awareness instruction improves children's ability to read words. It also improves their reading comprehension. Phonemic awareness instruction aids reading comprehension primarily through its influence on word reading. For children to understand what they read, they must be able to read words rapidly and accurately. Rapid and accurate word reading frees children to focus their attention on the meaning of what they read. Of course, many other things, including the size of children's vocabulary and their world experiences, contribute to reading comprehension.
Teaching phonemic awareness, particularly how to segment words into phonemes, helps children learn to spell. The explanation for this may be that children who have phonemic awareness understand that sounds and letters are related in a predictable way. Thus, they are able to relate the sounds to letters as they spell words.
When children work with phonemes in words, they are manipulating the phonemes. Types of phoneme manipulation include blending phonemes to make words, segmenting words into phonemes, deleting phonemes from words, adding phonemes to words, or substituting one phoneme for another to make a new word.
When children combine individual phonemes to form words, they are blending the phonemes. They also are blending when they combine onsets and rimes to make syllables and combine syllables to make words.
When children break words into their individual phonemes, they are segmenting the words. They are also segmenting when they break words into syllables and syllables into onsets and rimes.
Phonemic awareness instruction makes a stronger contribution to the improvement of reading and spelling when children are taught to use letters as they manipulate phonemes than when instruction is limited to phonemes alone. Teaching sounds along with the letters of the alphabet is important because it helps children to see how phonemic awareness relates to their reading and writing. Learning to blend phonemes with letters helps children read words. Learning to segment sounds with letters helps them spell words.
If children do not know letter names and shapes, they need to be taught them along with phonemic awareness.
Relating sounds to letters is, of course, the heart of phonics instruction, which is the subject of the next section of this booklet.
Children who receive instruction that focuses on one or two types of phoneme manipulation make greater gains in reading and spelling than do children who are taught three or more types of manipulation.
One possible explanation for this is that children who are taught many different ways to manipulate phonemes may become confused about which type to apply. Another explanation is that teaching many types of manipulations does not leave enough time to teach any one type thoroughly. A third explanation is that instruction that includes several types of manipulations may result in teaching children more difficult manipulations before they acquire skill in the easier ones.
Your instruction to increase children's phonemic awareness can include various activities in blending and segmenting words. Clearly, however, you should provide your students with instruction that is appropriate for their level of literacy development. If you teach younger children or less able, older readers, your instruction should begin with easier activities, such as having children identify and categorize the first phonemes in words. When the children can do these activities, move them on to more difficult ones.
You can use a variety of teaching methods that contribute to children's success in learning to read. However, teaching one or two types of phoneme manipulation--specifically blending and segmenting phonemes in words--is likely to produce greater benefits to your students' reading than teaching several types of manipulation.
Teaching your students to manipulate phonemes along with letters can also contribute to their reading success.
Your instruction should also be explicit about the connection between phonemic awareness and reading. For example:
Teacher: Listen: I'm going to say the sounds in the word jam--/j/ /a/ /m/. What is the word?
Teacher: You say the sounds in the word jam.
Children: /j/ /a/ /m/.
Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in jam: /j/, write j; /a/, write a; /m/, write m.
Teacher: (Writes jam on the board.) Now we're going to read the word jam.
Phonemic awareness instruction can help essentially all of your students learn to read, including preschoolers, kindergartners, first graders who are just starting to read, and older, less able readers.
Phonemic awareness instruction can help most of your students learn to spell. Instruction can be effective with preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders. It can help children from all economic levels.
You do not need to devote a lot of class time to phonemic awareness instruction. Over the school year, your entire phonemic awareness program should take no more than 20 hours.
Your students will differ in their phonemic awareness. Some will need more instruction than others. The best approach is to assess students' phonemic awareness before you begin instruction. Assessment will let you know which students do and do not need the instruction, which students should be taught the easier types of phoneme manipulation (such as identifying initial sounds in words), and which should receive instruction in more advanced types (such as segmenting, blending, deletion/addition, and substitution).
In general, small-group instruction is more effective in helping your students acquire phonemic awareness and learn to read. Small-group instruction may be more effective than individual or whole-group instruction because children often benefit from listening to their classmates respond and receive feedback from the teacher.
Yes. Bear in mind, however, that phonemic awareness instruction is not a complete reading program; it cannot guarantee the reading and writing success of your students. Adding well-thought-out phonemic awareness instruction to a beginning reading program or to a remedial reading program is very likely to help your students learn to read and spell. Whether these benefits are lasting, however,will depend on the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of the entire literacy curriculum.
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Phonemic awareness instruction is most effective