Literacy: Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness
When was the last time you read an email and congratulated yourself on your excellent phonemic awareness skills? Reading is a fast and instantaneous process once you learn how to do it, but, how did you learn to do it? Do you remember learning to read? If you come across an unknown word (see this for examples), how do you know what the word says?
According to the Australian Curriculum, literacy involves “students in listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts”. In this series of literacy blogs, we’ll cover the basics of reading including phonemic and phonological awareness, sight words, reading fluency and reading comprehension (Australian Curriculum, 2013). In this article, we are starting with phonemic and phonological awareness.
Back to the beginning:
- In English, individual letters on a page are meaningless on their own. For communication of meaning, they must be linked to sounds called phonemes. These phonemes need to be blended together and pronounced as words. Unique combinations of phonemes establish unique meaning.
- As children start to learn to read, they must figure out that there is a relationship between sounds and letters. There are approximately 44 sounds (phonemes) in spoken English – which is represented by combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet.
- In order to establish this relationship between sound and letters, a reader must recognise that words can be broken into small sounds and that these sounds can be represented in printed form (writing – phonics).
- Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about and work with these individual sounds in words.
- Phonemic awareness allows us to hear and manipulate individual sounds. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that holds meaning. Almost all words are made up of a number of phonemes blended together.
- Consider the word “ball”. It is made up of three phonemes: /b/ /aw/ /l/. Each of its sounds affects the meaning. Remove the /b/ sound and replace it with /w/ and you have an entirely different word. Change the /aw/ for an /e/ sound and again the meaning changes.
- Research indicates that phonemic awareness is a strong indicator for a child’s success at learning to read.
- Phonemic awareness is a subsystem of the umbrella term phonological awareness. The two terms should not be confused.
- Phonological awareness is the ability to not only demonstrate phonemic awareness (manipulate individual sounds), but also includes the ability to hear and manipulate larger units of sound, such as onsets and rimes and syllables. Being able to segment words into sounds and units is key to being able to decode difficult or unknown words.
Phonological awareness skills include:
|Listening skills||Awareness of sounds, discrimination between sounds, recall of sounds, sequencing sounds.|
|Syllable awareness||Segmentation of syllables (How many syllables in ‘table’?)|
Syllable completion (Here is a ‘Father’, ‘Fa-…)
Syllable deletion (Say ‘Finish’, now say it again without the ‘fin’)
|Onset –Rime awareness||Spoken word recognition (Which of these words rhyme? Which of these words does not rhyme?)|
Rhyme generation tasks (Tell me words that rhyme with ‘cat’)
Manipulating onset-rime blends
|Phonemic awareness||Alliteration awareness (Which one is different? ‘Mat, Moose, Bed, Mad’)|
Phoneme Matching (Which words start with the same first sound?)
Phoneme Isolation (Which sound does this word start with? ‘Bed’ = /b/)
Phoneme completion (What sound does this word end with? ‘Bed =’Be…/d/’)
Phoneme blending (What word do these sounds make? C-a-t)
Phoneme deletion (Say ‘bed’ without the ‘d’)
Phoneme manipulation (Able to substitute a new sound in to change the word meaning – say ‘bit’ but say ‘a’ instead of ‘i’)
Phonological and phonemic awareness summary
To summarise, phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of a variety of sound units. While phonemic awareness also involves an understanding of the ways that sounds function in words, it deals with only one aspect of sound: the phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that holds meaning. Though there is an important distinction between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness the two terms are often used interchangeably. For the most part both are used to refer to what is technically phonological awareness. Literacy relates to the ability to read and write, write coherently, and think critically about the written word. Did you know that speech pathologists can help people to improve their literacy?
If you have questions or concerns about literacy or problems with speech and language contact your local doctor, who will arrange for you to see a speech pathologist.
For more information about literacy see Eugene’s article titled literacy for children.
Australian Curriculum. (2013). General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum – Retrieved on 5 June 2013
Gillon, G. (2004). Phonological awareness: From research to practice. New York: The Guilford Press.