Reading instruction that takes all students’ needs into account helps everyone learn more effectively. This principle holds for instruction in phonemic awareness. Thinking about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which we talked about in Unit 1, can help parapros think about how to help all students.
English learners often need special attention as they work to develop phonemic awareness. Perhaps their first language is written in a way that is symbolic rather than alphabetic, like the Chinese student in the Introductory Challenge. Perhaps a student speaks a language that uses a different set of phonemes than English. The way those differences work in practice can be surprising and interesting.
Phonemic Awareness and 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.
Sometimes English speakers notice what seem like phonemic gaps in other languages, but not in their own language. For example, most speakers of the Korean language do not distinguish the sounds for /l/ and /r/ in the way an English speaker would. In Korean, these two sounds aren’t really different, so sometimes Korean speakers who are learning English mix them up. But English lacks plenty of phonemes found in other languages too! Did you know that while English has only one phoneme for consonants formed in the back of the mouth, Arabic has three?
(Kilpatrick, 2016, p. 16)
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
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).
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. 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).