What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the only aspect of reading that is essential for children to develop before they can begin learning to read. Based in oral language, phonemic awareness serves as not only the foundation for reading it is also the strongest indicator of a child’s potential for learning to read.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of phonemes or individual units of sound that influence the meaning of the word. For example, the word “drum” is made up of four individual phonemes: /d/ /r/ /u/ /m/. If you change one of these notice how the meaning of the word changes. When /d/ is replaced by /st/ you have “strum”, a verb meaning to run an object (usually one’s fingers) across an object that makes sound. This is very different than “drum”.

Phonemic awareness is not only the recognition that words are made up of small sound units it is also the ability to break down, manipulate and blend phonemes. A reader needs to be able to apply her understanding of phonemes in order to begin learning to read. She must be taught to transfer her knowledge of phonemes used in oral language to written language.

Elements of Phonemic Awareness

There are three main aspects of phonemic awareness: syllables, rhymes and beginning sounds. Children need to be able to identify and manipulate these elements in order to begin reading.

There are several ways that they can be taught to apply these elements to the words they use in spoken and eventually print language. To help children develop skills for working with syllables, adults can teach them to segment syllables by tapping or clapping and counting the sounds in a word. Rhyming and its companion alliteration (repetition of same beginning sounds in a series of words) are developed through categorization, identification and deletion. Categorization involves recognizing differences in sounds in a series of words. For example, a child may be given “bat”, “but” and “hut” to examine. He would need to categorize these words into two collections of similar words (those beginning with a /b/ sound and those ending with /ut/). Similarly, identification asks children to find the similar sounds in a list of words. This activity does not require them to create a set of categories, but rather to simply identify which words sound the same. Deletion allows children to “play” with words to see how they change when a phoneme is deleted. Consider what happens when /d/ is removed from the word “drum”. It has an entirely different meaning. All three of the elements of phonemic awareness are aided through blending. This strategy is one that a reader uses to put all of the “sound pieces” of a word together.

Determining Phonemic Awareness

A child’s phonemic awareness is most often assessed using a rubric fitting a particular language task. Some of the most common tasks used to determine phonemic awareness are: 1) having a child create a list of rhyming words beginning with a “starter” word provided by the teacher, 2) asking a child to segment a word into its beginning, middle and end sounds and 3) having a child count the number of syllables in a word.

Role of Phonemic Awareness in Reading

Young children must come to reading with phonemic awareness. Research has found that this element of reading is the single strongest indicator for a child’s success at learning to read. While the reasons why phonemic awareness is a necessary pre-requisite to reading are not clear many researchers speculate that the understanding that phonemes are sequences of sounds in language makes children aware of how the alphabet works. In other words phonemic awareness helps children realize that words, regardless of their form (oral or print), are made up of sounds.

Phonemic awareness allows young readers to build another important element of reading: phonics. Phonics (the relationship between letters and sounds) builds upon phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness creates a bridge between spoken and written language. When a child understands and can manipulate sounds verbally, they are ready to transfer this knowledge to printed words.

Impact of Phonemic Awareness on Reading Ability

Beyond serving as an indicator of a child’s ability to learn to read, phonemic awareness also impacts other elements of reading. Strong phonemic awareness when used to segment and blend words helps children increase their abilities to decode and comprehend what they are reading.

A focus on phonemic awareness in reading education seems to have the greatest impact on very young readers. Instruction most benefits children in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and the beginning of first grade. At-risk readers should receive more intensive phonemic awareness instruction than their non-disabled peers.