You may have heard the term phonemic awareness but perhaps you’ve confused it with phonics. Or you know that it’s not phonics, but you’re not really sure exactly what it is!
Phonemic awareness is a big name for a very small part of the reading process, and yet it happens to be crucial to learning to read. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of separate sounds—and the ability to manipulate those sounds in various ways.
Big deal, you might say. Can’t everyone do that? As it turns out, they can’t. Most children start school able to discriminate letter sounds, called phonemes, e.g., mat versus man. However, that discrimination isn’t necessarily at a conscious level. Research has shown that we hear a syllable as one acoustic unit, but we need to break it down into individual segments to analyze it. The catch is that we have to learn how to do this. It doesn’t happen naturally. And as with all learning, some children find this easier than others.
You might wonder why phonemic awareness is so important. Here’s why: It's essential for reading success. It enables children to benefit from phonics instruction, and being able to sound out words is the most important clue to identifying them. Context can help confirm that a word has been sounded out correctly, but it isn’t efficient as a first clue.
There are many different phonemic awareness tasks, such as rhyming, isolating a sound from a word, blending letter sounds into words, segmenting the sounds, or moving sounds around by adding, deleting, or substituting them. Some of these tasks are relatively easy and some not so much. For example, in a blending task, a child might be asked what word /s/ /a/ /t/ is (sat). A deletion task, also known as elision, requires a student to take away the /k/ sound in clap and say that lap is the word that’s left. A substitution task might require a student to take away the /s/ sound in side and replace it with a /t/ sound so that side becomes tide.
Incidentally, phonemic awareness isn’t phonics. Phonics instruction teaches children which letters are associated with which phonemes and why. You’ll often hear phonics referred to as decoding—and that readers who understand and can apply the relationship between letters and sounds can “break” the code. Pretty cool, don’t you think? Breaking the code is empowering to new readers.
Can you sound out these nonsense words? clag spanthet
Of course, you’re able to apply your knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and the rules that govern them because you’re a skilled reader and can do this automatically. We want children to be able to do this automatically too whenever they encounter words in print that they’ve never seen before. If they struggle with decoding, their cognitive resources are diverted from the demands of comprehension.
Getting back to phonemic awareness, it's fortunate that many children can acquire this skill from activities at home before they even enter kindergarten, and these can be presented in a fun way. For example, parents can encourage awareness of sounds within words by reading and reciting nursery or other rhymes aloud and inviting children to create their own. There are also many children’s books that emphasize rhyme, alliteration, or assonance. Similarly, children can play rhyming or alliteration games or repeat or create tongue twisters. Or they can clap or tap out each syllable in a word, make up sentences that contain words that start (or end) with a particular sound, or play with language in myriad ways. I’m always pleased when I hear young children spontaneously making up words that rhyme or start with the same letter, such as mitten kitten sitten shmitten. Or p-p-p-p-Peter.
Not all children will acquire phonemic awareness from these informal activities at home. Some will need direct instruction in the classroom. But while it’s preferable for this to occur in kindergarten or first grade, phonemic awareness can also be successfully taught to older students.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with this important topic!
Dr. Andrea Winokur Kotula is an educational consultant for families, advocates, attorneys, schools, and hospitals. She has conducted hundreds of comprehensive educational evaluations for children, adolescents, and adults.