Sounds and Letters

Close-up of teacher working with student on letter and speech sounds

Early literacy activities help young children develop many skills. One of these skills is phonological awareness. Learn about phonological awareness and how parents can help children develop it.

Learning to read begins well before the first day of school.

When Ron and Donna tell nursery rhymes to their baby, Mia, they are beginning to teach Mia to read.

  • Phonemic awareness

    They are helping her to hear the similarities and differences in the sounds of words. She will begin to manipulate and understand sounds in spoken language, and she will practice this understanding by making up rhymes and new words of her own.

  • Letter recognition and production

    She will learn the names of the letters and she will learn the different sounds each letter represents. As she gets a little older, Ron and Donna will teach her to write letters and numbers that she will already recognize by their shapes.

  • Letter–sound correspondence

    Finally, she will associate the letters of the alphabet with the sounds of the words she uses when she speaks. At this point, she is on her way to learning to read!

  • Decoding

    When she tries to read books with her parents, at school, and on her own, Mia will learn how to learn new words by sounding them out.

  • Fluency

    With more practice, she will begin to recognize familiar words easily and quickly, and she will know the patterns of spelling that appear in words and the patterns of words as they appear in sentences.

  • Comprehension

    She will be able to pay attention not just to the letters and words, but to the meanings they represent. Ultimately, Mia will be able to think about the meaning of the text as she reads.

Where does phonemic awareness fit into this process?

Key to the process of learning to read is Mia's ability to identify the different sounds that make words and to associate these sounds with written words. In order to learn thread, Mia must be aware of phonemes.

A phoneme is the smallest functional unit of sound. For example, the word cat contains three distinctly different sounds. There are 44 phonemes in the English language, including letter combinations such as /th/.

In addition to identifying these sounds, Mia must also be able to manipulate them. Word play involving segmenting words into their constituent sounds, rhyming words, and blending sounds to make words is also essential to the reading process.

The ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language is called phonemic awareness. Adams (1990) described five levels of phonemic awareness ranging from an awareness of rhyme to being able to switch or substitute the components in a word. While phonemic awareness affects early reading ability, the ability to read also increases phonemic awareness (Smith, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995).

Many children with learning disabilities have deficiencies in their ability to process phonological information. Thus, they do not readily learn how to relate letters of the alphabet to the sounds of language (Lyon, 1995). For all students, the processes of phonemic awareness must be explicitly taught.

Children from culturally diverse backgrounds may have particular difficulties with phonemic awareness. Exposure to language at home, exposure to reading at an early age, and dialect all affect the ability of children to understand the phonological distinctions on which the English language is built. Teachers must apply sensitive effort and use a variety of techniques to help children learn these skills when standard English is not spoken at home (Lyon, 1994).

Examples of phonological awareness tasks include:

  • phoneme deletion ("What word would be left if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?");
  • word to word matching ("Do pen and pipe begin with the same sound?");
  • blending ("What word would we have if we blended these sounds together: /m/ /o/ /p/?");
  • phoneme segmentation ("What sounds do you hear in the word hot?");
  • phoneme counting ("How many sounds do you hear in the word cake?"); and
  • rhyming ("Tell me all of the words that you know that rhyme with the word cat?") (Stanovich, 1994).

Beginning readers require more direct instructional support from teachers in the early stages of teaching. A sequence and schedule of opportunities for children to apply and develop facility with sounds should be tailored to each child's needs, and should be given top priority.

Opportunities to engage in phonological awareness activities should be plentiful, frequent, and fun (Kameenui, 1995).


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Adams, M.J. (1990) Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kame'enui, E.J. (Winter, 1996). Shakespeare and beginning reading: The readiness is all. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 27 (2).

Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.

Lyon, G.R. (1994). Research In Learning Disabilities at the NICHD. Technical document. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Smith, S.B., Simmons, D.C., & Kame'enui, E.J. (February, 1995). Synthesis of research on phonological awareness: Principles and implications for reading acquisition. (Technical Report no. 21, National Center to Improve the Tools of Education). Eugene: University of Oregon.

Stanovich, K.E. (1994). Romance and reality. The Reading Teacher, 47, 280-291.

Excerpted from: Beginning Reading and Phonological Awareness for Students with Learning Disabilities. (December, 1995). ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.


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