Phonemic Awareness - What is it? Why is it important?

Updated: Mar 17, 2019

Have you ever wondered how a word is put together?

Do you lay awake at night trying to figure out why a word is spelled a certain way?

Are you concerned when the letters in a word change positions that it actually changes the meaning of the word?

Probably NOT.

You know that you can unlock any word you encounter, either through a basic understanding of how words are put together, from contextual clues or you have just simply memorized the word.

Whatever system you use its so automatic that you really don’t pay much attention, right?

Reading is EASY.

BUT for a child who struggles to read because each word has to be sounded out or for those words that can’t be sounded out, must come from their memory, reading is quite tedious.

Who wants to do something that is hard ALL OF THE TIME, right?

Reading is DIFFICULT.

For the next couple minutes, I want to unpack the underlying structure of a word.

I know, I know. This sounds like it could be a really boring blog post.

But what if I could make it interesting, and give you those aHa! LIGHT BULB moments?

Maybe shed a little light on why knowing the structure of a word makes all the difference in understanding how to tackle it.

I’m Jean Harville, founder of Private Reading Tutoring.

Phonemic Awareness - The Foundation of Reading

Let’s start at the beginning stages of reading since your child needs to develop phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the foundation of reading. We read to either be entertained or to gain knowledge. Therefore, comprehending what is read is the ultimate goal of reading. If phonemic awareness is weak, reading skills begin to falter.

Once your child can match sounds to letters and manipulate these sounds, they will move on to the next reading skill, such as phonics.

Most children will gain this understanding of phonemic awareness as preschoolers while you are reading to them, pointing out the relationship between letters and sounds.

HOWEVER there are children who struggle with this skill.

Phonemic Awareness Definition - Inquiring Minds Want to Know

What is a phoneme? A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that differentiates words in a given language. There are forty-four phonemes in the English language, represented by the twenty-six letters of our alphabet.

What is phonemic awareness and why is segmenting and blending sounds an important skill?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and isolate the individual phonemes in a word. For example, the word stop has four phonemes...the sounds represented by each of its letters.

A child with good phonemic awareness is able to feel the difference the individual sounds make in their mouths..... /s/ /t/ /o/ /p/..... stop and can arrange those sounds to make new words..... /p/ /o/ /t/ /s/ ....pots or ..../t/ /o/ /p/ /s/.... tops.

Phonemes are not the same as letters. For example, the word boat has only three phonemes.... /b/ /oa/ /t/,... though it has four letters; the “o a” is a digraph that represents a single sound,..... the long vowel sound of /oe/.

Of course children need to be exposed to print to see the letters and feel the sounds as they speak them. Children begin to gain phonemic awareness when they learn that letters represent sounds.

Phonemic awareness is a learned skill, reinforced and strengthened through reading practice.

What does this mean for a child who is a struggling reader or who may have dyslexia?

  • most likely score low on tests designed to measure phonemic awareness

  • struggle using phonics to decode new words causing reading delays

  • fall further behind their peers as time goes on.

This is why most programs that are designed to help children who struggle with reading must include specific training in phonemic awareness.

Get Your Mouth Ready For Some Phonemic Awareness Examples

Now that you have a basic understanding of phonemic awareness, let’s have some fun applying these skills. Are you ready?

I will say a word with the sounds isolated. You will repeat after me feeling the sounds in your mouth...notice what your tongue and lips are doing

and the sequence of this movement.

Here we go...

"Say /m/ /a/ /t/ ......mat ....Let’s change the first sound to /b/. /b/ /a/ /t/ ....bat...

Did you feel the difference in the first sound..../m/ to /b/?

Your lips stayed together for the /m/.... and the lips popped open for the /b/.

Your turn....say /b/ /a/ /t/..... bat. Now change the... /t/ to /g/.

What is the new word? ......bag. How did the feeling in your mouth change for the last sound /t/ to /g/?

The position of the tongue in the mouth changed from the front to the back.

Let’s do one more....say /b/ /a/ /g/ ...bag. Now change the /b/ to /t/.

What is the new word? ....tag.

You’ve got it."

When the child masters these basic manipulations, the words can become more complex as the child is ready, moving to 4 sounds and digraphs.

Once they are proficient at this level, building multi-syllabic words with prefixes and suffixes are much easier.

Being able to shift sounds in a word to make new words, indicates the child may now have an understanding of phonemic awareness. This new understanding will play a huge part in being successful in decoding words.

They are ready for the Rules of Words...Phonics - Know Your Syllable Divider.

In my next blog post, I will address some basic vowel patterns and how knowing these little tricks will unlock words as your child begins to apply Phonics.

Jean Harville


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