As any parent or teacher knows, building reading skills is actually a combination of a few discrete skills. The skills that many educators focus on are reading comprehension,  sight words, and phonics. However, an often-overlooked skill is phonemic awareness. Specifically, phonemic awareness is not a skill focusing on the written word. Still, it is a critical skill for helping 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.

phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Altogether, understanding that words are made up of individual sounds or “phonemes” is a critical concept of learning. Children who lack this instruction during their early years will surely struggle with language, speech, and reading later on. In fact, researchers have found a strong relationship between phonemic awareness in young children and greater success later in a student’s reading abilities. In truth, giving children a strong foundation in both phonemic awareness and phonics allows them to understand the “building blocks” of language. Rather than simply memorizing and recalling words, they gain the skills needed to decode, read, and understand difficult words.

phonemic awareness and phonics allows children to understand the building blocks of language

To list, here are some important phonemic skills:

For instance, being able to identify the /t/ sound in “Tommy tickles Tammy.”

This allows children to combine sounds

For example, hearing the word “dog” and being able to identify that the starting sound is /d/.

For example, being able to hear the word “pig” and identifying whether the /g/ sound came at the beginning, middle, or end.

For example, being able to list each separate sound in the word “ant.”

The child can count the number of words in a phrase, syllables in a word, and phonemes in a syllable.

Obviously, phonemic awareness and phonics begin to overlap as the skills advance to being able to associate a letter with a phoneme and vice versa.

Introducing Phonemic Awareness

However, many teachers don’t know how to introduce this concept in their classrooms. After all, phonemic learning is overlooked by many modern educational institutions. Regardless, activities for phonemic awareness can be simple to introduce and lots of fun for your kids! Because understanding phonemic awareness doesn’t require prior print knowledge, these activities are excellent for a kindergarten classroom.

Phonemic Assessments

Before you add phonemic awareness into your curriculum, you may wish to assess your students’ understanding. However, assessments for phonemic awareness do not easily fit into the usual structure for testing and assessments. Because phonemic awareness is an oral skill instead of a written skill, using a simple paper pretest won’t be enough. Instead of a formal test, discuss the subject informally as a class and note their current understanding and skill level. However, if a more formal evaluation is necessary, both the PAST and our Heggerty Phonemic Awareness assessments can provide great insight into your students’ current skill level.

activities for phonemic awareness can be simple to introduce to your class and lots of fun for your kids

Play Guessing Games

Playing some simple games can be an easy way to introduce the subject. A great game to play in a large classroom is Guess That Word. In order to play, the teacher starts saying a word very slowly and adds one sound or phoneme at a time. Use words from a limited selection for children just starting out with this skill. For example, naming items from a group of photos can make this activity a bit easier. Then, 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 distinct sounds of a word and blend them together. Also, they get to shout out their guesses in class, which would get any kid excited!

Create Your Own Rhymes

In addition, phonemic awareness activities might include matching or creating their own rhymes for students who are more advanced. For example, provide pictures of various rhyming pairs, such as cat and bat, bread and bed, or chair and bear. It’s important to use pictures so children are thinking through the spoken word, not looking at the letters. Next, kids can use the pictures as a matching game. They can sound out each word and listen for the “ending sound” of each to find its rhyme. Also, kids can take a picture without a pair and “invent” their own word to rhyme with it. While it might seem strange to have children practice with “fake” words, it actually helps them separate the whole word from the phonemes.

A Clapping Game

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. Then, gradually increase the difficulty with longer or more complicated words as children start to grasp the concept.

Use Books

While phonemic awareness is not a written-word skill, there are plenty of ways to use books to encourage learning. Undoubtedly, the best way is to use books that emphasize phonemic concepts, like rhyming. For example, 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 students focus on the oral pronunciation rather than looking at the written spelling. Pause with each page and ask students to find the rhyming words and the “rhyming sound” that they have in common. Additionally, a book that focuses on a single sound (or heavy alliteration) can also be used.

picking out a few books with a rhyming meter to read together is a great starting point for a discussion on phonemics

While often overlooked, phonemic awareness is a critical 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 curriculum is simple, easy, and fun.

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