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Phonemic Awareness


Q. You hear the term "phonemic awareness" as being important in the development of a child's reading skills. What does it mean?


It means being able to hear the sounds in spoken words that give them meaning. For example, a child who can hear the /c/ in "cat" as well as the /a/ sound in the middle and the /t/ sound at the end, has good phonemic awareness. A child who can rhyme words does, too.


A young child who has experience "playing" with language sounds has good phonemic awareness. It's an even more important skill for reading success than intelligence. It's clear that giving a young child lots of practice with phonemic awareness will pay off in reading and writing ability on down the road. That fact is yet another reason why young children should be taught to read with phonics techniques, rather than the conglomeration of tactics in use in most schools today.


The meaningful sounds of speech are called phonemes. Linguists put phonemes inside slashed lines to symbolize how they are different from letters of the alphabet, as well as to show when speech-sound changes don't affect the meaning of the words. So the speech-sound for the letter "p" is written like this: / p / That's called a phonogram, since it's written down.


We Americans have gotten pretty sloppy in our speech and pronunciation, probably spurred on by television, and so we slur our phonemes a lot when we are talking to each other. It makes it hard to distinguish the individual sounds within the words. Grownups have been listening and speaking long enough to have learned how to do that automatically. But small children must learn how to hear and pronounce the phonemes properly in order to be able to translate meaning into written symbols that we call words.


This is why it is so important to NOT let small children watch much TV. Instead, they need to be listening and conversing a lot, preferably with an adult who has a big vocabulary, pronounces words correctly, and puts words in order correctly. The small child watches the adult's mouth form the letters, hear how those letters sound individually and slurred together, copies the "construction" process, and gradually begins speaking meaningfully.


One reason it is so hard for non-English speaking children to pick up English for reading and writing in school is that their parents and families at home aren't giving them this practice. Also a hindrance: the sound changes that distinguish between phonemes are different for each language. For example, in Spanish, the / s / and the / z / sound the same, so it is difficult for a child from a Spanish-speaking home to understand the difference in meaning between the very similarly-spelled zip and sip.


There also are differences in the aspiration, or pronunciation of the various phonemes, that make it difficult for small children to hear and pronounce the phonemes accurately. Compare how the / t / sounds in the word "top" vs. the word "stop," for example.


Children who have trouble hearing the differences between consonant sounds are called dysphasic, and will likely need special-education services to help them master reading and writing.

For more about phonemic awareness, see the article, "Job One of a Preschool Parent: Building Phonemic Awareness," #10 in the Preschool category in


Homework: See the book, Early Language: The Developing Child, by Peter A. and Hill G. de Villiers.


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 18 2008


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