The Importance of Teaching Phonemic Awareness to Young Children
Many educators of young children have heard proclamations about the importance of teaching phonemic awareness to students. Even so, there are still misconceptions about what phonemic awareness really is and why it is so important to the early success of reading readiness.
Phonemic awareness is often mistakenly used interchangeably with the terms phonological awareness or phonics. To be specific, phonemic awareness refers to an understanding about the smallest units of sound that make up speech: phonemes (IRA, p.1). Phonological awareness encompasses larger units of sound as well, such as syllables, onsets, and rimes. Phonics involves decoding words by using the sound value of letters and/or groups of letters. Phonemic awareness may be a key to learning phonics and spelling but they are not the same.
Research indicates that to become a successful reader children need to acquire two insights about language. These two insights are the alphabetic principle and phonemic awareness (National Reading Council). The alphabetic principle is the awareness that spoken sounds are represented by written letters whereas phonemic awareness is the insight that spoken words are made up of a sequence of somewhat separable sounds or phonemes. However, before children can make any sense of the alphabetic principle, they must understand that those sounds that are paired with the letters are one and the same as the sounds of speech.
Some educators are under the assumption that phonemic awareness is sounding out words for reading or using spelling patterns to write words. These assumptions are incorrect, phonemic awareness involves the ability to manipulate sounds in oral and written language that children are exposed to. Nursery rhymes, chants, and Dr. Seuss books usually play a large role in this development (Cunningham).
Tompkins stated that there are two ways in which phonemic awareness develops. The first way is when children learn playfully as they sing songs, chant rhymes, and listen to parents and teachers read wordplay books to them. These experiences stimulate children to experiment with sounds, create nonsense words, and to become enthusiastic about reading.
The second way phonemic awareness develops is when teachers teach lessons to help students understand that their speech is composed of sounds. The awareness of phonemes is difficult for many children because people do not attend to sounds of phonemes as they produce or listen to speech. Phonemes are instead processed automatically because people are focusing their attention to the meaning as a whole. The challenge for teachers is to find ways to get children to notice the phonemes and be able to separate them. Many activities start with preschool-age children involving rhyme, rhythm, listening, and sounds that are ideally suited for this purpose.
Many educators want to know the amount of time they should focus their instruction on phonemic awareness skills. A teacher can determine this based on a good understanding of the research on phonemic awareness and of his or her students’ needs and abilities. Research suggests that different children may need different amounts and forms of phonemic awareness instruction and experiences. However, one should not spend so much time on phonemic awareness that other important aspects of a balanced literacy curriculum are left out or abandoned (IRA, p. 2).
Phonemic awareness should be incorporated into a curriculum whether or not an educator uses mostly whole language instruction, phonics instruction, or a balanced approach. A study was done in 1991 by Klesius, Griffith, and Zielonka that compared children’s progress in learning to read in whole-language and traditional reading instruction classrooms. They found that children who began first grade with strong phonemic awareness did well regardless of the kind of reading instruction they received. Neither type of instruction was better for children who were low in phonemic awareness at the beginning of first grade.
Teachers that initiate children to listening activities introduce students to the art of listening actively, attentively, and analytically. Hearing nonspeech sounds is relatively easy and natural for children, provided that they are taught to pay attention.
Rhyme play is an excellent entry to phonemic awareness because it directs children’s attention to similarities and differences in sounds of words. A solid command of rhyming does not guarantee that a child will develop phonemic awareness but research does affirm that it is a valuable step in the right direction (Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, and Beeler).
Children should participate in activities that introduce them to the nature and existence of phonemes. These games can help them discover that words contain phonemes and help them begin to learn about phonemes’ separate identities so that they can recognize them and distinguish one from another. Adams, Foorman, and Beeler suggest that phonemes are easier to feel in one’s mouth than to hear with one’s ears so the children’s attention should be directed and redirected to the phonemes’ articulation. They believe that the children should be repeatedly encouraged to explore, compare, and contrast the phonemes. Children can be invited to look at each other while saying a given phoneme, or receive hand mirrors to examine the movement of their own mouths in order to explore how their voices and the positions of their mouths and tongues change with each sound.
Tompkins wrote that, “The goal of phonemic awareness activities is to break down and manipulate spoken words” (p. 169). She went further to explain the five ways students who have developed phonemic awareness can manipulate spoken language. They include matching words by sounds, isolating a sound in a word, blending individual sounds to form a word, substituting sounds in a word, and segmenting a word into its constituent sounds (Yopp, 1992).
Research suggests that the acquisition of phonemic awareness occurs over time and develops gradually into more and more sophisticated levels of control. Having that said, there is still no research to date that has evidence to suggest that there is any exact sequence of acquisition of specific sounds in the development of phonemic awareness, only that there is increasing control over sounds in general (IRA).
Phonemic and phonological awareness can and should be assessed within a classroom. As much as they both have to do with sounds of language, paper-and-pencil testing may seem invalid. However, research and experience has demonstrated that such testing can indeed usefully capture young children’s general levels of phonological and phonemic awareness (Adams, Foorman, & Lundberg). Testing each child is a lengthy process. Group testing was compared with individual testing and was shown to be very efficient. It was recommended however that in Kindergarten, testing groups should consist of two or three.
It is critical that teachers are familiar with the concept of phonemic awareness before they teach it in a classroom. Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp stated, “Few young children spontaneously acquire phonemic awareness. But when teachers plan activities and interact so as to draw attention to the phonemes in spoken words, children’s awareness develops.”
For over 50 years discussion and research has continued regarding the relationship between a child’s awareness of sounds of spoken words and his or her ability to read. Findings have shown that there is evidence to suggest that the relation between phonemic awareness and learning to read is reciprocal; phonemic awareness supports reading acquisition, and reading instruction and experiences with print assist phonemic awareness development (IRA). However, the IRA stated, “The precise relation between phonemic awareness abilities and reading acquisition remains under investigation.”
Elkonin (1973) and the National Institute for Literacy’s National Reading Panel (2000) identified phonemic awareness as an important ingredient in learning to read (Crawley and Merritt, p. 14). They found that phonemic awareness was a better predictor of reading readiness than standard reading readiness tests. In fact, research done by the IRA indicates that phonemic awareness abilities in kindergarten (or in that age range) appear to be the best single predictor of successful reading acquisition. Other researchers agree that preschool-age children’s awareness of phonemes has been shown to hold singular predictive power, statistically accounting for as much as 50% of the variance in their reading proficiency at the end of first grade (Blachman, 1991; Juel, 1991; Stanovich, 1986; and Wagner et al., 1994).
Studies that predict future success in learning to read based on a child’s level of phonemic awareness have been demonstrated not only among English students but also among Swedish, Norwegian, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian students (Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, and Beeler).
Crowley and Merritt reported that the National Institute for Literacy (2001, 2002) in its publications of the National Reading Panel Report and Put Reading First, and the International Reading Association’s summary of the Reading Panel Report (2002), emphasized that phonemic awareness can be taught, and it helps children learn to read and spell.
As a result to all the positive research in relation to phonemic awareness and reading success, there has been a large-scale federal intervention movement to affect reading instruction in schools (Graves, Graves, and Juel). The federal government has sponsored a substantial amount of research on reading through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). They stated that most of their research has been on young children, on beginning skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics, and on children who have difficulty learning to read. In 1998, the National Research Council published Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children that reviewed and brought to prominence much of the research sponsored by the NICHD. Furthermore, in 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) published the Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read. In their report they identified five elements of reading instruction that was strongly supported by research: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Although there is a substantial amount of research supporting the importance of children’s development of phonemic awareness skills, there are some negative aspects. Occasionally research findings about phonemic awareness are misused or over generalized in education settings. This occurs when schools make a policy that requires teachers to dedicate specific amounts of time to phonemic awareness instruction for all students or a policy that requires the use of particular training programs for all students. Again, research suggests that different children may need different amounts and forms of phonemic awareness instruction and experiences. One-size-fits-all programs may not be beneficial to all students in a classroom.
In conclusion, phonemic awareness is an important part of a balanced literacy program. Children who are aware of phonemes move easily and productively into reading and writing. Children who are not aware of phonemes are at serious risk of failing to learn to read. Teaching phonemic awareness will accelerate the reading and writing growth of the entire classroom and may reduce the incidences of children with reading difficulties.
Adams, M.J., Foorman, B.R., Lundberg, I., & Beeler, T. (1998). A classroom curriculum: Phonemic awareness in young children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Crawley, S.J., & Merritt, K. (2004). Remediating reading difficulties (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Cunningham, P.M. (2000). Phonics they use (3rd ed.). New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers.
Graves, M.F., Juel, C., & Graves, B.B. (2004). Teaching Reading in the 21st century (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Hempenstall, K. (1997). The role of phonemic awareness in beginning reading: A review. Behavior Change, 14 (4), 201-214.
International Reading Association. (1998). Phonemic awareness and the teaching of reading: A position statement from the board of directors of the international reading association (Brochure). Cunningham, H.W., Cunningham, P.M., Hoffman, J.V., and Yopp, H.K: Authors.
Neuman, S.B., Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S.B. (2000). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Tompkins, G.E. (2005). Language arts: Patterns of practice (6th ed.). Columbus, OH: Pearson Education.