Article Phonemic Awareness

WHAT IS PHONEMIC AWARENESS?

Someone who is phonemically aware, can hear the individual sounds in words.

It’s important for everyone to be able to hear the individual sounds in words during at least one stage in their lives. For some people, it’s important to be able to hear the individual sounds during a later part of their lives, as well.

It’s essential for babies to be able to hear the individual sounds in their mother tongue, so they can mimic the sounds and learn to speak correctly. Very young babies are so phonemically aware that they can hear the individual sounds in all languages – that’s why they can learn any language.

Young children can access this ability, if they hear the sounds of another language early enough.

Adults can regain phonemic awareness skills in relation to their own language, but can find it very difficult to learn to speak all the sounds in another language because they truly might not be able to hear all the sounds in that other language. For example, adults who learn English as a second language often cannot hear the first sound in thirsty.

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The information in this article is largely based on material found in:

Why Our Children Can’t Read, and What We Can Do About It
by Diane McGuinness, Ph.D.

[To learn more about this book, go to the Articles page, and scroll down to the Books/Reading Materials – Books for Parents and Tutors link.]

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ENGLISH-SPEAKERS NEED PHONEMIC AWARENESS SKILLS

People wanting to become literate in a language that is written with an alphabet, such as English, need to re-learn the skill of hearing individual sounds – because alphabetic languages are based on the idea that each sound in the language can be represented by a written letter (or letter team).

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CAN WE LEARN TO READ WITHOUT PHONEMIC AWARENESS?

In English, the only alternative to learning phonemic awareness and the sound/letter combinations used to represent the sounds, is to learn whole words off by heart/by rote. This is the foundation for the learn to read method called Whole Word.

Alphabets are not the only way to read and write, though. Chinese people, for example, use signs, with each sign representing a whole word or a syllable. Children learning to read Chinese have to learn thousands of signs in order to become literate. Since the human brain was not designed to find lots of memorisation easy, it takes Chinese children years to become literate.

And teaching English literacy by using the Whole Word or Balanced Literacy (or any method that teaches lots of Sight Words) makes learning English literacy similar to learning Chinese literacy. Teaching that way means it takes native English-speaking children years of study in order to become literate, because they have to memorise thousands of words.

Many students taught to read by the Whole Word method never manage to become fluent readers and accurate spellers of English, purely because they’ve being taught in a way that is inconsistent with the way English works. Having to learn English literacy as though it was Chinese literacy makes learning literacy much more difficult than it needs to be.

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HOW DOES BEING PHONEMICALLY AWARE HELP US BE LITERATE?

The following literacy skills rely on the ability to hear the sounds in English:.
1. Being able to separate the sounds in a word;

2. Being able to blend the sounds back into a word;

3. Being able to represent each sound in a word in written form;

4. Being sufficiently aware of the sounds and their position in a word, to be able to apply the different rules or patterns that apply to writing a sound in the different parts of a word (e.g. we most commonly write sound /z/*  with letter z at the beginning of a word, but most commonly write sound /z/ with letter s at the end of a word e.g. zip, has; and

5. Being able to represent the sounds when we write foreign words.

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* When I write a letter between slash marks I’m talking about the sound most commonly shown by that letter, not the letter name.

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BLENDING CAN TAKE A LOT OF EFFORT

Since students already blend sounds together when they speak, teaching blending is a matter of bringing their attention to the fact that they do this already, rather than having to teach blending from scratch – then building on that skill.

When students recognise that they can blend already, because they can blend together sounds that you’ve said – then you can explain to them that when they read, they’re saying the sounds from reading them aloud, and then blending those sounds together. So they’re blending sounds they’ve said themselves, rather than sounds you’ve said.

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Blending written words takes lots of concentration because as students read words, they have to:

1. Remember which sound the letter represents;

2. Sound each letter out clearly and in order;

3. Hold all the individual sounds in the word in memory;

4. Blend the sounds together into a word;

5. Recognise the word they’ve blended (or learn it, if it’s a new word); and

6. Recall the meaning of the word (or learn it, if it’s a new word).

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And they might find having to do all these tasks overwhelming. But there’s a way to help students ‘get over the learning hump’ once they’ve remembered the sound for the letter and sounded the word out correctly.

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DON’T GIVE THE ANSWER; GIVE WORKING MEMORY

Once the student has sounded out a word correctly, for example he or she has sounded out in as:
/i/ /n/, then you can say,
“That’s right! Now, blend /i/ /n/ for me.” [Remembering to say the sounds separately.]

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By repeating the sounds the student has already said, you’re not giving them the answer by telling them what the sounds were – they provided that information. Instead, you’re providing some extra ‘working memory’ by doing the third step for them. The third step was: Hold all the individual sounds in the word in memory. (Students sometimes find it easier to repeat the sounds you’ve just repeated for them.)

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Then, students can concentrate on the next task:
Blending the sounds together into a word.

You might have to say the separate sounds closer and closer together a few times, with the student repeating them, before they can hear the word.

Once they’ve recognised the word and are sure they know what it means (This is neither the time, nor the place, for long-winded explanations), go on to the next word.

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As students get better at these different steps, they’ll need less of your help.
Note: It’s OK for students to sound out and then blend (for months, if necessary), until they can sound words out as quickly as their eyes can see the letters.

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SOUNDING OUT AND BLENDING BECOMES ONE STEP 

There are some activities that will help shorten the time needed for sounding out and blending to be done as separate steps. They are making sure students:

  • listen carefully to the individual sounds in words you have spoken; 
  • repeat those sounds accurately, in order;
  • build a very firm link between each sound and its letter;
  • learn to say the relevant sound as soon as they see the letter;
  • listen to themselves say those individual sounds in order;
  • blend those individual sounds they have said into the right word;
  • recognise the word they have heard themselves speak (if they know it); and
  • comprehend the meaning of the word they have spoken (or learn its meaning).

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FLASHCARDS ARE VERY USEFUL

Flashcards are the quickest and easiest way I have found to help students forge the link between sounds and letters. Some students will need extra help to reinforce the sound/letter link.

Please note: I am wanting you to show the student flashcards of the letters, NOT flashcards of words!

It’s important not to rush through the foundational phonemic awareness skills. These skills can be learned through doing the Phonemic Awareness Video Course.