You may remember our discussion of the science of reading from previous units—it’s the way we use evidence to understand what happens as students learn to read. The science of reading has things to tell us about phonemic awareness as well. We know that there are two big components to phonemic awareness: segmenting and blending.
Segmenting and blending are two sides of the same coin. Segmenting happens when someone notices and learns to distinguish all the component sounds in a single word—the phonemes. Blending is the reverse of this. It happens when someone recognizes several sounds and blends them back together to form a single word. Students who are learning phonemic awareness may need special help with one or both of these skills.
Phonemic Awareness: The Importance of Teaching
Don’t most children read well without phonemic awareness training?
“Absolutely! About 60% to 70% of children develop phonemic awareness very naturally, without being taught. Other children will never develop those skills unless they are directly taught. Yet phonemic awareness is not ‘optional’ if one wants to be a good reader. It’s just that some students develop it naturally as they learn to read, while others do not.”
(Kilpatrick, 2016, p. 16)
Let’s look at some examples. Take the word “grip.” The word has four letters and, conveniently, it also contains four different sounds, or phonemes. You can say these four sounds in a sequence: /g/ – /r/ – /ɪ/ – /p/. Pretty easy so far! We have segmented the word, and because the phonemes line up closely with the letters, it wasn’t so hard to put on paper.
Now, let’s blend them. This is a little more difficult. /g/, the first sound, is a hard consonant. Sometimes linguists call these consonants “stops” because in order for your mouth to make them, it has to start a sound and then cut it off. If you try to sustain the sound of /g/, in reality, you will probably end up just sustaining the sound of a vowel—something like “guuuuuuuuh.” This isn’t true for other consonants! Saying /s/, for example, requires you to blow air between your tongue and your teeth. Try it. As long as you keep blowing air, you can sustain /s/ like a snake: ssssssssss!
So, blending /g/ with another consonant like /r/ takes some skill. You must begin the /g/ sound, cut it off, then roll your tongue from back to front to connect it with /r/. Next comes the vowel sound, /ɪ/. Finally, you bring your lips together to make /p/. That took some work, but we have successfully blended the phonemes.
Perhaps you can see how blending relates to other reading skills. A child who can’t read or write yet may still be able to recognize, understand, and say the word “grip.” Importantly, she might also notice that it is not the same word or concept as “trip,” even though the two words rhyme. She notices this because she recognizes that /g/ and /t/ are different phonemes. And she also notices that the difference between the two sounds changes the meaning of the word. She has phonemic awareness!
Let’s think about how this relates to spelling. “Bite” and “kite” are easy examples for us to consider visually because their phonemes closely match their spelling. But take the word “knight.” A child who has phonemic awareness and is listening to these words being said aloud will recognize that all three words are distinct and also have separate meanings. Without seeing (or knowing) their spelling, she might never guess they use radically different letters. But a child looking at the words “bite,” “kite,” “write,” and “knight” written on a page will have a much tougher time figuring out how these four groupings of letters make up words that actually rhyme. This example shows the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics, the process of mapping letters to sounds, which will be discussed in the next unit. It also shows how phonemic awareness relates to spelling.