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.
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
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.
- Syllable: /pro/ and /tEkt/
- Onset and Rime Within the Syllable: /pr/ and /o/, and /t/ and /Ekt/, respectively
- Individual Phonemes: /p/, /r/, /o/, /t/, /E/, /k/, and /t/
“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”).
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Effectiveness of Phonemic Awareness Strategies and Training
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.”
Phonemic Awareness Strategies
The National Reading Panel identified common tasks used to assess or improve children’s phonemic awareness. These methods include:
- Isolation: This means recognizing individual sounds in words. For example, the first sound in “paste” (/p/).
- Identity: This is recognizing the common sound in different words. For example, the sound that is the same in “bike,” “boy” and “bell” (/b/).
- Categorization: This is when the child is asked to find the odd sound in a sequence of three or four words. For example, “rug” is the word that does not belong in “bus, bun and rug.”
- Blending: By listening to a sequence of separately spoken sounds, the child learns to combine them to form a recognizable word. For example, the word created with the sounds “/s/ /k/ /u/ /l/” is “school.”
- Segmentation: Students may tap out or count the sounds of a word, or pronounce and position a marker for each sound. For example, counting the number of phonemes in “ship” (three: /š/ /I/ /p/).
- Deletion: When a phoneme is removed, the child learns to recognize the word that remains. For example, the word created when /s/ from “smile” is eliminated (“mile”).
Activities and Games
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.
Simple Phonemic Awareness
- Isolated Sound Recognition: Instructors can associate phonemes with a creature, an action or an object familiar to the child. For instance, associating the phoneme /s/ with the hissing sound of a snake and calling it a “Sammy snake” sound. Others include the crowing rooster for /r/, a buzzing bee for /z/ and the “be quiet” sound for /sh/. These sound personalities create a natural connection for children.
- Word, Syllable and Phoneme Counting: Instructors can read sentences to children without the sentence being visible. The children place a marker from left to right for each word heard, and the teacher can confirm the amount of words by showing the printed sentence and pointing to each word as it is read. Clapping hands, tapping the desk or marching in place can help children count syllables or sounds in words.
- Sound-to-Word Matching: Instructors can show children a picture of a dog, and ask children to identify the correct word out of three options (“Is there an /mmm/-og, a /d/d/d/-og or an /sss/-og?”). A variation is to ask if the word has a particular sound (“Is there a /d/ in dog?”).
Compound Phonemic Awareness
- Word-to-Word Matching: Instructors can use games to help children practice determining whether two words begin with the same sound. Dominoes, card games and even a bingo game using similar sounds can all be effective. One game is to make a set of dominoes with two pictured objects on each side and have children join cards sharing beginning sounds. Another is a version of the card game “snap,” where children take turns drawing a card from a face-down pile and placing it in a face-up pile. When a card has the same beginning sound as the top card in the face-up pile, the first child to say “snap” collects the pile. Or, children can play sound bingo using cards with pictures. Children mark when one of the pictures has the same beginning sound as the word said by the caller.
- Sound Deletion: Instructors can show pictures or point to objects in the room that are compound words, and demonstrate how each word can be said with a part missing. For instance, by saying “seesaw” without the “saw,” or saying “hotdog” without the “dog.” This can be done in the form of a “Simon says” game: “Simon says, ‘say bookmark without the book.’”
Building Skills in Reading
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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