Monday, October 31, 2016

Phonemic Awareness in Reading

I am embarrassed to say that when I started teaching, I had never heard the term phonemic awareness. Sure, I knew what a phoneme was and we studied phonics instruction in my reading methods class. By golly, I even remember a phonics workbook in 1st Grade.  But phonemic awareness was a new term, and I learned that it is powerful for teaching students to read.

Phonemic awareness is to reading, what numeracy is for math.  The ability to hear and manipulate phonemes is the most basic and underlying skill of reading.  However, phonemic awareness begins with other pre-reading skills that are part of a broader area called phonological awareness. When working with other teachers, I often say that this set of skills was learned on our mother's laps.  These skills are part of a continuum and the phonological awareness continuum is what helped me to understand the progression.

  • Rhyming - matching the end of the word - cat, hat, mat, sat
  • Alliteration - matching the beginning of the word - Sally sips soda.
  • Sentence Segmentation - sentences are made of separate words - The cat ran. (3 words)
  • Syllable Segmentation - segmenting words into syllable - can-dy
  • Compound Words - blending and segmenting compound words - rain/coat becomes raincoat
  • Onset and Rimes - blending and segmenting the initial consonant (onset) and the vowel and consonant after it (rime) - /b/ /ake/
  • Phonemes Blending and Segmenting - Blending phonemes into words and segmenting words into sounds  /bat/ segments to become /b//a//t/ or /k//i//t/ blends to be /kit/
One caution I remember my mentor telling me is that you can't do a phonemic awareness worksheet. Once you add print or letters to the equation it becomes phonics.  This made me laugh but it is true. You can use pictures to practice hearing sounds, but looking at letters and saying their sounds is phonics.  Phonics instruction is essential but you also have to make sure that students have phonological and phonemic awareness skills because deficits in these areas can truly hinder a child's ability to learn to read.

Once I understood the progression of skills, it became easier to help students who were at various places in their learning, especially those who were struggling.  If I had a student who was not hearing beginning sounds, I would look back at this continuum and try to pinpoint the earlier difficulty.  Can they rhyme or can they hear alliteration?  Finding a correct starting point on the continuum helps to fill in gaps.  For many kids who have been read to at home, they come to school with these skills already developing.  Conversely, when students have not been read to this continuum becomes even more important.  As teachers, we must make sure our universal instruction gives students rich experiences with read alouds, poems, and songs so they can develop this sound and print knowledge.

Phonemic awareness is at the very end of the continuum. It starts with blending and segmenting compound words, then onset and rimes, and finally phonemes.  Students need to understand how sounds blend or segment a word before they can blend letter sounds together to read.  It is also important for students to be able to segment words when they begin writing.  It is crucial for beginning readers and writers to have a great foundation in phonemic awareness!

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