Phonemic Awareness – About This Unit

In the last two units, we discussed the reading process, the science behind our knowledge of the reading process, and the best ways to teach reading. In the next units, we will examine these things in more detail. Parapros who understand how students learn to read will be better prepared to help them, especially those students who experience challenges.

Imagine Scarborough’s Rope, the diagram of what happens when we read (see Unit 1). One of its two main strands is “Word Recognition” (we will talk about the other main strand, “Language Comprehension,” in later units). The process of word recognition involves phonemic awareness and decoding—processes resulting in sight recognition. In this unit, we’ll focus on phonemic awareness. It is an important gateway skill to good reading.

Core Concepts

A child has phonemic awareness when he or she can recognize and produce the units of sounds in a language, understand that words are made up of those units of sound (phonemes), and fit those units of sound together to make words.

Not all children have difficulty developing phonemic awareness, but those who do need support and instruction. That’s because developing phonemic awareness is part of learning to understand spoken language and to speak. But some children need more explicit instruction to develop the skill. This is especially important because phonemic awareness unlocks the next steps in the process of learning to read, like mapping sounds to letters and connecting letter sounds to word sounds.

Phonemic awareness is an auditory skill—it depends mainly on what people hear rather than what they see. Many students can hear different phonemes with their eyes closed. But learners with reading difficulties may benefit from also seeing what is happening with someone’s lips and mouth when that person makes different speech sounds. This means phonemic awareness comes easier to some students than others, especially if they have difficulty hearing or processing what they hear. Later in this unit, we’ll talk about what these difficulties mean for instruction.

Phonemes can be tricky for English Learners (ELs) too. While ELs can draw on their auditory skills to notice sound differences, they may be used to different phonemes than those found in English, and they may associate phonemes from English words with different symbols (i.e., graphemes). Other challenges confront children whose first language relies on symbols to represent whole words. Like Mandarin Chinese, these languages don’t associate characters with sounds the way alphabetic languages like English do.

Key Vocabulary

AJAX progress indicator
  • Accent
    A common term for the differences between the ways in which speakers pronounce words. These differences are often the result of phonemic variations between dialects.
  • African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)
    A dialect of the English language spoken by many in the United States. AAVE has systematized rules including grammar and syntax.
  • Auditory
    Related to hearing–using sensory inputs from the ears (or a cochlear implant) to notice sounds.
  • Blending
    The ability to take a sequence of distinct phonemes and "blend" or re-combine them into the sound of a whole word.
  • Dialect
    A different form of a language spoken by a specific group. Differences can be between word choice, pronunciation, and even grammar.
  • Fingerspelling
    A way of representing the written letters of a language using hand-signs. Fingerspelling helps people with hearing impairments develop phonemic awareness.
  • Grapheme
    The smallest unit of a system of writing–the way symbols are written to represent the sounds, or phonemes, of a language.
  • Homophones
    Words that sound alike, such as "night" and "knight." Homophones may have different spellings, which show the difference between phonemes and graphemes.
  • Lexical
    Having to do with words. Lexical differences in a dialect refer to different word choices between groups of speakers. For example, in some parts of the US, people say "soda," and in other parts of the country people say "pop."
  • Loanword
    A word that enters a language directly from another language, usually as a result of historical contact between people speaking those languages.
  • Segmenting
    Recognizing and distinguishing the sound-components, or phonemes, of a whole word.
  • Word Families
    Groups of words that share the same combination of final phonemes and thus rhyme. For example, "cat" and "hat" are both part of the "-at" Word Family.