The importance of Phonemic Awareness in Learning to Read

The importance of Phonemic Awareness in Learning to Read

Humphrey, E. (2017). The importance of Phonemic Awareness in Learning to Read. SPELD-SA Autumn Newsletter 2017. 16

Phonological awareness is defines as a conscious ability to attend to and manipulate the sound structure of spoken words. This occurs at three levels: syllable, rhyme and phoneme (Gillon, 2004).

A phoneme refers to the smallest unit of sound in a language that is capable of changing the meaning of the word. For example changing the ‘b’ in box to ‘f’ as in fox, changes the meaning of the word from a square container to a small furry animal. There are approximately 44 phonemes in the English language represented by just 26 letters.

Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate sounds in spoken words. Phonemic awareness in particular hes been found to be a strong predictor of reading achievement during child’s first years in school. (Gillon, 2004).

The greater a child’s ability to understand the sound structure of spoken word the more likely they are to become strong readers. This awareness allows children to more easily map the sounds of the language to the letters they see in print and access their meaning (Carson, Boustead & Gillon, 2014).

Ways to improve phonemic awareness

The first stem is to ensure the child can hear sounds in isolation before they attempt to detect sounds within words.

Once the child can hear the individual sounds in isolation they can be taught that words are made up of different sounds and begin to listen for the initial, final or middle sound in the word. For example the word ‘dog’is made up of three sounds d-o-g. The word ‘boat’ is also made up of three sounds b-oa-t.

This skill paves the way for understanding how to segment, blend and manipulate sounds to create or read new words. For example, if you can change the first sound in ‘boat’ to ‘g’ the word becomes ‘goat’.

Some helpful strategies to try include:

  • Phoneme identification – say a word (e.g. “bat”) and ask the child “what is the first sound in the word “bat”? (“/b/”). Say two words (e.g. “bat” and “bed”) and ask the child “do these two words start with the same sounds? (“Yes, /b/”).
  • Blending – say the phonemes of the word (e.g. “b-a-g”) and ask the child “what word am I saying?” (“bag”).
  • Segmenting – say a word (e.g. “dog”) then ask the child to identify all the sounds in the word (“d-o-g”).
  • Deletion – ask the child to say what word is left after deleting a sound. For example, “Take away the /t/ sound from “tin”. What is the new word?” (“in”).
  • Substituting – ask the child to change a sound in a word to a different sound. For example, “change the /b/ in “boy” to /t/. What is the new word?” (“toy”).

SPELD-SA have a series of phonemic awareness activities available to download free of charge designed to help develop a child’s phonemic awareness abilities. The sets are designed to follow the Jolly Phonics Framework and so are grouped according to the order of sounds that are presented in the Jolly Phonics programme.

We suggest starting with “Sound Discrimination”, Level 1 (single sounds) progressing to Level 2 (whole words), before attempting ‘Peg Cards”, “Bingo Boards” or “Sound it Out Cards”for each set of sounds to ensure the child has a solid understanding of the sounds in a set. If a child is confident with all sounds in a set they can start on the next set.

Carson, K., Boustead, T., & Gillon, G. (2014). Predicting reading outcomes in the classroom using a computer-based phonological awareness screening and monitoring assessment (Com-PASMA). International Journal of Speech-Language pathology, 16:6, 552-561.

Gillon, G. (2004). Phonological awareness: From research to practice. New York, USA: Guilford Press.

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