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Phonemic awareness

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

When my 1st child had learned several letters and at least one sound to go with each letter I was excited to have her start reading. I put 3 cards in front of her. Each card had one letter on it. The cards said M-A-T. As I pointed at each card, she dutifully said the sound /m/ /a/ /t/. I was excited that she has just read her first word and next I planned to change the M card to a H and then a C or a B… You get the idea. I was ready for us to celebrate and be excited because she was a reader. I had done this with numerous students in my kindergarten class. They were always excited to go home and show their parents how many words they could read. I wanted to have a great celebration when daddy got home. But she did not hear any word. The sounds were just separate sounds to her. They had not blended into a word. She could not tell me what word she had read. If there is anything more frustrating than listening to the slow, labored way that a 5 year old has to sound out every letter in a word it is having that 5 year old not recognize the word after they have sounded out each letter. I had no idea what to do.

I had been teaching my child phonics. Phonics is teaching the sounds that go with each letter or letter combination. It is one of the 5 components of reading instruction that the National Reading Panel (NRP) found to be essential in their meta-analysis which came out in 2000. People have been talking about the importance of phonics for decades and so I knew that it was important and had always taught phonics in my classes. I had even taken a course called Academics Associates and was tutoring in my home using those materials at the time. With the Academics Associates course, I had learned so much phonics that I had never known existed before. I was seeing the students who came to my home for tutoring improve and my own spelling was improving after learning the new phonics rules. But somehow, I knew that something more was needed. Just knowing what sound the letter was supposed to make didn’t translate into reading at least not yet. Maybe she just wasn’t ready yet? I mean people mature at different rates. Not everyone walks or talks at the same exact time and maybe everyone is not ready to read at exactly 5 or 6 years old. I believe this is an important thing to consider. In this country we stress too much over young children performing well in school. Maybe they just need to be free to be children playing outside and growing a garden and playing house in a big cardboard box for a while longer. So, I tried not to stress either her or myself but that is almost impossible with all the voices I heard telling me that children who are still behind in third grade will never catch up….

Naturally, I began researching. Did she have an auditory processing disorder? Was she dyslexic? What should we do? Eventually we did get an official diagnosis of dyslexia and found the key to unlock the problem and solve the issue. That key for us was phonemic awareness. I hadn’t really known what phonemic awareness was. Do you? Do you know the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics? In the National Reading Panel (NRP) report phonemic awareness was identified as the first of five essential components of essential reading instruction.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate individual sounds in words. When you are working on phonemic awareness you do not even use letters. It is about sounds not letters. It is foundational to reading and a child should have a good grasp of it before trying to sound out words using phonics. “Phonemic awareness has a causal relationship with literacy achievement and understanding it in kindergarten is the single best predictor of later reading and spelling achievement in first and second grade.[i]

A phoneme is a sound. It’s one unit of sound – the smallest unit of speech. It has the ability to make one word distinguishable from another even though they are very similar. For example, “mat” and “hat” have only one phoneme difference. Being able to distinguish and to manipulate these sounds is a prereading skill that will help children succeed with reading. They should be able to do this without knowing about letters. You can simultaneously teach the alphabet names and sounds but this is a separate although related skill.

The good news is that phonemic awareness can be taught even if it does not come naturally. It has been studied and we know what is easier and harder and how to arrange what is taught so that it seems easy at first and gradually becomes more challenging. For example, at first you can have your child say “bookcase” and then say it without the “book”. As you can see this is starting out with compound words and not a small phoneme. This stage should be easy, and a kindergarten age child should be able to do it without hesitation. Eventually you can ask things such as “say jazz, now say /m/ instead of /z/” or “say move – now say it backwards”. You can probably tell that this could be either a fun game or if a person was not ready for it just an exercise in frustration.

So, if your child is having difficulty with sounding out words even though they know the sounds of the letters or having a hard time differentiating the sounds of certain letters maybe they need to work on phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is something that continues to develop through elementary school and is very related to the development of fluency as time goes on.

Phonemic awareness is the first of the 5 essential components of reading instruction. Next time I plan to talk about the next building block of reading instruction which is phonics.

[i] (Catts, Nielsen, Liu, & Bontempo, 2015; Groot, van den Bos, Minnaert, &van der Muelen, 22015).” Birsh, Carreker “Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills 4th Edition”. Paul H Brookes publishing,2018.

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