Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in a spoken language. It is the first foundational skill that children build when learning to read.

WHAT is Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in a spoken language. It is the first foundational skill that children build when learning to read.

Skills within phonological awareness include:

  • Initial recognition of sounds in larger, more concrete linguistic structures
    • words, syllables, onset/rhymes
  • Later recognition of smaller, more abstract sounds in words
    • individual sounds in words (phonemes)

Note that the above skills imply that phonological awareness is the ability to hear the sounds in our language. Once children can hear aspects of our language, including sounds, they will need to learn how to map those sounds onto the letters of the alphabet in order to read, a process that is supported by activities that combine work with letters and the sounds they represent, such as inventive spelling and word building.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and is the ability to isolate, blend, and segment the smallest units of individual sound, or phonemes. Phonemic awareness is critical for children learning to decode, or read words, and encode, or spell words. This awareness along with letter-knowledge skills can predict how well children will learn beginning reading skills during their first two years in school. Moreover, researchers have noticed that children who start first grade without phoneme-level awareness may experience reading difficulties (ILA PA Position Statement, 2020).

Phonemic awareness includes the ability to:

  • Identify and produce phonemes; for example, identify the last sound in the word “goat” as /t/.
  • Blend phonemes—like putting together the individual sounds /b/ /a/ /t/ into the word “bat.”
  • Segment phonemes, which is taking apart the sounds in the word, so “dip” becomes /d/ /i/ /p/.
  • Isolate phonemes, which means hearing and naming one specific sound anywhere in the word. For example, identify the sound /i/ when asked, “What’s the middle sound in the word ‘fish’?”
  • Manipulate phonemes or change things up—like making the /c/ in “cot” become the /h/ sound to make “hot.”

It’s important to recognize that the above skills aren’t specific to a certain language. Phonemic awareness has been shown to be transferable between languages. If children can hear the sounds within words in their home language, they should be able to hear those sounds within English words. Not all sounds will be the same from language to language, but, the skill of hearing those that are is the basis for reading everywhere.

WHY is Phonological Awareness Important

Once phonological awareness knowledge is in place, children have a solid grasp on how to break up words into phonemes and blend phonemes into words. When they learn to match these processes with written language, they can decode and encode, which means they can break apart written words into sounds and patterns. This sets them on the path to becoming independent word learners. Once children begin to read words, they get lots of information about what they are reading. This means that phonological awareness is crucial for fluency and comprehension. Moreover, phonological awareness also appears to be linked to vocabulary knowledge, as evidence has led many researchers to believe that the acquisition of phonological awareness is associated with vocabulary development.

HOW do you teach Phonological Awareness

The best beginning phonological awareness lessons are play-based, short, and joyful. These lessons occur at multiple times throughout the day, including down times like when children are arriving to school or making the transition to lunch. Children can be asked to sort picture cards by the sound they hear in the beginning of the word, or, to line up for lunch in order of the number of sounds in their names.

During instruction, like a read aloud, children can listen for rhyming words while you read aloud and then generate a list of more words that rhyme with the words in the text. Shared reading, too, allows for children to develop into early readers. As they practice rhyme, repetition, and word play, they’ll see the letter associated with the sounds they are making as well as expand their vocabulary and print knowledge.

The most effective kinds of activities for fostering phonemic awareness involve deconstructing and reconstructing the sounds in words, taking the sounds in words apart and putting them back together again. This can be done with magnet letters/board, tiles, or sound boxes. Phonemic awareness has been shown to be the most important aspect of phonological awareness, and it is now recognized that children can begin learning to hear and say phonemes without first practicing syllables in words. Therefore, it is important to begin with and stay focused on developing phonemic awareness more than other aspects of phonological awareness (ILA PA Position Statement, 2020).

Combining phoneme-level instruction in sounds with grapheme-level instruction in letters—i.e., teaching phonemic awareness and phonics simultaneously—has also been shown to be both effective and efficient, as it helps students better understand the relation between letters and sounds. Examples of instruction that combines work with phonemes and graphemes (sounds and letters) include teacher-modeled and interactive writing, where the teacher and students work together to sound out and write words. Likewise, invented spelling provides children with opportunities to segment words into phonemes, and then represent those phonemes with graphemes as they write.

Because researchers suspect phonological awareness is rooted in vocabulary knowledge, the most recent ILA position statement on phonological awareness also recommends fostering vocabulary and concept knowledge to further support the development of phonological awareness. This could be done, for example, through exposure to sophisticated words during story readings and through providing word-learning support, such as labeling, gesturing, and explaining.

In addition to whole class time, teaching phonological awareness during small group reading time helps to ensure that you are differentiating your instruction. Readers in the early reading stage will not need as much attention to phonological awareness as those in the emergent reading stage. A phonological assessment should help to drive instructional plans for children of different reading levels.

Plans for differentiating phonological awareness instruction to meet children’s specific needs should also include plans to differentiate instruction to support English learners. Visual cues, like picture cards, or objects that can be manipulated to add meaning to oral directions help when teaching phonemic awareness to English learners.

Remember to consider phonological awareness instruction in relation to your overall curriculum and the needs of your students. The International Literacy Association’s most recent position statement on phonological awareness emphasizes that while PA instruction is important for many children’s reading development, over-emphasis on PA instruction can come at the cost of other crucial areas of the curriculum, with minimal benefits. Therefore, phonological awareness instruction should be “purposeful, highly efficient, and focused primarily on skills that support literacy development” (ILA PA Position Statement, 2020).

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