Phonemic awareness (PA) and phonics are the building blocks of any strong reading program. In fact, research suggests that phonemic awareness is the best single predictor of students’ reading success and is usually learned by the end of first grade (Armstrong, 2003; Cunningham, 2007; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Sensenbaugh, 1996). Phonemic awareness is not only effective with reading, but it is extremely helpful with spelling and writing as well.
So What Exactly IS Phonemic Awareness?
First, let’s start with understanding phonemic awareness and what it means. A phoneme is a basic unit of sound–a single sound /b/ or a combination of sounds as in /f/ from (phone) that make one continuous sound. It’s very important when you are discussing phonemic awareness, that you use the right terminology with students. Make sure you say SOUND and not LETTER. There are 44 sounds (phonemes) in the English language. Phonics is the melding of phonemic awareness with letter sound relationships (which comes later).
Phonemic awareness is composed of 9 different types of skills needed to understand how words are a series of sounds, and putting those sounds together creates words. (The number and types of phonemic awareness tasks vary from researcher to researcher, so I’m going to stick with 9 for now.) As students progress, they learn how to manipulate those sounds to become better at recognizing them, and with progress students learn to transfer those skills to learning how to read and spell. What’s cool about phonemic awareness is that children (or adults) don’t really need to know how to read in order to be taught basic phonemic awareness concepts–phonemic awareness is the most basic building block of literacy and it is based on sound.
Nine Types of Phonemic Awareness
- Phoneme Isolation (What is the first sound in hat?)
- Phoneme Identity (What sound is the same in Pan, Pear, and Peach?)
- Phoneme Categorization (Which word doesn’t belong? Fun, Fit, Hat)
- Phoneme Blending–students put sounds together to make a word (What word is /p/ /o/ /p/?)
- Phoneme Segmentation–students break a word into its individual sounds(What sounds do you hear in pen? /p/ /e/ /n/)
- Phoneme Deletion–students recognize a word that remains after a sound has been removed from the original word (What is trail without the /r/ sound?)
- Phoneme Addition–students recognize a word when a sound has been added to the original word. (What word do you have when you add /c/ to the beginning of art?)
- Phoneme Substitution–students substitute one sound for another. (The word is run. Change /r/ to /f/ and what word do you have?)
- Rhyming–students recognize phoneme patterns and can imitate the sounds with real and made up words. (What word rhymes with book?)
In the National Reading Panel report from 2000, blending and segmenting are the most important skills to master simply because they are also the precursors to spelling and writing.
A Case for Phonemic Awareness
A simple Google search will give you more than enough credible and noteworthy web sites and resources encouraging schools to incorporate a strong beginning phonemic awareness program. Why? Because phonemic awareness is a “pre-reading” skill and if students don’t master this skill in the earlier grades, they will have significant difficulty with mastering reading in years to come. If your curriculum does not have a strong phonemic awareness program, consider that to be a red flag. And the phonemic awareness program should not stop in first grade. It continues every year as a word study component with increasingly more difficult words (meaning multisyllabic) requiring students to manipulate sounds with these words. In addition, phonemic awareness skills should never be taught without making connections to reading and writing–it should not be taught in exclusion of a good reading program.
However, it appears that these ‘‘oral activities are being seriously neglected’’ especially for older students, because phonemic awareness is not a reading skill that is measured in most school districts (Szabo, 2010). Moreover, because phonemic awareness assessment is missing, teachers assume that their students have developed this literacy skill. Not so … which leads us to …
Phonemic Awareness for Dyslexic Students
Research shows that special education students and struggling readers will make gains if they are taught in a sequential, systematic fashion, and this includes learning phonemic awareness–regardless of grade level or age. As stated before phonemic awareness is the number one skill for all readers–and this means dyslexic students need more of it. According to Mary Kines from Midwestern State University, an appropriate adaptation or intervention in phonemic awareness should also include the following components:
- Simultaneous (sequential) and Multisensory (as with Orton Gillingham programs)
- Systematic and Cumulative (logical and builds and concepts)
- Direct Instruction (explicit instruction with lots of teacher feedback)
- Diagnostic Teaching (progress monitoring for mastery learning)
- Comprehensive and Inclusive (it is not taught in exclusion of other good reading strategies and components even if a child is dyslexic).
Dyslexic students of any age really do benefit from a phonemic awareness program. There are plenty of stand alone phonemic based programs out there if you do not have one integrated into your curriculum or if you want an intervention for dyslexic students.
Also, there are plenty of resources on the web to find materials and activities to promote phonemic awareness. Do a quick search in Amazon.com to find more books, teacher resources, and student materials.
Older Children Need Phonemic Awareness Too by Susan Szabo http://www.tesolmedia.com/docs/TJ/firstissue/10_TJ_Szabo.pdf
Dyslexia by Mary Wines http://education.mwsu.edu/dyslexia/pdf/Dyslexia-Facts.pdf
National Reading Panel, 2000 http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/national_reading_panel.cfm