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Phonemic Awareness in Young Children

Early Literacy Development

Phonemic Awareness in Young Children

Research shows that the very notion that spoken language is made up of sequences of little sounds does not come naturally or easily to human beings. The small units of speech that correspond to letters of an alphabetic writing system are called phonemes. Thus, the awareness that language is composed of these small sounds is termed phonemic awareness.

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Research indicates that, without direct instructional support, phonemic awareness eludes roughly 25 percent of middle-class first graders and substantially more of those who come from less literacy-rich backgrounds. Furthermore, these children evidence serious difficulty in learning to read and write (see Adams, 1990, for a review).

Why is awareness of phonemes so difficult? The problem, in large measure, is that people do not attend to the sounds of phonemes as they produce or listen to speech. Instead, they process the phonemes automatically, directing their active attention to the meaning and force of the utterance as a whole.

The challenge, therefore, is to find ways to get children to notice the phonemes, to discover their existence and separability. Fortunately, many of the activities involving rhyme, rhythm, listening, and sounds that have long been enjoyed by preschool-age children are ideally suited for this purpose. In fact, with this goal in mind, all such activities can be used effectively toward helping children develop phonemic awareness.

The purpose of this article is to provide concrete activities that stimulate the development of phonemic awareness in the preschool or elementary classroom. It is based on a program originally developed and validated by Lundberg, Frost, and Petersen (1988) in Sweden and Denmark.

What research says about phonemic awareness

A child’s level of phonemic awareness on entering school is widely held to be the strongest single determinant of the success that she or he will experience in learning to read — or, conversely, the likelihood that she or he will fail (Adams, 1990; Stanovich, 1986). In fact, research clearly shows that phonemic awareness can be developed through instruction, and, furthermore, that doing so significantly accelerates children’s subsequent reading and writing achievement (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Blachman, Ball, Black, & Tangel, 1994; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991, 1993, 1995; Caslte, Riach, & Nicholson, 1994; Cunninghman, 1990; Lundberg et al., 1988; Wallahc & Wallach, 1979; Williams, 1980).

About the structure of language

In order to build phonemic awareness in all children, classroom teachers should know a little about the structure of language, especially phonology. Phonology is the study of the unconscious rules governing speech-sound production. In contrast, phonetics is the study of the way in which speech sounds are articulated, and phonics is the system by which symbols represent sounds in an alphabetic writing system.

Phonological rules constrain speech-sound production for biological and environmental reasons. Biological constraints are due to the limitations of human articulatory-motor production. For example, humans are not able to produce the high-frequency vocalizations of whales. Other constraints on our ability to produce speech have to do with the way our brains classify and perceive the minimal units of sound that make a difference to meaning — the units we call phonemes.

The differences between the sounds of two phonemes are often very subtle: Compare /b/ with /p/. Yet, these subtle differences in sound can signal dramatic differences in meaning: Compare bat with pat. Fortunately, because phonemes are the basic building blocks of spoken language, babies become attuned to the phonemes of their native language in the first few months of life. However, this sensitivity to the sounds of the phonemes and the differences between them is not conscious. It is deeply embedded in the subattentional machinery of the language system.

Phonemes are also the units of speech that are represented by the letters of the alphabetic language. Thus, developing readers must learn to separate these sounds, one from another, and to categorize them in a way that permits understanding how words are spelled. It is this sort of explicit, reflective knowledge that falls under the rubric of phonemic awareness. Conscious awareness of phonemes is distinct from the built-in sensitivity that supports speech production and reception. Unfortunately, phonemic awareness is not easy to establish.

Part of the difficulty in acquiring phonemic awareness is that, from word to word and speaker to speaker, the sound of any given phoneme can vary considerably. These sorts of variations in spoken form that do not indicate a difference in meaning are referred to as allophones of a phoneme. For example, in the northern part of the United States, the pronunciation of grease typically rhymes with peace, whereas in parts of the South, it rhymes with sneeze. Similarly, the pronunciations of the vowels vary greatly across regions, dialects, and individuals.

Alternately, variations in spoken form sometimes eliminate phonetic distinctions between phonemes. Thus, for some people, the words pin and pen are pronounced differently with distinct medial sounds corresponding to their distinct vowels. For other people, however, these words are phonetically indistinguishable, leaving context as the only clue to meaning. Indeed, because of variations in the language even linguists find it difficult to say exactly how many phonemes there are in English; answers vary from forty-four to fifty-two.

It is also important to note that phonemes are not spoken as separate units. Rather, they are co-articulated; that is, when we speak, we fuse the phonemes together into a syllabic unit. For example, when we say bark aloud, we do not produce four distinct phonemes: /b/, /a/, /r/, /k/. Instead, our pronunciation of the initial consonant is influenced by the medial vowel, and the medial vowel is influenced by the consonants before and after it. Thus, we talk about r-controlled vowels like the “ar” in bark. Similarly, we speak of nasalized vowels before nasal consonants, such as in the words and, went, and gym. Because these vowels are assimilated into the following consonant in speech, most children have special difficulty representing them as distinct phonemes in reading and spelling, such that, for example, went might be read or spelled as W-E-T.

Consonants as well as vowels are affected by co-articulation. Consider the /t/ and /d/. Say the words write and ride. The /t/ and /d/ sound distinct in these two words. However, now say writer and rider. Now, the medial /t/ and /d/ phonemes are affected by /r/ in consonant blends. Pronounce the following pairs of words: tuck-truck; task-trash; dunk-drunk; dagger-dragon. Children notice the change in /t/ and /d/ when followed by /r/ and represent the phonetic detail with spellings of C-H-R-A-N for train and J-R-A-G-N for dragon.

The phonological awareness activities in this curriculum ask children to listen to the sameness, difference, number, and order of speech sounds. As the previous examples illustrate, such activities can become difficult when the phonetic level of speech does not relate cleanly or directly to the phonemic level. Yet, it is ultimately the phonemic level we are after because it is awareness of phonemes that allows children to understand how the alphabet works — an understanding that is essential to learning to read and spell.

About this curriculum

The design and sequence of activities in this article are intended to help children acquire a sense of the architecture of their language and the nature of its building blocks. As the children practice synthesizing words from phonemes and analyzing phonemes from words, they are also practicing hearing and saying the phonemes over and over, both in isolation and in context. They are becoming generally familiar with how the different phonemes sound and how they are articulated. They are becoming comfortable with hearing and feeling the identity and distinguishing characteristics of each phoneme, whether spoken in isolation or in the beginning, middle, or end of a variety of words.

Research shows that once children have mastered phonemic awareness in this way, useful knowledge of the alphabetic principle generally follows with remarkable ease — and no wonder: Having learned to attend to and think about the structure of language in this way, the alphabetic principle makes sense. All that’s left to make it usable is knowledge of the particular letters by which each sound is represented.

Phonemic activities

Click below for concrete activities that stimulate the development of phonemic awareness in the preschool or elementary classroom.


This article originally appeared in American Educator, Spring/Summer 1998, and was excerpted from Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum. Reprinted with permission of the authors.

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