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Preschool        < Previous


Job One of a Preschool Parent:

Building 'Phonemic Awareness'


Q. I've heard that some preschool and grade-school educators do not realize the importance of sound in helping a child "crack the code" of the English language. How can parents fill in the gap and make sure their child connects the sounds that the alphabet letters make? It's obvious that that is important in helping children understand how those letters come together into words on a page.


You're speaking of "phonemic awareness," also known as "phonological awareness" or "auditory analysis." And yes, it is a crucial prereading skill that parents can do a tremendous service to their children to instill in those early years.


Almost all teachers know what phonemic awareness is, but you're right: preschool and early grade-school teachers should focus a lot more on the sounds that words make, and pronounce their words with more distinction, because that sets up young children to have more phonemic awareness, and to become better readers and writers.


Good listening and sound-discernment skills in a young child will go a long way toward preventing reading and writing disabilities, including dyslexia, on down the road. Phonemic awareness is also crucial for English language learners, and the good news is, those who come from families who speak sound-based languages themselves - including Spanish - have an easier time grasping English because of their phonemic practice with their native language.


The best way to give your child good phonemic awareness is to do what good parents are already doing: talking a lot with their child, reading aloud to their child, and making sure that music and rhythm and singing are a big part of that child's play time.


A "phoneme" (pronounced "FOE-neem) is a unit of speech sound. The sound that the letter /c/ makes in the word /cat/ is a phoneme. A "phonogram" is that same sound for the letter /c/ in writing. When children are familiar with the phonograms made by the letters of the English alphabet, and various combinations that they can make, and are able to "hear" them within spoken words, they will have phonemic awareness. And they will be positioned optimally to begin to read and write on their own, fluently and accurately.


But it all starts with the sense of sound. Basically, phonemic awareness helps a child discern the individual phonemes that are contained within the sound of a word. That's the best way to help them recognize a "grapheme" - which is that same word in written form.


A child who is starting to make the sound-symbol link will be conscious of the individual parts of the "sound stream" when he or she is listening to words being spoken. By "hearing" the individual parts of the word individually, the child is best able to automatically "hear" how the whole word should sound and look on paper. Example: the word "cat" is the sound stream of / c / followed by / a / followed by / t /.


The more practice the child has with this, the more the child can change around the sounds - rhyming them - and the more language mastery the child acquires.


This is another reason why parents are encouraged to help their child learn to "sound out" unfamiliar words - to say them aloud while looking at the text form of the word, and recognize the individual letters that, together, make the sounds that form that word when spoken aloud.


Phonemic awareness gives a child mastery of the structure of words, rather than their meaning. But it is believed that before you can grasp the meaning of a word, you have to have at least a shallow idea of how that word has come together as individual sounds. The more accurate your grasp of how those sounds are forming together into a word, the easier it is for your brain to "store" that word in your memory banks accurately, for quick retrieval.


This is why you can tell that a child has NOT been taught to read with phonics when the child is a terrible speller. The child has been taught to read with other types of cues, chiefly memorization, and so the proper spelling of the word isn't "on file" within the brain, and the child has to try to "re-spell" the word every time. Of course, that's doomed to fail, and that's just another reason parents should insist on phonics-ONLY reading instruction in the early grades of school.


Phonemic awareness helps that word recognition process happen so rapidly within the brain that the child doesn't need to pause to think about each individual sound - at least, for words the child already knows. For unfamiliar and longer words, it is very helpful to have phonemic awareness, because from it stems ease of syllable identification and other language skills that can aid comprehension and spelling on down the road.


Dr. Kerry Hempenstall of RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, is considered a global expert on phonemic awareness, and he lists these stages of phonemic awareness:


  • Recognition that sentences are made up of words.
  • Recognition that words can rhyme - then production thereof
  • Recognition that words can be broken down into syllables - then production thereof
  • Recognition that words can be broken down into onsets and rimes - then production thereof
  • Recognition that words can begin with the same sound - then production of such words
  • Recognition that words can end with the same sound -then production of such words
  • Recognition that words can have the same medial sound(s) -then production of such words
  • Recognition that words can be broken down into individual phonemes - then production thereof
  • Recognition that sounds can be deleted from words to make new words - then production thereof
  • Ability to blend sounds to make words
  • Ability to segment words into constituent sounds


Those are all easy for parents to keep in mind, and they would be wise to work casually with their young children on these stages from preschool through early grade school. Literacy studies on teachers - not students, but the adults teaching them - show that only a small minority of preschool and elementary teachers have the language subskills mastered themselves, because THEIR teachers didn't have them, either. Americans haven't been taught to read with phonics-ONLY reading instruction since the 1930s or so, when educational psychology brought so many non-phonics reading instructional techniques. So across the whole country today, only a small - but growing! - number of people know how to teaching reading the correct way, using sound.


That's the bad news. The GOOD news is, if parents instill good phonemic awareness before the child even starts school, the relative quality of the language instruction won't matter quite as much.


Here are some great ways for parents to start building this skill in their child from an early age:


n       Word games: "The word ____ starts with the letter ____. What other word starts with a ___?"


n       Silly songs: "Jessie, Jessie, mo-messy, banana-fana fo Fessie, fee fi go Gessie. . . ."


n       Rhymes: "What words can you say that rhyme with 'sing'?"


n       Oral segmentation: "The word 'cat' has these sounds: / k / / a / / t / . Say them in order."


n       Sound-changing game: "Say ___ without the ____ sound. Now put ____ in its place."



Homework: Good authors on this topic include Marilyn Jager Adams and P.C. Lindamood. See also the article, "Phonemic Awareness," which is #18 in the Reading category, Reading Skills section, on


By Susan Darst Williams Preschool 10 2008


Preschool        < Previous
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