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The Key to Literacy: Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

Literacy, the ability to read and write, is a critical aspect of living in today’s world. For many of us, we acquire literacy skills as children and use them throughout our lives without really thinking about how we learned to read and write. Many adults don’t appreciate these foundational skills unless they have decided to pursue a career in education or have children whom they want to teach. So how did we acquire the skills we use so effortlessly today? And how do we teach children to do the same?

In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) conducted a meta-analysis focusing on the use of phonemic awareness training. The study concluded that teaching children to manipulate phonemes was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across grade and age levels.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t know what a phoneme is. We’re going to cover what the NRP is referring to and how you can use phonemic awareness to prepare your children to learn to read.

Key Takeaways

  • Phonics instruction teaches children about the relationship between sounds and letters.
  • Phonological and phonemic awareness are the first skills in a hierarchy that students must learn in order to read.
  • Raising Readers offers lessons and games that build phonemic awareness and phonics skills in an easy-to-follow sequence.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Let’s start by understanding what a phoneme is. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that make up the words of a language. In the English language, there are 44 unique sounds we use to make words. Words use a blend of phonemes. For example, in the word ‘go’, two phonemes are being used: /g/ + /o/. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate phonemes in spoken words.

There are many different ways to teach phonemic awareness.

  • Phoneme isolation : Students recognize individual sounds in words. For example, “Tell me the first sound in the word dog.” (/d/)
  • Phoneme identity : Students recognize common sounds in different words. For example, “Which sound is the same in the words cat, kid, and car?” (/k/)
  • Phoneme categorization : Students recognize the word with a major difference within a group of words. For example, “Which word does not belong? Run, rope, tag, rat.” (tag)
  • Phoneme blending : Students listen to individual sounds and combine them into a recognizable word. For example, “What word is /s/ /k/ /u/ /l/?” (school)
  • Phoneme segmentation : Students break a word into its individual sounds. For example, “What sounds make up the word dip?” (/d/ /i/ /p/)
  • Phoneme manipulation : Students recognize which word remains when a specific phoneme is replaced, removed, or added. For example, “What is ‘snail’ without the /s/?” (nail).
  • Rhyme: Students identify rhyming words and generate rhyming words.
  • Alliteration: Students practice saying tongue twisters beginning with the same sound; then they identify the sound.
  • Assonance: Students practice saying a sentence of words that contain mostly the same vowel sound; then they identify the sound.

Once children learn how to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken syllables and words, they can begin to study the relationship between sounds and letters. A great way to introduce phonemic awareness to your child for the first time is by asking them to analyze their name. Practice phoneme segmentation by slowly sounding out your child’s name and pronouncing each sound individually. For example, the name Ross contains three separate phonemes: /R/ + /O/ + /S/

By identifying the individual sounds, we are using phonemic awareness skills. As we begin blending and manipulating those individual sounds, we are developing phonological awareness skills. Phonological awareness highlights larger units of sounds like words and syllables.

After you and your child have practiced segmentation, try blending next. First you’ll repeat the segmented version with three separate sounds ( /R/ + /O/ + /S/ ), holding each sound for a few seconds and avoiding pausing in between sounds.Finally, blend the whole name as you would say it normally. Ross is an easy name to work with, so if your child’s name is longer than three syllables, you can start with a shorter word.

After you’ve practiced a fair amount of segmentation and blending, try to have some fun with rhyming. If your child’s name doesn’t rhyme with any words, you can choose another word to practice with. The words “dog” and “cat” are kid-friendly and good for rhyme practice. Using the example of “Ross,” let’s play around with some other words that end in /OS/.

“Boss,” “moss,” and “toss” all rhyme with Ross. Repeat the phoneme segmentation for these words and ask your child which sounds are different and which sounds are the same. They should identify the initial consonant as the different sound in each word. After some practice and repetition, children should begin to understand that the changing consonant sound in each word represents a change in meaning. Their thought process might look something like this:

/R/ + /OS/ = my name /M/ + /OS/ = green grassy stuff /T/ + /OS/ = throw

For more rhyming activities, check out this video by literacy teacher Susan Jones.

Are Phonemic Awareness and Phonics the Same?

No. While phonemic awareness focuses on the spoken sounds of language, phonics instruction teaches the relationship between the written letters and spoken sounds. Although these are two different concepts, they definitely work together. Some phonemic awareness is needed in order to begin phonics instructions; if students aren’t aware of the sounds used in a language, we can’t expect them to understand which symbols are used to represent them. Phonemic awareness is one of a collection of skills that are predictors of early reading (and phonics) success. Phonemic awareness and alphabetic recognition are the two best predictors of reading success (link link2 link3). Other important foundational skills include print awareness, a basic understanding of how stories are structured, and oral vocabulary.

Before we jump into phonics instruction, we need to understand the difference between a phoneme and a grapheme. We already know that a phoneme is a speech sound, so what’s a grapheme? A grapheme is a letter or combination of letters that represent a speech sound (phoneme). The phoneme /ee/ in the word ‘leap’ is represented by the grapheme \<ea\>. Similarly, the phoneme /k/ in the word ‘cat’ is represented by the grapheme \<c\>. Notice how we indicate sounds by using backlashes (//) and letters by using angle brackets (\<\>).

Phonics instruction teaches children to understand this relationship between the symbols of our alphabet and the sounds they represent; an integral aspect of learning to read. So how do we teach children letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns to help them learn to read?

The NRP lists a few different approaches to phonics instruction:

  • Analogy phonics: Students learn unfamiliar words by analogy to known words. For example, a student might see a familiar word like ‘dog’ and an unfamiliar word like ‘fog’. The student will blend the familiar -og ending with the new word’s initial consonant /f/ in order to identify the word ‘fog’.
  • Analytic phonics: Students learn to analyze letter-sound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing phonemes in isolation. Students are given word families, such as ‘light’, ‘might’, ‘sight’, and asked what sound the \<ight\> spelling represents.
  • Embedded phonics: Students learn through embedded phonics instruction in text reading. This approach utilizes authentic reading experiences to teach students about letter-sound correspondences, but is a more implicit instructional approach.
  • Phonics through spelling : Students learn to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes. You can slowly pronounce a word, emphasizing each sound that is present “ffff llllll aaaaa gggg”, then ask the students to write a letter to represent each sound.
  • Synthetic phonics : Students learn to explicitly convert letters into sounds and then blend the sounds into recognizable words. Similar to the previous approach, students learn to decode the individual sounds and then blend them together into recognizable words.

What’s the Difference Between Phonics and Whole Language Instruction?

While most linguists agree that phonics is the key to literacy, some educators prefer to take a whole language approach to literacy instruction. Educators who take a whole language approach teach students to identify words as whole pieces of a language, rather than dissectable parts. Advocates of the whole language approach do not teach students to analyze the specific sounds of a word, they look at the whole word and instruct students to memorize them.

Those who take the whole language approach rarely exclude phonics instruction altogether; typically their approach is a hybrid of whole language and phonics instruction. The embedded phonics approach is generally used within the whole language approach.

Benefits of Teaching Phonics

During phonics instruction, students learn more about how phonemes work and about some exceptions to the rule. They quickly realize that the /ee/ sound in words like ‘green’, ‘tea’, and ‘me’ can be represented by a variety of symbols: \<ee\>, \<ea\>, and \<e\>. Students who are taught through the whole language approach memorize the pronunciation of these words and don’t understand the underlying rules and exceptions. This is one reason that most linguists support phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.

In the NRP’s study, it was also discovered that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks attention to phonics and phonemic awareness.

How to Begin Teaching Phonics

A teaching sequence related to phonology would involve four main components:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2. Phonemic awareness
  3. Names and sounds of letters

Teaching Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

So far, we have established that phonemic awareness is the ability to identify individual sounds in a word and manipulate them in various ways, such as adding a phoneme, deleting a phoneme, or substituting one phoneme for another. Remember that a phoneme is an individual sound, such as the /t/ sound in the word “top.”

Phonological awareness, we know, is the ability to distinguish larger units of speech such as words and syllables. Phonological awareness skills help children segment a word into syllables and recognize rhymes.

So how to go about teaching phonological and phonemic awareness skills? Here are a few activities you can use to get started at home. Remember that we don’t introduce letter-sound relationships until phonics instruction; right now we are focusing on the sounds only.

To begin, use words that follow the syllabic structure of CVC, or, consonant-vowel-consonant. These are words like dog, cat, mom, dad, run, far, sun, dot, box, rot, map, and fan. There are lots of words like this for you to choose from. Use these words first to develop phonemic isolation skills by asking these questions:

  • What’s the first sound in the word dog?
  • What’s the last sound in the word dog?
  • What’s the first sound in the word dip?
  • What’s the last sound in the word dip?
  • What sounds are in both dog and dip?

Next, work on phonemic blending and segmentation; this is where we take apart and blend together individual sounds. As we blend individual sounds together, we are beginning to develop phonological awareness. Here’s how you can practice blending and segmentation:

Take the word “mop.” Ask your child which sounds do they hear in the word? Make sure to say the word slowly. Children with a solid grasp of blending and segmentation are ableto segment the word into /m/ + /o/ + /p/.

Make sure your child can clearly pronounce each individual sound (there are three). Then, blend the first consonant with the vowel /m/ + /o/ = maw. After repeating /m/, /o/, /maw/, add the /p/. So now you’re repeating /maw/ + /p/, “mop.”

Next, use nursery rhymes to continue developing your child’s ear for sound patterns such as alliteration and rhyme. All of these tasks involve children identifying and manipulating sounds of language. The initial tasks such as phoneme identification and rhyme words can be understood by very young children, while the tasks that require phoneme deletion, segmentation, and deletion require more abstract thinking.

Teaching Names and Sounds of Letters

Once phonemic and phonological awareness skills have been developed, you and your young learner are ready to start phonics instruction. Until this point, letters have not been used in instruction. This is where we start making connections between sounds and the letters that represent them.

Learn the ABCs and theirs sounds with the Alphabet Song from reading.com.

Begin by teaching the individual letters and their corresponding sounds. This phonics song and video is perfect for introducing the alphabet. As children get a grasp on the sounds of each letter, you can begin blending them into longer sounds and introducing digraphs. What’s a digraph? We already established that graphemes are individual letters that represent a sound; a digraph is a letter combination that represents one sound. For example, \<sh\> and \<th\> are letter combinations that make one single sound.

It’s important to understand the difference between digraphs and consonant blend because we don’t want children trying to pronounce the /s/ and /h/ separately in a word like “shoe”; we want them to pronounce the /sh/ sound as one. However, in a word with a consonant blend, like “glue,” we expect them to pronounce the /g/ and the /l/ even though they are blending the two sounds together.

Before you start teaching your child how to blend consonant blends and pronounce digraphs, just use single syllable CVC words. This video introduces a variety of CVC words that are great for beginner-level phonics instruction.

In the NRP’s study, it was also discovered that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels. The study also found that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks attention to phonics and phonemic awareness. The best phonics instruction builds phonemic awareness, but doesn’t dwell on it for too long, nor does it linger on drilling phonemes in isolation. The best phonics instruction spends a lot of time on blending and applying newly learned skills directly to engaging, interactive reading and writing activities.

Now that you’ve learned about phonemes, graphemes, phonemic awareness, and phonics instruction, we hope you feel excited to start teaching your children how to read. Luckily, we are surrounded by language everyday, so there are plenty of opportunities for you to begin building your child’s phonemic awareness today!

The Bottom Line

  • Phonemic awareness is the key to literacy.
  • Students follow gradual steps towards becoming independent readers.
  • Phonics instruction helps students learn to read and pronounce words correctly.
  • The best phonics instruction blends and applies newly learned skills directly to engaging, interactive reading and writing activities.

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