The Importance of Phonemic Awareness
This is a topic that is near and dear to our hearts because it is so very important for our beginner or struggling readers. If you are using a structured literacy program, this absolutely, must be a focus of your instruction. Often times, phonemic awareness can be taken for granted. It can be assumed that if a child is past a certain age, that their phonemic awareness skills are strong.
The truth is a majority of struggling readers have weaknesses in this area and it is one of the major reasons they haven’t been able to gain ground in reading abilities. This is an important skill set that should not be overlooked and you can't just assume its something your student has learned.
What is it?
Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the sounds (or phonemes) in words.
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. For example, the spoken word "dog" can be broken down into three separate and distinct phonemes or sounds: /d/ /o/ /g/.
Developing phonemic awareness is important because it creates the building blocks for spelling and word recognition skills. In fact, it is a critical foundational piece to learning to read and write. Phonemic awareness is one of the best indicators of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of school. Students at risk for reading challenges often have lower levels of phonemic awareness than their peers.
Difficulties with phonemic awareness skills include:
Having a hard time hearing or making rhymes
Challenges substituting the first letter in a word with another letter
Not being able to break a word into syllables
These struggles can all be indicators of an underlying disability such as dyslexia.
How do I teach it?
The good news is that phonemic awareness can be developed through a number of activities.
One of the most important things to consider when analyzing a student’s grasp of phonemic awareness skills is to never assume theses skills are strong just because of a student’s age. A number of assessments (such as the iReady) don’t even test a student on phonemic awareness skills past grade 3 because it is assumed that they are already in tact due to the students’ grade level or age.
This assumption can be harmful for a student who may have an underlying disability or undiagnosed issue such as dyslexia. If you are working with a struggling reader who is older, it is important to assess their phonemic awareness skills. We know that one of the core deficits of dyslexia is a lack of awareness and understanding of the smallest units of sound. This makes phonemic skills very hard to master. A lack of phonemic awareness can drastically impact older readers.
Popular activities to support this skill acquisition
An easy “spot-check” that you can do with your older students is to ask them to rhyme with you. Give them a word that is age appropriate (don’t use words like cat, pig, house, etc. as many students have these rhymes memorized). Use unique words and ask the student to produce rhymes for that word. Click here for tips for when the student can’t hear the rhyme.
You can also ask them to manipulate sounds within a word, such as, “Think of the word 'pitch,' now replace the /p/ sound in 'pitch' with /h/ sound. What word do you have?” The new word would be 'hitch.' By helping your student manipulate the sounds within a word, you are helping them strengthen their phonemic awareness skills.
If you see struggles with either one of these tasks, it is a sure sign that you need to devote some time to helping your older student strengthen their phonemic awareness skills. This is at the core of decoding and may need clear and detailed instruction in order to be successful.