Teaching Phonemic Awareness – Your Questions Answered

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Reading is not only an extremely complex cognitive process, but it can also be taxing for young children learning to read. The brain tasks associated with reading can be made easier with instruction in the five components of reading. Phonemic awareness is one of those components that stands as a pillar in the foundation of reading. I’m here today to answer some important questions when it comes to teaching phonemic awareness.

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Teaching phonemic awareness has an important impact on reading success and is one of the five components of reading instruction!

Teaching Phonemic Awareness – Your Questions Answered

Teaching reading is a big task. Big enough that a comprehensive approach needs to be taken, which is why research now identifies that reading instruction should include five components:

  • phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and identify phonemes, the smallest units of sound
  • phonics – the sound/grapheme relationship of letters and combinations make words and meaning
  • fluency – the ability to read with ease, to read accurately, quickly, and expressively
  • vocabulary – the knowledge of word meaning
  • comprehension – using the four other components to conjure meaning in a written passage

Exclude one of those components and children may suffer in their reading skills and experience unnecessary difficulty in learning to read.

Phonemic awareness is just the first step to effective reading instruction. Following this, in the next few months, will be more posts about the five components of reading and how teachers can be sure to include each within their reading instruction.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Simply put, phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and identify phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound. For example, what sound is at the beginning of the word “sat?” The phonemes that make up the word sat are /s/, /a/, and /t/. The first sound (or phoneme) in the word is /s/.

Phonemic awareness is NOT phonics.

Also, phonemic awareness is strictly auditory.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

According to the National Reading Panel, phonemic awareness is an important component of effective reading instruction. So important, in fact, that it has been labeled the number one predictor of how likely a child is to succeed in reading.

It makes sense. Children who struggle to hear individual sounds will have difficulty decoding those sounds in words and spelling, thus making reading slow and comprehension difficult. It requires children to notice how sounds are associated with language, thus priming them for learning phonics, where sounds meet written symbols.

On the other hand, children who have strong phonemic awareness skills are more likely to have an easier time learning to read, comprehend, and spell than their counterparts.

But… Phonemic Awareness is Difficult

Take a look at some numbers and facts:

  • There are 26 letters in the English language.
  • But, there are approximately 44 phonemes. That’s almost twice as many sounds in the English language as there are letters to represent those sounds.
  • And, those 44 sounds are represented by over 250 spellings!

So, How is Phonemic Awareness Developed?

Simply put? Through language. While many children pick up on various phonemic awareness skills via singing songs, hearing poems, and doing fingerplays, phonemic awareness can also be taught explicitly.

Teachers can also use songs, poems, and fingerplays to teach phonemic awareness, but explicit instruction is typically more systematic, allowing teachers to be sure all the different skills are taught effectively.

What Are Phonemic Awareness Skills?

  • Blending – What words am I trying to say? Mmmmm… aaaaa… t.
  • Phoneme Identification (first sound isolation) – What sound do you hear at the beginning of the word mat?
  • Phoneme Identification (last sound isolation) – What sound do you hear at the end of the word mat?
  • Phoneme Identification (medial sound isolation) – What sound do you hear in the middle of the word mat?
  • Segmentation – What sounds do you hear in the word mat? /m/, /a/, /t/.
  • Deletion – Say “cart.” Now say “cart” but without the sound /t/. The student should recognize that “car” is the word left by deleting the phoneme. This works with any phoneme in any position of the word.
  • Substitution – Say “cat.” Now change /c/ to /m/. The student should recognize that the word becomes “mat” when you substitute the phoneme.

What are Some Tips for Teaching Phonemic Awareness?

For success in teaching phonemic awareness, try some of these tips:

  • Understand the meaning of phonemic awareness and how it differs from phonics.
  • Produce accurate speech sounds.
  • Use a developmental continuum for instruction.
  • Link phonemic awareness to reading and spelling instruction.

What Else Does Research Say About Phonemic Awareness?

  • “One of the most compelling and well-established findings in the research on beginning reading is the important relationship between phonemic awareness and reading acquisition.” (Kame’enui, et. al., 1997 in Effective Teaching Strategies That Accommodate Diverse Learners)
  • “The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units (phonemic awareness).” (Lyon, 1995 in Annals of Dyslexia)
  • “Reading and phonemic awareness are mutually reinforcing: Phonemic awareness is necessary for reading, and reading, in turn, improves phonemic awareness still further.” (Shaywitz, 2003 in Overcoming Dyslexia)

What About Preschool Literacy Instruction?

Just like teaching reading in kindergarten and above consists of five important pillars of instruction, preschool literacy is also guided by its own four components. Check out these articles for more information about how to teach literacy in an early childhood classroom:

***As we continue to learn about the Science of Reading, we want to be up-to-date so that our articles are research-based. This post has recently been updated to be Science of Reading aligned.***

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