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Content: Teaching to the Edges

                                   Phonemic Awareness

 

English Learners

Different languages have unique phonemes. In the last unit you saw how English has its own special set of phonemes, but they do not line up perfectly with the English alphabet. Sometimes it takes two English letters to make a single phoneme. “Th” is an example.

Hearing Impairments and Reading

Because phonemes are about sounds, you might think that students with hearing impairments would find it hard or impossible to develop phonemic awareness. But this isn’t the case! Students with hearing impairments can and absolutely should develop phonemic awareness on the road to becoming strong readers. They just need a kind of instruction that identifies phonemes visually.

There are a few ways to do this, but the best way is by using something called fingerspelling. 

Fingerspelling is a means of using signs to communicate the individual letters in a word rather than using the sign for that word. For example, you might sign the letter “C” then “A” then “T” instead of signing the word “cat.” When instructors link all the different types of visual sign together in working with a student—the printed word “cat,” the fingerspelling for C-A-T, and the sign for the word “cat”—students with hearing impairments can learn phonemic awareness.

A recent research study showed that when instructors used this method with beginning readers who had hearing impairments, these students scored roughly as well as students with typical sensory abilities on tests of phonemic awareness (Lederberg et al., 2019). These tests measured phonemic awareness skills like segmenting and blending

Dyslexia

Some students with disabilities like dyslexia also need intentional work on phonemic awareness. Studies have shown that developing phonemic awareness directly improves reading efficiency in learners with dyslexia by helping link their working memory of words to what they see on the page (Knoop-van Campen et al., 2018).

Dialects

A dialect is a variety of a language spoken by a specific group. The group that speaks the dialect might be determined by several factors: geography, ethnicity, or social class, for instance. Speakers of different dialects of the same language can usually understand each other fully even though they speak in different ways. Differences in dialect can be lexical (use of special words), phonological, and even grammatical. Most importantly for us, dialects can affect phonemic awareness in students who are learning to read. 

Phonological Dialect Differences

When we’re talking about phonemic awareness, phonological differences associated with dialects are what’s important. Dialects commonly include differences of pronunciation that many people call accents. These differences can affect which phonemes a speaker uses, whether words rhyme, and even the number of syllables in a word! Some words that a speaker of Standard American English would say using only one syllable, such as “fail” or the name “Ann,” would be pronounced by some Southern Americans with two syllables: “fay-ul” and “Ay-un.”

The same two speakers might hear and say phonemes differently. Some Southern speakers do not distinguish the /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ vowels, as in the words “pin” and “pen,” for example. These speakers would say those two words in exactly the same way; and they would think that words like “grim” and “phlegm” rhyme.

These differences are important to keep in mind when working with students on exercises to develop phonemic awareness. The sound-symbol connections in Standard American English are somewhat different from those in some dialects—but that doesn’t make dialects wrong or Standard English better. As UDL teaches us, differences among people are a good thing.

African-American Vernacular English

As educators, we need to be particularly attuned to specific and different use of phonemes and how these differences might affect a child’s ability to understand his or her teacher or read or write correctly.


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Because phonemic awareness depends on auditory skills, it can also be a challenge for students who have difficulty hearing. But many students who are hard of hearing can still develop it. Some can hear rhythm and cadence in speech, for example, so exercises that work on helping them notice syllables can be useful. Some students with hearing difficulties may also be able to notice words that rhyme. 

Rhyming Helps!

Since rhyming involves recognizing similarities and differences in words, exercises with rhyming also help improve phonemic awareness. Choosing appropriate words for a rhyming exercise, and supplementing the exercise with visual cues for these words (like pictures of the things the words refer to), is one way to provide support to students with hearing difficulties (Miller et al., 2013).

Module: Helping Students Read

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