As any parent or teacher knows, building reading skills is actually built out of quite a few discrete skills that work in conjunction to create a skilled reader, writer, and speaker. The skills that many educators focus on are reading comprehension, which allows a child to understand and analyze text, sight words, in which children memorize words that they can recognize on sight, and phonics, in which students study the connection between letters and sounds. However, an often overlooked skill is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is not in itself a skill that is oriented towards the written word, and yet it is a critical skill for enabling children to be able to understand spoken and written language. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds.

Understanding that words are made up of individual sounds, or “phonemes,” is a critical foundational concept of learning. Children who lack this instruction during their early years will inevitably struggle with language, speech, and reading education in their later years. In fact, researchers have found a strong relationship between phonemic awareness in young children and greater success later in a student’s reading abilities. This is because when used in conjunction, giving children a strong foundation in both phonemic awareness and phonics allows them to understand the “building blocks” of language, giving them the skills they need to be able to decode, read, and understand more and more difficult words as they grow, rather than simply memorizing and recalling whole words.

Phonemic awareness skills start with being able to identify a single phoneme, such as being able to identify the /t/ sound in “Tommy tickles Tammy.” Other skills include sound synthesis, which allows children to combine sounds, word-to-sound matching, such as hearing the word “dog” and being able to identify that the starting sound is /d/, identifying the position of sounds in a word, such as being able to hear the word “pig” and identify whether the /g/ sound came at the beginning, middle, or end, sound segmentation, such as being able to list each separate sound in the word “ant,” and being able to count the number of words in a phrase, syllables in a word, and phonemes in a syllable. Phonemic awareness and phonics begin to overlap as the skills advance to being able to associate a letter with a phoneme and vice versa.

However, with phonemic learning being overlooked by much of the modern educational institution, many teachers are left unaware of how to introduce it as a learning concept in their classrooms. Activities for phonemic awareness can be simple to introduce to your class and lots of fun for your kids! Because understanding phonemic awareness doesn’t require prior print knowledge, these kinds of activities are excellent for a kindergarten classroom to learn alongside early literacy.

As you begin to add phonemic awareness into your classroom curriculum, you may wish to assess your students’ current understanding of phonemics. However, assessments for phonemic awareness do not easily fit into the usual structure for testing and assessments. Because phonemic awareness is not a written skill, but rather an oral skill, using a simple paper pretest won’t suffice. Rather than giving your students a formal evaluation, discussing the subject informally as a class and taking observational notes about their current understanding and skill level may be adequate for getting started with introducing the subject in your classroom. However, if a more formal evaluation is necessary, both the PAST or our Heggerty Phonemic Awareness assessments can provide excellent insight into your students’ current phonemic awareness.

Playing some simple games for phonemic awareness can be an easy way to start to introduce the subject. A great game to play with a large classroom is Guess That Word, in which the teacher starts saying a word very slowly by adding one sound or phoneme at a time. For children just starting out with their phonemic awareness, using words from a limited selection, like naming items from a collection of photos made visible to the students, can help make this activity a bit easier. Kids get to hear the first sounds of a word and shout out the word they think their teacher is saying. This can build their phonemic awareness by encouraging them to listen carefully to the disparate sounds of a word carefully and blending them together. Plus they get to shout out their guesses in class, which would get any kid excited!

For students who are more advanced, phonemic awareness activities might include matching or creating their own rhymes. Start by providing pictures of various rhyming pairs, such as cat and bat, bread and bed, or chair and bear. It’s important to use pictures rather than written words so the children are thinking through the spoken word, rather than looking at the letters. Kids can use the pictures as a matching game, sounding out each word and listening for the “ending sound” of each to find its rhyme. Kids can also take pictures without a pair and “invent” their own word to rhyme with it. While it might seem unusual to encourage children to practice with “fake” words, in actuality it helps them to separate the whole word from the phonemes that comprise the word’s sound.

Further phonemic learning can include syllabic awareness, where children learn to break a word down into its composite syllables. This can be introduced with a simple clapping game where children practice clapping along with the “beat” of a word to identify its syllabic structure. Start with simple words featuring only one or two syllables and gradually increase the difficulty with longer or more complicated words as children start to grasp the concept.

While phonemic awareness is not in itself a skill based in the written word, there are plenty of ways to use books for phonemic awareness learning. The best way to use books for phonemic awareness is to use books that emphasize phonemic concepts, like rhyming. Picking out a few books with a rhyming meter to read together as a class can be a great starting point for a discussion on phonemics. Reading it aloud can help the class focus more on the oral pronunciation of the word, rather than looking at the written spelling. Pause with each page and ask students to identify the rhyming words and their “rhyming sound” that they have in common. A book that focuses on a single sound, such as one that uses heavy alliteration, can be used similarly in a classroom setting.

While often overlooked, phonemic awareness is a critical foundational skill for all primary children to learn in the classroom. Having strong phonemic awareness in a child’s early years makes it much more likely for them to grow up to be competent and capable speakers, listeners, readers, and writers. Fortunately, integrating strong phonemic skills into a classroom curriculum is simple, easy, and fun.

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