Phonemic Awareness: The Sounds of Reading

Have you ever thought about the difference between the pronunciation of “bat” and “pat”? e. In this article, we answer questions like what is phonemic awareness, what impact it has on reading success, what are some examples of phonemic awareness, and some exercises to help improve your phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic Awareness

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes to help distinguish meaning. This ability develops in three parts: 

  • The first uses a phoneme, a unit of sound and the vocal formation in which a word is constructed.
  • The second uses conscious awareness of a phoneme.
  • The third part concerns the ability to manipulate, use, and change each phoneme unit. For example, when we teach kids how to read, we are teaching them the letters that represent a specific sound, a phoneme.
Phonemic Awareness: The Sounds of Reading

Having phonemic awareness in English means that you can distinguish between the words “bed” and “red” when you hear them by knowing that the letters “b” and “r” each represent a different unit of sound and meaning. It also means the ability to distinguish each individual sound of “foot” as /f/, /ʊ/, and /t/. Phonemic awareness is the foundation for learning phonetics. It’s important to keep in mind that phonemic awareness is auditory, first and foremost.

To keep in mind about the English language:

  • There are 26 official letters with approximately 40 phonemes
  • There are roughly 250 different spellings
    • The sound /f/ can be spelled with “ph”. “f”, “gh”, and “ff”
  • English is not spelled as it sounds which means that each phoneme, sound unit, must be taught.

Phonemic awareness skills

Several studies differing in design and participants have shown that one’s phonemic awareness is a good indicator of reading ability later on in life. According to a study done in 1990 by Marilyn Jager Adams, around 25% of middle-class first graders have issues with phonemic awareness- also showing difficulty in reading and writing.  A large reason for these issues is the fact that these students, and many people in general, either don’t or haven’t been taught to pay attention to the sounds of phonemes as they are produced in speech. Instead, they direct their attention automatically to the meaning of the word and not the phonemes, pieces, and sounds that make up the word as a whole. Failure to properly identify phonemes can lead to using the wrong word. For example, saying the word “sheep” when you meant to say “ship”.

What is the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness?

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are often considered to be the same thing because they are dependent on each other – one can’t work or happen without the other. However, they are not exactly the same thing. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes to help distinguish meaning. Phonological awareness is this, but it does so with bigger units of sound, such as rhymes, onsets (the initial phonological unit of a word) and syllables. For example, knowing that “cat” and “show do not rhyme, while “cat” and “hat” do.

How people develop phonemic awareness?

Everybody begins to develop our phonemic awareness in the same way: listening to our parent’s talk and developing our phonology. This means we, as children, are beginning to understand what a sound is and what sounds represent. That said, not everyone begins kindergarten phonemically aware. However, once we’ve developed our phonological awareness, we put it on paper, literally, and work on putting together our phonemic awareness by reading and writing. Children need to have a phonemic awareness in order to learn to read because the letters are a representation of the phonemes in our words.

Part of the difficulty of acquiring phonemic awareness is that speech varies from speaker to speaker. However, the variation and difference from speaker to speaker doesn’t indicate a difference in meaning of the words they say, just a difference in the pronunciation. For example, in the northern United States, “grease” rhymes with “peace”. However, in the south, “grease” rhymes with “sneeze”. There are also many differences between British and American English. These differences in pronunciation are called allophones. Allophones can be confusing for a child, and many adults, who need to adapt from one form of pronunciation to another.

How does phonemic awareness affect our brains?

A study done by collaborating universities in 2011 states that our knowledge of how the brain works in accordance with phonological awareness for spoken language in kids is officially unknown. However, they did discover, by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the neural correlates (the connections within the brain) of phonological awareness. The study involves children (ages 7-13) who were dyslexic and a group of kindergarteners (ages 5-6). The researchers found out that “typically developed children.” those without dyslexia, used the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), essentially the front part of the brain, when making phonological judgments. The kindergarteners were matched, at the same level, as the older kids with dyslexia on standardized tests with phonological awareness. This means that the kindergarteners read at the same level as those who were older, but dyslexic. The conclusion of the study is that the DLPFC could play a critical role in the evolution of out phonological awareness for spoken language and reading in our brains

Do we learn phonemic awareness naturally?

While there are many arguments that exist as to whether or not humans develop language naturally. Assuming that we do naturally learn languages, one can conclude that we naturally develop a phonemic awareness as children when our parents read to us. It seems that many children can also hear sounds of a spoken word in order, but it is unknown when this ability develops.

Some research done by the International Reading Association determines that the development, of phonemic awareness, occurs over a period of time and grows into more and more sophisticated levels of mastery. Other research suggests that each child has their own diverse path of development in learning phonemic awareness. This means that everyone will learn their own phonemic awareness at their own pace- some older, some younger. However, it is easier to learn it when you’re younger and in school than as an adult.

What happens if someone doesn’t acquire phonemic awareness?

Essentially, they aren’t able to know the relationship between a written letter and its sound. This can be an issue because they might write an email to their boss saying,  “All be late for the meeting because I half an appointment”. What they mean to say is, “I’ll be late for the meeting because I have an appointment.” However, because they didn’t develop a phonemic awareness, they don’t understand that “all” and “I’ll”, and “half” and “have” are different words with different meanings.

Can one’s phonemic awareness be improved after childhood?

It’s proven that children have flexible brains- they have more elasticity. This means that it’s easier to teach a child something and have them remember it than an adult. According to the International Reading Association, the majority of kids, around 80%, develop a rather complete phonemic awareness by the middle of the first grade (between 5-7 years). So what happens to the 20% that haven’t developed it yet? If a child hasn’t developed phonemic awareness by age 7-ish, the likelihood that they become a successful reader is very slim.

How is phonemic awareness measured?

Phonemic awareness is measured by a variety of tasks and activities that use the ability to manipulate the sounds of oral language. When measuring a child’s ability, it’s better to use rhyming activities rather than segmentation (splitting up a word into syllables) activities because segmentation is a linguistic aspect that appears later in children. An example of a rhyming activity is to say a word, like “key”, and ask what rhymes with it, like “ski”.

What Does a Lack of Phonemic Awareness Look Like?

Those who lack phonemic awareness struggle with:

  • Grouping words together with similar and dissimilar sounds
    • Cat, sat, mat
  • Blending and splitting syllables
    • Down  is pronounced with the “d” separately to show the emphasis of the “d” sound, like “d-own”
  • Blending sounds into words
    • /p/, /a/, and /n/ become “pan”
  • Segmenting a word as a sequence of sounds
    • “Fish” is made from three phonemes/sounds: /f/, /i/, /sh/
  • Detecting and manipulating sounds within words
    • Changing the “c” in “cat” to an “s”

Phonemic awareness activities

  • Phoneme isolation: Recognizing individual sounds within a word.
    • “Say the first sound you hear in the word ‘pasta’” (/p/).
  • Phoneme identity: Recognizing the common sound in different words.
    • “Tell me the sound that is the same in ‘house’, ‘hat’, and ‘hair’” (/h/).
  • Phoneme substitution: Where one word can turn into another by replacing a phoneme for another.
    • Initial sounds (cat-hat)
    • Middle sounds (cat-cut)
    • Ending sounds (cat-can).
  • Oral segmenting: Where the instructor says a word and the students say all of the individual sounds within the word.
    • The teacher says, “bus” and students say, /b/, /ʌ/, and /s/.
  • Oral blending: Where the instructor says each sound and the students respond with the word.
    • The teacher says “/b/, /ʌ/, and /s/” and students respond with the word, “bus”.
  • Sound deletion: Where the instructor says a word, the students repeat it, and then the students are instructed to repeat it without the first sound.
    • “What is “fun” without the /f/? The students should then respond with “un”
    • Sound deletion exercises could go so far as to delete the whole word sound by sound: “school”[skuːl] → “chool” [kuːl]→ “ool” [uːl] → “l”[l]
  • Onset-rhyme manipulation: While not all words have onsets, the onset (the initial sound of a word. The ‘c’ in cat, for example) and rhyme manipulation exercise is effective in helping kids recognize common chunks and syllables within words. This is useful for decoding new words when reading and spelling words when writing.
    • j-ump, st-op, str-ong, sch-ool
  • Sound addition: Where students add sounds to words.
    • “pot” → “spot”
    • “lock” → “clock”

Phonemic awareness games

There are some sources that provide games to help improve a child’s phonemic awareness.

  • Reading Rocket contains free entertainment on literacy and phonemic awareness for kids, parents, and teachers with games and activities for all ages and levels using quizzes, adventure packs, and printable activities. 
  • Sight Words is a website designed to help improve phonemic awareness by using miniature lessons in the form of a game to help children become more aware of phoneme while playing.
  • PBS Kids uses interactive online games to practice phonemic awareness skills.
  • Five from Five is an online resource that provides free online games to use both in the classroom and at home to develop and improve phonemic awareness.

How and when did you learn to read? What are some fun activities you know to help phonemic awareness? Let us know in the comments below!

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