To be ready to read, a child not only needs to know the letters of the alphabet but also must be aware that his or her own speech is made up of segments that differ from letters. These segments are called phonemes. I will try not to use too much teacher jargon in this blog, but this term is worth learning because it is critical to understanding reading and phonemic awareness. Without phonemic awareness, a child cannot read.
What is Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the individual speech sounds into spoken words. For example the word cat has three sounds – /c/, /ă/ and /t/. The word heat also has three sound /h/, /ē/, /t/ because the letters ea make one sound. Words can be divided into several other units such as syllables and rhymes. The smallest unit of sound in our language is a phoneme and there are forty four of them!
Phonemes do not correspond one-to-one with letters because some sounds are represented with two letters, like sh, ch, th and ng. The awareness of the separate sounds in a word is what we call phonemic awareness. It is an auditory skill that underlies the ability to use an alphabet to read and write. A child who can recognize that the word cat has three speech sounds, the word eye has one, and the word eat has two, possesses basic phonemic awareness.
If a child can change the /m/ sound at the beginning of the word mat to /r/ and know that the word is now rat, has demonstrated an even larger degree of phonemic awareness. This child can compare the sounds in words, substitute a new sound for an old one, and blend the sounds to make a new word.
Phonemic Awareness Activities
When I developed the PRIDE Reading Program, I made extra sure that every single lesson and skill the students learn also include phonemic awareness activities. A few examples of what the students have to do in the PRIDE Reading Program:
Identify rhymes – “tell me all of the words you know that rhyme with the word “heel.”
Listening for sounds – “close your eyes as I read some words to you. When you hear the “ū” sound, raise your hand.”
Manipulating sounds in words by adding, deleting or substituting – “in the word LAND, change the L to H.” (hand)
On the back cover of each of the Student’s Workbook there is a set of Elkonin Boxes to help the students build phonemic awareness. The students are instructed to listen to a word and then move the sound tokens into a box for each sound in the word.
As the students progress in the PRIDE program, they eventually break the words apart into syllables, and separate the syllables into sounds.
Success in reading depends on basic phonemic awareness. Without a sense of the sounds that letters represent, the child approaches reading as just memorizing letters. With phonemic awareness, the child can link letters to the sounds in words in order to decipher and spell them. Phonics is an approach to teaching reading in which the child is taught to associate letters with sounds and to use that knowledge to sound words out by blending the sounds from left to right.
It has been well known by researchers for the last 20 years that phonemic awareness and letter knowledge are the two best predictors of how well a child will learn to read during his or her first few years of school. The National Reading Panel’s report confirmed that instruction in phonemic awareness helps children learn early reading skills.
Phonemic Awareness in Action!
Here is a sample video of me teaching a student phonemic awareness with Elkonin Boxes:
Karina Richland, M.A., developed the PRIDE Reading Program, an Orton-Gillingham program for struggling readers, based on her extensive experience working with children with learning differences over the past 30 years. She has been a teacher, educational consultant and the Executive Director of PRIDE Learning Centers in Southern California. For more information, visit the PRIDE Reading Program website here. You can also reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org