The Importance of Phonemic Awareness

I think the most commonly overlooked factor when teaching a child to read is phonemic awareness.  It is an essential skill for your child to master before they can connect the sounds of language to our written letters in reading and writing.

Children experimenting with spoken language will learn the fundamentals for reading.

Exactly What Are Phonemic and Phonological Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken language. For example, if I were to say out loud the word cat, most fluent speakers of English would be able to identify three distinct sounds: /k/, /ă/, and /t/. Phonemic awareness is a more general ability to understand the sound structure of words. If I asked a fluent speaker to produce a rhyming word they would be able to swap out the first sound for a different one (such as /v/) to make a new word (like vat). That would be an example of phonological awareness.

Phonemic and phonological awareness have nothing to do with written language. Knowing that the word “cat” begins with the letter C or that letter C makes the /k/ sound are both in the domain of phonics, not phonemic awareness. However phonics skills are built upon the foundations created by phonological awareness. If you want to read more on hierarchical knowledge structures read our article on, How to Learn Anything.

Tasks That Require Phonological Awareness

Some skills that you might want to consider helping your child to master include:
  • identifying the initial, medial, or final phoneme in a word,
  • creating lists of words that share an initial phoneme,
  • naming words that rhyme,
  • identifying a phoneme that a group of words all share (such as knowing that doll, duck, and Dan all begin with the /d/ sound)
  • substituting one phoneme for another to make a new word
  • segmenting a word into it's component sounds
  • blending sounds into a word
  • deleting a sound from a word (for example deleting the /b/ sound from ball gives you all)

It's probably not a good idea to introduce all of these skills at once. One or two skills at a time would probably be best until your child becomes comfortable.

Why Are Phonemic and Phonological Awareness Important?

What then, is the value of phonemic/phonological awareness? Why should you consider making it a part of your child's education? Having a firm understanding of spoken language and the sounds (or phonemes) that make up all of our speech creates a strong foundation for being able to connect that speech to written symbols later. In other words having a strong sense of the spoken language gives children the skills they need in order to learn phonics easily. In fact, the National Reading Panel has found that strong phonemic awareness improves a child's word reading, reading comprehension, and spelling. This makes perfect sense because a child will not be able to correlate the letters of the alphabet to their sounds unless they are first well acquainted with those sounds and how they work.

It might seem strange that children have to learn how to manipulate the sounds in spoken language given how easily and intuitively they learn to speak, however speaking is a distinct skill from hearing distinctly and isolating all of the individual sounds in speech.

Preschool is a great opportunity to work on phonemic and phonological awareness with your child because they are not yet reading and they are naturally drawn to speech. Even toddlers can do many of the following activities to prepare for future reading (and have fun too!).

Fun Ways To Help Your Child Build Phonemic and Phonological Awareness

There are many strategies for helping your child create a sense of phonemic awareness. Most of them take very little time at all. Throughout your day, offers these activities, even for only a couple of minutes at a time. When choosing stories to read your child, include some that use alliteration (using several words that begin with the same phoneme) or rhyme. When reading, draw your child's attention to these features inviting them to guess what comes next using sound as a clue.

A fun exercise to do with phonemes is to do a sound bucket. Fill a dishpan (or similarly sized container) with objects that are familiar to the child that all begin with the same sound (such as a rocket toy, raccoon stuffed animal, radish, rake from their beach toys, etc. for the /r/ sound). Invite the child to investigate the objects, say the words for the objects out loud, etc. Draw their attention to the initial phoneme sound. Ask them if they can find other objects around the house that begin with the same sound (or have them choose another sound to “hunt” for). You can also do a very similar activity where you “hunt” for pairs of rhyming words around the house (for example a toy mouse and a toy house).

The car is an excellent place to practice phonemic awareness, because you and your child can really only interact using your voices anyway. A fun game to play is to take turns saying words. Each person has to choose a word that begins with the same sound that the last word ended in. For example, if my daughter chooses the word dog, I could choose the word goat (because dog ends in a hard g and goat begins with a hard g). Last time we were driving home from the beach, this game was a life saver. When this game becomes too easy, you could try narrowing the choice of words to a single category such as “animals” or “places.”

One activity that Little M. thinks is hilarious is to take a word and then substitute another sound for it's initial phoneme. Usually this creates a nonsense word. For example, you could show your child a picture of a fox. Ask them to identify it. Then ask them to substitute the beginning sound with other sounds: /b/ becomes box, /d/ becomes dox, /l/ becomes lox, /n/ becomes nox! She usually ends up in a fit of laughter by the end because it can get quite silly.

Thank you for taking the time to stop by A Dash of Learning and read our take on phonemic awareness. If you found this article helpful or interesting, please consider sharing it with your friends on social media and/or leaving a comment below. We'd love to hear from you! Do you spend much time in your day teaching your child phonemic awareness? What strategies have helped you the most? Let us know.

Phonemic Awareness

Don't Forget to Teach This Important Reading Skill: Phonemic Awareness


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