Teach Your Child Phonemic Awareness

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In recent years, the field of reading education has changed dramatically and many reading instructors have divided it between phonic instruction and whole language. Various reading programs that fall into one of the two camps have spent millions advertising the relative merits of both.

The simple truth of the matter is that the best reading instruction takes place using a combination of both strategies. And increasingly reading research has demonstrated that phonemic awareness, not simply phonics, is critically important to ensuring reading success-especially for students with learning disabilities.

However what makes this so confusing for many parents and caregivers is that the term “phonemic awareness” is tossed around so often and in so many different ways. Phonemic awareness concerns the structure of words rather than their meaning. To understand the construction of our written code, words, readers need to be able to reflect upon the spelling-to-sound correspondences. To understand that the written word, beginning readers must first have some understanding that words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) rather than their conceiving of each word as a single indivisible sound stream.

The development of this awareness cannot be accomplished in one simple step but rather over time. It is also important to note that these skills are actually pre-reading skills. Children do not necessarily recognize any of these elements on the page but rather by ear.

The stages of phonological development toward the end goal of deep phonemic awareness can include:

~ Recognition that sentences are made up of words.

~ Recognition that words can rhyme & the ability to make rhymes

~ Recognition that words can be broken down into syllables & the ability to do so

~ Recognition that words can be broken down into onsets and rimes & the ability to do so

~ Recognition that words can begin with the same sound & the ability to make these matches

~ Recognition that words can end with the same sound & the ability to make these matches

~ Recognition that words can have the same medial sound(s) & the ability to make these matches

~ Recognition that words can be broken down into individual phonemes & the ability to do so

~ Recognition that sounds can be deleted from words to make new words & the ability to do so

~ Ability to blend sounds to make words

~ Ability to segment words into constituent sounds

Phonemic awareness is more complex however than simple auditory discrimination, which is the ability to understand that cat and mat are different words. To be able to describe how they are similar and how they are different demonstrates a level of phonemic awareness. Young children are not normally asked to consider words at a level other than their meaning, although experience with rhymes may be the first indication for children that they can play with the structure of words.

Learning to recognize and play with rhyme is often the beginning of phonemic awareness development for many children. To be aware that words can have a similar end-sound implies a critical step in learning to read. Sensitivity to rhyme makes both a direct and indirect contribution to reading.

Directly, it helps children appreciate that words that share common sounds usually also share common letter sequences. Later exposure to common letter sequences then makes a significant contribution to reading strategy development.

Indirectly, the recognition of rhyme promotes the refining of word analysis from larger intra-word segments (such as rhyme) to analysis at the level of the phoneme (the critical requirement for reading).

Studies show a very strong relationship between rhyming ability at age three and performance at reading and spelling three years later. A number of studies have reinforced the value of such early exposure to rhyming games.

Rhyming and phoneme awareness are related. Studies have shown that children who are capable of good discrimination of musical pitch also score high on tests of phonemic awareness. Since pitch change is an important source of information in the speech signal, it may be that sensitivity to small frequency changes, such as that involved in phoneme recognition is an important aspect of successful initial reading. Such results raise the interesting possibility that musical training may represent one of those pre-reading, home-based experiences that contribute to the marked individual differences in phonemic awareness with which children start school.

So, what do you teach? Techniques that target phoneme awareness most frequently involve direct instruction in segmenting words into component sounds, identifying sounds in various positions in words (initial, medial, final), identifying words that begin or end with the same sound, and manipulating sounds in a word such as saying a word without its beginning or end sound.

Most of the phoneme awareness activities should not take more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete. Although a particular activity can be selected well in advance, the specific words targeted for phoneme awareness should be selected from material familiar to your child

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