When I get a new student, I immediately assess and start to develop his/her phonemic awareness. As I write about how the student is progressing in phonemic awareness, parents often ask perplexed (because they’ve never heard the phrase), “What is phonemic awareness?”
What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is a foundational reading skill. It is the greatest predictor of future reading success. Phonemic awareness is a consciousness that words are composed of sounds that can be segmented (c-a-t), manipulated (if you remove the first sound in blast you get last), rhymed (what rhymes with fast: mass, race or last?) and compared with other words (do table and tower share any sounds?) A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. Phonemic awareness is an awareness of phonemes or an awareness of sound.
Phonemic Awareness & Sound Games
When you ask, “what is phonemic awareness?” you might be surprised to learn that sound awareness is not completely natural. To literate readers it may seem surprising that phonemic awareness must be taught: after all, doesn’t everyone know that cat can be segmented into three sounds: c-a-t? I was surprised to learn that illiterate populations do not have an awareness that words are composed of discrete units of sound. I found these studies on non-reading populations fascinating. They are a testament to how reading changes our brain.
Phonemic Awareness & Instruction
Here’s a sample of one of these amazing studies: the psychologist Jose Morais recruited dozens of adult Portuguese volunteers. Half were literate. Half were illiterate. They all came from the same socioeconomic background. He had them play several speech games and recorded their performance. He asked questions like, if you remove the first sound in “porto” what do you get? [answer: “orto”]. Or do “ba” and “da” share sounds? The results were clear. The illiterate adults failed in tasks that directed their attention to phonemes. They could not answer basic questions about units of sound. The literate adults, in contrast, were phonemically aware. There was a striking difference between the two groups.
The conclusion was clear. When you ask, “what is phonemic awareness?” part of the answer is: it’s a skill that must be taught.
Another interesting study showed that Chinese adults who read using traditional Chinese fail on phonemic awareness tasks (because traditional Chinese does not use the alphabetic principle) while Chinese adults who read using Pinyin are phonemically aware.
Learning to Read Changes the Brain
These studies show that when we learn to read we are profoundly changing our brain.
We think of reading as an old skill. Relative to human history, reading is recent. And we are still learning about how we read and why some students fail to learn how to read. Phonemic awareness is one of the most important modern breakthroughs in reading research; phonemic awareness was discovered in the 1970s and not fully appreciated until the late 1990s (after a massive failure of a reading method called whole language that does not teach phonemic awareness).
A Recent Discovery
The importance of phonemic awareness was discovered almost by accident. Isabelle Liberman, a Yale graduate, tested Kindergarten children on units of sound. She asked them a whole series of speech questions like, “How many sounds are in the word bag?” She asked these questions to children again in the first grade. By the time she observed these same children in the second grade, she couldn’t help but notice something striking: the children who consistently did well on her sound games were excellent readers and the children who consistently struggled on her sound games were poor readers. She had found a surprising undeniable link between phonemic awareness and reading acquisition. Furthermore, subsequent studies showed that phonemic awareness is a skill that can be taught.
What is phonemic awareness? It’s a critical reading skill on which all other reading skills depend.
The National Reading Panel
Phonemic awareness was validated on the National Reading Panel (a famous meta-analysis) when researchers looked at over 100,000 reading studies and found that explicit instruction in phonemic awareness translated into undeniable reading gains, improved decoding, improved spelling and greater overall reading proficiency. Now when people ask, “what is phonemic awareness?” we know that the answer involves the real crux of decoding.
Now, the top reading performers in the nation are in states that set rigorous thorough standards to develop phonemic awareness (no, California is not among these states, as we are currently one of the lowest performing states in the nation). Phonemic awareness is also a central component of reading curricula that have overtaken the private industry. When schools fail to perform their civic duty to teach reading, parents seek help. They find these very expensive “therapies” that do effectively teach reading because they teach phonemic awareness (among other phonics strategies).
If there is massive evidence in support of phonemic awareness, why don’t all schools use curricula that effectively develop this skill?
Reading Elephant offers printable phonics books.