What Is Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic Awareness is defined as the ability to identify, hear, and work with the smallest units of sound known as phonemes. It is NOT the same as phonological awareness, instead, it is a sub-category of phonological awareness. For example, phonemic awareness is narrow, and deals only with phonemes and manipulating the individual sounds of words – such as /c/, /a/, and /t/ are the individual sounds that makeup to form the word “cat”. Phonological awareness, on the other hand, includes the phonemic awareness ability, and it also includes the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate larger units of sound such as rimes and onsets.

Phonemic awareness can be taught very early on and will play a critical role in helping children learn to read and spell. While it’s not set in stone on when a child can learn to read, however, I do believe that a child that can speak is a child that can learn to read. Children as young as two years old can learn to read by developing phonemic awareness, and they can learn to read fluently. Please see a video of a 2-year old (2 yr. 11 months) reading below.

Below are several of the most common phonemic awareness skills that are often practiced with students and young children:

  • Phonemic identity – being able to recognize common sounds in different words such as /p/ is the common sound for “pat”, “pick”, and “play”.
  • Phonemic isolation – being able to recognize the individual sounds of words such as /c/ is the beginning sound of “cat” and /t/ is the ending sound of “cat”.
  • Phoneme substitution – being able to change one word to another by substituting one phoneme. For example changing the /t/ in “cat” to /p/ now makes “cap”.
  • Word Segmenting – the parent says the word “lap”, and the child says the individual sounds: /l/, /a/, and /p/.
  • Oral blending – the parent says the individual sounds such as /r/, /e/, and /d/, and the child form the word from the sounds to say “red”.

Studies have found that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of reading success in young children. Research has also found that children with a high level of phonemic awareness progress with high reading and spelling achievements; however, some children with low phonemic awareness experience difficulties in learning to read and spell. Therefore, it is important for parents to help their young children develop good phonemic awareness. [1]

Being able to oral blend and segment words helps children to read and spell. According to the National Reading Panel, oral blending helps children develop reading skills where printed letters are turned into sounds which combine to form words. Additionally, word segmenting helps children break down words into their individual sounds (phonemes), and helps children learn to spell unfamiliar words.

As a young child begins to develop and master phonemic awareness skills, they will discover an entirely new world in print and reading. You will open up their world to a whole new dimension of fun and silliness. They will be able to read books that they enjoy, develop a better understanding of the world around them through printed materials, and have a whole lot of fun by making up new nonsense words through phonemic substitutions.

For example, we taught our daughter to read at a young age – when she was a little over 2 and a half years old. Before she turned three, she would run around the house saying all types of silly words using phonemic substitution. One of her favorites was substituting the letter sound /d/ in “daddy” with the letter sound /n/. So, she would run around me in circles and repeatedly say “nanny, nanny, come do this” or “nanny, nanny, come play with me” etc… Of course, she only did this when she wanted to be silly and to make me laugh, at other times, she would of course properly refer to me as “daddy”, and not “nanny”. She is well aware of the differences between these words and is fully capable of using phonemic substitution to change any of the letters in the words to make other words.

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NOTES:

1. 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.

Phonemic Awareness Research

Phonemic Awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds which make up words. In the past few decades, large amounts of research have improved our understanding of phonemic awareness and its importance in helping children learn to read. There are hundreds of research studies conducted on all aspects of phonemic awareness, and how it affects and benefits reading and spelling abilities of young children. The National Reading Panel of the US has stated that phonemic awareness improves children’s reading and reading comprehension and that it also helps children to learn to spell. Based on the research and reviews done by the National Reading Panel, they have concluded that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness produces better reading results than whole language programs.

When teaching phonemic awareness, children are taught the smallest units of sound, or phonemes. During the teaching process, children are taught to focus on the phonemes and learn to manipulate the phonemes in words. Studies have identified phonemic awareness and letter knowledge as the two best school-entry predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first 2 years of instruction. In a review of phonemic awareness research, the National Reading Panel (NRP) identified 1,962 citations, and the results of their meta-analysis were impressive as stated in the NRP publication:

Overall, the findings showed that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness (PA).

Specifically, the results of the experimental studies led the Panel to conclude that PA training was the cause of improvement in students’ phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling following training. The findings were replicated repeatedly across multiple experiments and thus provide converging evidence for causal claims. [1]

As can be clearly seen, teaching children phonemic awareness early on significantly improves their reading and spelling abilities. Furthermore, the NRP research stated that these beneficial effects of phonemic awareness teaching go 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.

Phonemic awareness (PA) teaching provides children with an essential foundation of the alphabet system, and a foundation in reading and spelling. The NRP has stated that PA instructions is a necessary instructional component within a complete reading program.

Below are two other studies were done on phonemic awareness, and its effects on reading abilities. In a study involving children aged 6 to 7 years old, researchers found that the few readers at the beginning of grade one exhibited high phonemic awareness scored at least close to perfect in the vowel substitution task, compared to none in children of the same age group who could not read when they entered school. The research also stated that phonemic awareness differences before instruction predicted the accuracy of alphabetic reading and spelling at the end of grade one independent from IQ. Children with high phonemic awareness at the start of grade one had a high reading and spelling achievements at the end of grade one; however, some of the children with low phonemic awareness had difficulties learning to read and spell. The study suggested that phonemic awareness is the critical variable for the progress in learning to read. [2]

Another study looked at phonemic awareness and emergent literacy skills of 42 children with an average age of 5 years and 7 months. The researchers indicated that relations between phonemic awareness and spelling skills are bidirectional where phonemic awareness improved spelling skills, and spelling influenced the growth in phonemic skills. [3]

It is clear that with the conclusions made by the National Reading Panel and other research studies on the benefits of phonemic awareness, children should be taught PA at a young age before entering school. This helps them build a strong foundation for learning to read and spell.

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NOTES:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Exp Child Psychol. 2002 Jun;82(2):93-115.
Emergent literacy skills and training time uniquely predict variability in responses to phonemic awareness training in disadvantaged kindergartners.
Hecht SA, Close L.

How to Teach Phonemic Awareness While Reading Bedtime Stories

Helping young children develop phonemic awareness early on is one of the keys for children to develop exceptional reading and writing skills once they begin attending schools. Did you know that studies have indicated that phonemic awareness is the single best predictor of reading success for young children once they begin school? In fact, studies have found that phonemic awareness is far better than IQ at predicting the reading and spelling abilities of young children.

Most people know about phonics, and what it is; however, far fewer people know what phonemic awareness is. In short, phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and work with the phonemes. For example, /d/, /o/, and /g/, are the individual sounds of the word “dog”. Please note, the letters enclosed in the slashes denote the sound of the letter and not the name of the letter. Phonemes are the smallest units of individual sounds that form a word.

Phonemic awareness is not something you’re born with, and it is an ability that’s gained through repeated exposure to listening, speaking, and reading. As parents, there are many different strategies you can use to help your children develop phonemic awareness such as playing simple word segmentation or oral blending games.

Like most parents, we (my wife and I) read bedtime stories before we put our children to sleep, and one of the best strategies that we like to use to teach phonemic awareness to our children is to mix in word segmenting and oral blending when we read bedtime stories for our kids. This is an exceptional method because it doesn’t take any extra time or effort, since reading bedtime stories is something you already do. So, here’s how to go about it.

Let’s say that you’re reading a nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill”:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

Instead of reading each word straight through the rhyme, you can randomly mix in oral blending on various words in the rhyme. Please note: instead of using slashes “/” to denote phonemes, we’ll simply use hyphens to make it easier to read. So, let’s assume that your child is very young, perhaps 2, 3, or 4 years old, and you want to start helping them develop some phonemic awareness. You can read Jack and Jill like so:

J-ack and J-ill went up the h-ill
To fetch a p-ail of water.
J-ack fell down and broke his crown
And J-ill came tumbling after.

As you can see, when you read the rhyme, you simply make an effort to separate several of the first letters sounds from the words, such as /J/ from “ack”, and /J/ from “ill”. 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:

Jack
J-ack
J-a-ck

Repeated exposure of this type of word segmenting and oral blending will slowly help your child develop a sense and an understanding that each word is made up of 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!

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NOTES:

1. 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.