What is the first sound you hear in the word “cat”? Now, change the "c" sound to "m". What’s the word now? These are examples of activities we use to target phonemic awareness. We are building the understanding that every word can be perceived as a sequence of phonemes, or individual sounds. A child’s success with phonemic awareness is the best predictor of later reading success. On the road to reading, phonemic awareness is at the start.
The language to reading connection
As a speech-language pathologist, I’m fascinated by language development. When my son was born, I marveled at every smile, coo, sound, gesture...you get the picture. Typical language development unfolds from the earliest moments in a child’s life. Babies begin to tune into the sounds of the language(s) they are exposed to. They start babbling in longer and more varied strings of sounds, then begin speaking their first words. As vocabulary grows, children start putting words together, gradually learning the grammar of their language and applying it to express more sophisticated word and sentence structures. Language and the ideas understood and expressed become more complex. Onwards and upwards! What we as parents and educators must know is that language and reading skills are connected.
The elements of language development--phonology (sounds), vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics (social skills)--come into play as reading skills grow. Among these, phonological skills influence the early learning of letters, sounds and words. Much of the time, but not always, phonological development occurs implicitly as part of language acquisition. Phonological skills are built from the recognition and production of the sounds (phonemes) of a given language and understanding of the rule-based system by which these phonemes are used to create words. A crucial phonological skill for early readers is, you guessed it, phonemic awareness!
We must teach children phonemic awareness through early literacy experience and direct teaching. In doing so, early readers learn to listen and think about the sounds of their language and recognize the individual sounds that make words. The ability to attend to the words they speak and hear, break them down into individual sounds and put them back together again lays the foundation for understanding the alphabetic principle of written language. Phonemic awareness allows children to more easily make the connection to the reading process of seeing letters and “sounding out” words. Children who experience delays or deficits in speech, language, hearing or auditory processing commonly have difficulty with phonological skills. Therefore, they will likely face greater challenges when it comes to acquiring phonemic awareness - and reading.
Levels of ability in phonemic awareness
Adams (1990) provided an outline of five levels of phonemic awareness:
Rhyme and alliteration - to hear rhymes and alliteration as measured by knowledge of nursery rhymes
Oddity Tasks - comparing and contrasting the sounds of words for rhyme and alliteration
Blending and splitting syllables
Phonemic segmentation - being able to identify and count the individual sounds in a word
Phoneme manipulation - manipulating sounds by taking away or adding a sound, thereby creating a new word
So, Mother Goose and her curious Pease Porridge are famous for a reason. Nursery rhymes and alliterations, such as tongue twisters, help children tune into the words, syllables and sounds of language. Phonemic awareness progressively builds from there.
Which road do you choose?
You are going on a road trip. Which road do you choose? The straight and narrow one, heading through no-man’s land? Or, the beautiful, scenic road with interesting places to explore along the way? Either way you may get to your destination, but certainly one will make for a more interesting experience than the other. The road to reading should be an (overall!) enjoyable journey for our children. When we encourage learners through fun, engaging activities that motivate participation and foster success, we inspire them to continue down this road, no matter how long and winding it may be.
A few minutes a day can provide an emphasis on activities that teach phonemic awareness. When planning for these activities, engage children by using materials that are either familiar or interesting to them. In the classroom, this could mean words that are taken from thematic units, stories recently read, or things in the immediate environment. Some children will benefit from multisensory methods to help them see, hear and feel the sounds in words as they identify and manipulate them. Games, rather than drill, are best!
Unlike speaking and listening, reading is a learned skill, one that humans need to be taught, systematically. For many children, phonological awareness (and phonemic awareness) do not develop easily or naturally, and reading demands may continue in school while foundational skills are missing. The Fast ForWordⓇ program provides targeted intervention across a wide range of foundational skills to ensure the brain is reading-ready. One such skill that it trains is the brain's ability to process changes in sounds (phonemes) quickly, which is shown to be weak in children with language impairment, auditory processing disorder, and dyslexia. The patented, unique cross-training in the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord exercises has resulted in significant improvements in phonemic awareness, language skills, and reading abilities.
To ensure that the road to reading is smooth for your child or your students, make sure they are quickly and efficiently developing phonemic awareness!
Why Phonological Awareness is Important for Reading and Spelling
Phonemic Awareness: An Early Important Step in Learning to Read
How Now Brown Cow: Phoneme Awareness Activities
Scientific Learning Webinar: Burns, Martha Ph.D. “Auditory Processing: Its critical link to reading”
Dyslexia-How Far We’ve Come!
Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc. [ED 317 950]