posted January 26th, 2017 by Brian Neese
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech. There are approximately 41 phonemes in the English language, according to a report from the National Reading Panel. Other estimates vary between 36 and 44 phonemes, Connie Juel writes in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2.
Syllables and words are a combination of phonemes. Some words have only one phoneme, such as a or oh. But most words blend several phonemes, such as go with two phonemes, or check with three phonemes, or stop with four phonemes, according to the National Reading Panel.
Phonemic awareness (PA) reflects a deep understanding of these units of sound. PA and letter knowledge are the two strongest school-entry predictors of how well students will learn to read in their first two years of school. Educators can implement phonemic awareness strategies to benefit children with reading skills.
Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken words, according to the National Reading Panel.
Phonemic awareness represents a high level of phonological awareness, or understanding different ways oral language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated. Phonological awareness may begin with a child recognizing language sounds in rhyming songs and progress to recognizing how sentences can be broken down into individual words.
Finally, the child may be able to approach individual words. This involves syllables, onset (the initial consonant or consonant cluster), rime (the vowel and consonants that follow the onset), and individual phonemes. The following examples of the term “protect” provide an illustration.
“The term phonological awareness refers to a general appreciation of the sounds of speech as distinct from their meaning,” the National Research Council says in Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. “When that insight includes an understanding that words can be divided into a sequence of phonemes, this finer-grained sensitivity is termed phonemic awareness.”
Assessing phonemic awareness typically involves tasks such as isolating or segmenting one or more phonemes of a spoken word, blending or combining a sequence of separate phonemes into a word, or manipulating the phonemes within a word, such as by adding or subtracting. For instance, a teacher may have students replace the /c/ in “cat” to /p/ to create a new word (“pat”).
The National Reading Panel analyzed 96 cases comparing treatment groups that received phonemic awareness education to control groups that received either an alternative form of instruction or no special instruction. Three main outcome variables were examined: phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling.
Training was found to be very effective in teaching phonemic awareness to students. The effect was strong immediately after training and remained so long-term. Phonemic awareness training also improved children’s ability to read and spell in the short and long term, and this effect was moderate.
“Findings of the meta-analyses show that PA training benefits the processes involved in reading real words, pseudowords, and text reading,” the National Reading Panel says. “It also benefits spelling skills in normally progressing readers below 2nd grade and in beginners at risk for developing reading problems.”
The National Reading Panel identified common tasks used to assess or improve children’s phonemic awareness. These methods include:
Activities and games are a great way to help educators teach phonemic awareness. The following examples are from the journal Intervention in School and Clinic, in an excerpt reprinted by Reading Rockets.
Phonemic awareness strategies help young children build a foundation for reading and spelling. When students are ready to read, reading activities for kids can further develop these abilities and encourage a passion for reading.
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