“Help!  My child’s teacher said that my child has trouble with Phonemic Awareness. What does that mean???”

As Literacy Coaches we often are asked to explain some of the words and phrases that are used in the “business” of education but may not be familiar to those outside of the walls of the school.  One of those oft used but not clearly understood phrases used by early childhood educators is “phonemic awareness”.

The Partnership for Reading defines phonemic awareness as: “the ability to identify, hear, and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words. Manipulating the sounds in words includes blending, stretching, or otherwise changing words”.

This definition is in line with one of our core beliefs about early literacy in that it emphasizes that early reading and writing begins with oral language first.  Children need to hear and understand the individual sounds (phonemes) first in the spoken before we can expect them to read and write them.

The stages of phonemic awareness that children develop usually follows a logical path however individual students may have different paths to the same outcome or may need some extra time to develop one stage more than another.  Educators believe that children who do not develop these milestones can be explicitly taught to hear the sounds in our language.

Speech and Language Pathologist, Robert Kurtz,  describes the stages of Phonemic Awareness as follows:

Pre-phonemic discriminatory listening skills: the ability to distinguish among non-speech environmental sounds (e.g., a beanbag falling on a wooden floor versus a plastic ball falling on a wooden floor), and to identify objects by the sound they make (e.g., a horn, a bell, a helicopter, etc.)

Alliteration and rhyme: the ability to identify and produce words that rhyme or that begin with the same phoneme. (cat, rat, bat  and /b/ big, ball, boat)

Phoneme Segmentation: the ability to analyze the syllables and individual phonemes of a word, phrase, or sentence.  (sunshine = sun and shine)

Phoneme Isolation: the ability to identify the first, middle, or last phonemes in a monosyllabic word. (cat = /c/ /a/ /t/

Phoneme Deletion: the ability to identify how a word would sound if a part of it were omitted.

Phoneme Substitution: the ability to replace a phoneme in a word with another phoneme to form a new word. ( cat…change to bat or sat)

Phoneme Blending: the ability to identify a word when hearing parts of the word presented in isolation.  /c/ /a/ /t/ = cat

Letter-sound correspondence: the ability to identify the phonemes represented by individual letters and combinations of letters.  /c/ = c

Phonetic reading: the ability to “sound out” and pronounce unfamiliar words based on spelling.

Phonetic spelling: the ability to use prior knowledge of spelling rules to write familiar words the student has not learned to spell.

Parents and teachers can help to develop phonemic awareness in young children first and foremost by reading aloud daily.  Language rich environments help children to hear and understand the way our language works.  ABC books and books that have lots of rhythm and rhyme can make listening engaging and fun.

Playing words games in the car or on walks can help to develop oral and listening discrimination and develop the connection between listening and speaking sounds and words. ” I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with cat that you use to play baseball and it begins with b”.

Exposing your child to materials to make books or write at home can help to develop moving your child from hearing to recording sounds.   Simple logo books with pictures and labels from magazines can be entertaining and educational.  Saving these homemade books to reread will help to develop confidence and fluency.

The possibilities of activities to develop phonemic are endless.  These activities not only build your child’s phonemic awareness and ability to hear the sound of our language but also develop a bond based on a love for reading and writing.   The best advice for parents is always to READ, TALK, ASK, and LISTEN.