Phonemic awareness is a crucial skill for children who are learning to read. Put simply, it is the ability to split up and rearrange sounds within spoken words. It’s sometimes called pre-phonics, because a child who has learned to hear the sounds within words is ready to start connecting those sounds to letters and written words.
Phonemes are what we call the sounds that make up words. Kids need to be able to hear the individual sounds (phonemes) within words before they can be successful at reading and spelling written words. Research has shown that the two best predictors of early reading success are alphabet recognition and phonemic awareness.
A child with high phonemic awareness will have mastered three skills: Blending, Splitting, and Substituting sounds within words. Blendingmeans taking a sequence of sounds and blending them together into a word. For example, /k/ + /a/ + /t/ = cat. Splitting is breaking a word apart into its individual sounds, such as dividing the word rock into its three sounds: /r/, /o/, and /k/. And substituting is the ability to change one sound in a word to make a new word. For example, take the word cat, take away the /t/ sound, and add a /p/ sound to the end, and you get a new word with a new meaning: cap.
So what are the steps to teaching children phonemic awareness? It involves gradually teaching children to hear the structure within spoken language. First, they must learn how to listen and pay attention—this will be useful in all their future schooling! This is followed by lots of rhyming games and activities—rhyming words, which sound similar but have different meanings (i.e., cat and hat), hint at language having structure that is separate from its meaning. Then we must teach the children that language is made up of sentences; sentences are made up of words; and some words can be divided into syllables.
Once a child can hear how words can be broken down into syllables, you are ready to introduce individual sounds. We start by focusing on the first sounds (phonemes) in words, because those are easiest for a child to hear and pick out. Then we focus the child’s attention on ending sounds, and finally on middle sounds. In these sections you will introduce individual letters (to see what a sound looks like when we write it), but not written words.
These skills may seem intuitive to adults, but they are big concepts for preschoolers. The key is to break them down into a series of quick, fun activities. With just fifteen minutes per day of phonemic awareness instruction, a typical four-year-old can achieve high phonemic awareness in about 10 months, or one school year.
Margo Edwards is the Director of Content Development at SightWords.com, a website dedicated to the promotion of child literacy through a variety of free online resources. SightWords.com is proud to be sponsored by the Georgia Preschool Association.