What is phonemic awareness and why we should teach it

We know that phonological awareness is one of the  6 components of learning to read:

  1. phonological awareness – being able to identify sounds in words which includes, syllables, rhyme, alliteration and phonemes.
  2. phonics – to recognise letters and combination of letters that represent the 44 sounds of English
  3. fluency – ability to read with pace, accuracy and expression
  4. vocabulary – knowledge of the meaning of words that enables the reader to comprehend the text
  5. comprehension – ability to comprehend various levels of text (literal, inferential, evaluative)
  6. world and subject knowledge – background knowledge which enables comprehension

What is phonemic awareness?

While phonology and phonological awareness deal with broader units of spoken language: syllables, onset and rime, alliteration,  phonemic awareness deals with the smallest unit – the phoneme.  Phonemic awareness includes the ability to segment individual sounds in words, blend individual sounds into words, and manipulate individual sounds in words.  Manipulating sounds in words means to able to delete, add or switch a sound in a word.

Why is phonemic awareness important?

The English Alphabetic Code is based on a genius system by which sounds (44 in English) are represented by different spellings (175 graphemes).  When beginner readers read a new word, they must sound out the letters and blend those sounds together. But before they do that they need to hear and identify those sounds.  For example the word ‘mat’ – has 3 sounds: /m/ /a/ /t/.  The reader will need to sound these out and blend the sounds into the word ‘mat’.  When a beginner speller spells the word ‘mat’ they do the reverse: they segment the words into into phonemes and spell each phoneme with a letter or letters (if that phoneme is spelled by more than one letter). So, blending and segmenting are the underlying skills for reading and spelling.

What about phoneme manipulation?

The ability to delete, add or switch a sound in a word is important when children make reading errors. They may add a sound, e.g. reading the word ‘pop’ as ‘plop’ or omit a sound, e.g. read the word ‘stink’ as ‘sink’.  We need them to be able to insert or drop the sound at speed when they correct themselves.  They can do this by quickly pulling out a sound or inserting a sound in a word without going back to sounding the whole word out. As English has spellings that can spell different sounds, e.g. <ea> can spell /ee/ as in ‘leaf’, /e/ as in ‘head’ and /ae/ as in ‘great’ – it is very handy to be able switch any of these sounds if the reader has chosen the wrong option, initially.

Do we need to teach phonemic awareness?

Yes, we do.  Phonemic awareness includes the underlying skills for reading and spelling and essential for all students, especially those who struggle with reading.  It should be part of every phonics programme.

Should we teach phonemic awareness before we teach phonics?

Many programmes introduce phonemic awareness as a preparation to teaching phonics, but research has shown that it is much more effective when they are taught together.  Teaching phonemic awareness as a purely oral skill is more abstract than teaching it when linked to symbols (letters).  It seems clear that teaching phonemic awareness and phonics together is more multi-sensory as the learner is engaging both sight and hearing instead of engaging just hearing for learning this new skill.  In addition, it is important to get the learner to articulate the phonemes in this activity.  This is another multi-sensory avenue for linking the sounds to the letters.

How to teach phonemic awareness?

The best way to teach phonemic awareness is through short ‘switch it’ activities as part of the phonics lesson.  This is done with letter cards or post-it notes.  It entails asking the student to listen to the changes in a word and to change only one letter to show where that change has occurred.  It is important to get the learner to say the sounds and then read the word they have made in the chain of words.  An example of a sequence of changes would be to ask the student to make the following changes:

“Change ‘sit’ to ‘set'” (change of medial vowel)

“Change ‘set’ to ‘pet'” (change of initial sound)

“Change ‘pet’ to ‘pat'” (change of medial vowel)

“Change ‘pat’ to ‘pant’ (addition of adjacent consonant)

“Change ‘pant’ to ‘pan’ (deletion of the final adjacent consonant)

As you can see, the learner has to listen carefully to the word, match the sounds to the spellings, identify where the change has occurred and make the change.  This is a very powerful activity which is important for all beginner readers, especially those who struggle with blending and segmenting.  Whatever the age of the student, this should be part of any reading intervention programme.


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