All beginning readers need a phonemic awareness assessment. A phonemic awareness assessment can help give educators a baseline of a student’s current ability to blend, segment and manipulate sounds—a crucial skill in the learning how to read process. Furthermore, phonemic awareness assessments can predict reading disabilities like dyslexia. They can also predict if a child simply needs research-based instruction to learn to read (Stanovich, K. E. & Siegle L.S., 1994 from Phenotypic Profiles of Students with Reading Disabilities).
If a student does well on a phonemic awareness assessment it is likely that she is largely immune to poor reading practices. In contrast, if a student does not do well on a phonemic awareness assessment, she really needs explicit, systematic phonics instruction with decodable texts. In other words, the more phonemically aware your beginning reader, the less sensitive they are to poor reading instruction; the more they struggle with phonemic awareness, the more sensitive they will be to poor reading instruction.
By elementary school, many teachers attempt to develop phonemic awareness by rhyming words or tapping out, acting out or pointing to the sounds in words. These are beneficial activities. However, phonemic awareness still proves difficult for about 25% of middle-class first graders (Adams, 1990 from Beginning to Read).
[Scroll below for a free printable phonemic awareness assessment]
First, What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is a crucial early reading skill, since it is the foundation on which everything else builds. The term comes from the word phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. For example, there are three phonemes in the word cat: c-aaaa-t. Though there are four letters in the word “ship,” there are only three phonemes: sh-iii-p. Thus, phonemic awareness is an awareness of the smallest units of sound.
In addition, phonemic awareness is the ability to blend, segment and manipulate phonemes.
A child can blend phonemes if she can complete an activity like the following:
TEACHER: [Say sounds not letter names; pauses in between sounds] g-r-ou-nnnnn-d. What is it?
A child can segment phonemes if she can rip words apart into their composite sounds. For example, she might be able to do the following activity:
TEACHER: What sounds are in track?
STUDENT: [says sounds not letter names] t-r-aaaa-ck
Segmentation activities are basically a reversal of blending activities.
Lastly, a child can manipulate phonemes if she can rhyme and switch out letters. Here’s a sample manipulation activity:
TEACHER: [say sounds not letter names] Replace the c in cat with ssss.
TEACHER: Replace the g in greet with c
TEACHER: What rhymes with mall?
STUDENT: ball, hall, fall
How important is phonemic awareness?
Some kids are naturally better at phonemic awareness and these kids are largely immune to poor reading instruction. Other kids really struggle with phonemic awareness and most assuredly have dyslexia. Many kids are on a spectrum between these two extremes.
However, all kids can be taught phonemic awareness after the start of Kindergarten (Byrne, B. & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989, 1990; NRP, 2000; Fox, B. Routh, D.K. 1975). In fact, if a child is in the learning how to read process, phonemic awareness activities should be a daily part of the curriculum. Phonemic awareness activities should be short, simple and done in conjunction with a phonics-based reading program.
Phonemic awareness is largely a skill that expert readers take for granted. It is at the very foundation of our ability to read, yet it’s a skill that remains invisible to us. When we watch our children learn to read, we might be surprised by their struggles with sound. We had no idea that sound awareness was even something we’d learned in school. Not surprisingly, some schools don’t even emphasize phonemic awareness because they’ve no idea just how critical this skill is.
Perhaps surprisingly, illiterate cultures are not phonemically aware. We might assume phonemic awareness is a natural skill. However, if you couldn’t read, you wouldn’t be phonemically aware. This means, you likely would NOT be able to segment “ice” into two phonemes: i-sss. Instead, you would think, “ice is just one utterance.”
We know illiterate cultures are not phonemically aware because of the psychologist Jose Morais, Ph.d. He studied illiterate populations and found that those who could not read could not answer the most basic questions on units of sounds. For example, most couldn’t answer the question, “What sounds do ba and da share?” In contrast, those from the same culture who learned to read became phonemically aware.
In short, we are not born phonemically aware. We acquire phonemic awareness through the process of learning how to read.
Can phonemic awareness be taught?
It’s really not our fault that we underestimate the powers of phonemic awareness. In fact, phonemic awareness is a recent discovery. A researcher from Yale, Isabelle Liberman, discovered phonemic awareness on accident in the 1970s. Liberman played sound games with Kindergartners. She asked questions like, “How many sounds are in the word bag?” She noticed that Kindergartners who were better at these games learned to read with greater ease.
Still, phonemic awareness was not appreciated until the 1990s after the failure of whole language, a reading method that did not teach phonemic awareness or phonics at all. Whole language casualties are among us. In the US, there’s a segment of a generation of illiterate adults who can’t read due to whole language instruction.
The National Reading Panel (2000) analyzed the effects of phonemic awareness instruction. They looked at thousands of long-term studies (with control groups) and found that explicit phonemic awareness instruction in K-2 brought undeniable reading gains. Kids who consistently did phonemic awareness activities throughout the process of learning how to read had better decoding and spelling skills.
In sum, phonemic awareness is a skill that can and should be taught.
Phonemic awareness assessment
A phonemic awareness assessment is very simple to administer. However, it is also easy to make mistakes when analyzing student answers. Be sure you know exactly how many phonemes are in each word before you begin. Also, be sure the student understands the directions. Make precise notes on each student error. Here is the phonemic awareness assessment designed for Kindergartners:
The results can be very telling, as phonemic awareness is one of the few ways (if not the only way) we can predict which students are likely to have reading difficulties. Kids that receive high scores may not need to focus on explicit phonemic awareness activities as much. Kids that receive low scores need a leveled reading intervention.
Though phonemic awareness activities can predict future reading difficulties, they can not (alone) resolve reading difficulties. Phonemic awareness activities are but a small sliver of a reading intervention, lasting only 5-7 minutes in length. Also, the prediction is not perfect. However, according to research, it is the best prediction we have.
Print out the phonemic awareness assessment. How well did your Kindergartner do?
If she received less than 10 correct, she might be particularly sensitive to poor reading instruction. Thus, keep a close eye on her reading progress, make sure she learns with explicit, systematic research-based reading methods, incorporate decodable texts into instruction, and ask for professional help if needed.
If your student has already received some research-based instruction, she should perform a bit better than she would otherwise. In this case, identify what words she’s missed. Create phonemic awareness activities that target her weaknesses.
Phonemic awareness can take years to develop. Focus on explicit, systematic phonics-based instruction and your students phonemic awareness will develop over time.