Phonemic Awareness: An Important Early Step in Learning To Read
Author: Roger Sensenbaugh
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication, Bloomington, IN.
ContentsWhat Is Phonological/Phoneme Awareness?
Why Is It So Important?
Relation To The "Great Reading Wars"
ForumsEducation and Kids
Related ArticlesBeginning Reading And Phonological Awareness For Students With Learning Disabilities
Phonics in Whole Language Classrooms
With little or no direct instruction, almost all young children develop the ability to understand spoken language. While most kindergarten children have mastered the complexities of speech, they do not know that spoken language is made up of discrete words, which are made up of syllables, which themselves are made up of the smallest units of sound, called "phonemes." This awareness that spoken language is made up of discrete sounds appears to be a crucial factor in children learning to read.
This Digest discusses the concept of the awareness that spoken language is made up of discrete sounds, why this concept is so important to early childhood educators, its relation to the debate on the best type of reading instruction, and finally, teaching methods that may help children in developing such an awareness.
What Is Phonological/Phoneme Awareness?
Stanovich (1993-94) defines "phonological awareness" as the ability to deal explicitly and segmentally with sound units smaller than the syllable. He also notes that researchers "argue intensely" about the meaning of the term and about the nature of the tasks used to measure it. Harris and Hodges (1995) present a brief essay on phonemic awareness. Another oft-cited source (Adams, 1990) uses "phonemic awareness" almost exclusively. Phonological awareness sometimes refers to an awareness that words consist of syllables, "onsets and rimes," and phonemes, and so can be considered as a broader notion than phonemic awareness. Each term is widely used and perhaps (if incorrectly) used interchangeably. In preparing this Digest, both terms were used to search the ERIC database. For the purposes of this Digest, each author's use will be followed.
Adams (1990) describes 5 levels of phonemic awareness in terms of abilities:
Why Is It So Important?
Educators are always looking for valid and reliable predictors of educational achievement. One reason why educators are so interested in phonemic awareness is that research indicates that it is the best predictor of the ease of early reading acquisition (Stanovich, 1993-94), better even than IQ, vocabulary, and listening comprehension.
Phonological awareness is not only correlated with learning to read, but research indicates a stronger statement is true: phonological awareness appears to play a causal role in reading acquisition. Phonological awareness is a foundational ability underlying the learning of spelling-sound correspondences (Stanovich, 1993-94). Although phonological awareness appears to be a necessary condition for learning to read (children who do not develop phonological awareness do not go on to learn how to read), it is not a sufficient condition. Adams (1990) reviews the research that suggests that it is critical for children to be able to link phoneme awareness to a knowledge of letters.
Once beginning readers have some awareness of phonemes and their corresponding graphic representations, research has indicated that further reading instruction heightens their awareness of language, assisting then in developing the later stages of phonemic awareness mentioned above. Phonemic awareness is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of learning to read (Yopp, 1992).
Instruments to test for a child's phonemic awareness tend to be short, easy to administer, reliable, and valid. Stanovich also provides a quick (7-minute) and easy-to-administer phonological awareness test in an article in which he discusses his career as a researcher. Yopp (1995) presents a similarly brief assessment instrument and offers detailed evidence for its validity and reliability.Back to the Table of Contents
Relation To The "Great Reading Wars"
Phonological awareness and its role in beginning reading has the potential to confound supporters at both extremes of the whole language vs. phonics "debate" over reading instruction. Regardless of instructional technique, phonological awareness is an essential element for reading progress (Griffith and Olson, 1992). In another study, Griffith et al. (1992) found that children with high phonemic awareness outperformed those with low phonemic awareness on all literacy measures, whether they were taught using a whole language approach or traditional basal instruction. Whole language advocates need to admit that not all children develop this necessary ability simply through immersion in a print-rich environment, and that some children will need direct instruction in phonological awareness. "Phonics first" supporters (and perhaps even "phonics only" supporters) need to admit that teaching students letter-sound correspondences is meaningless if the students do not have a solid visual familiarity with the individual letters and if they do not understand that the sounds (which can be complex, shifting, and notoriously rule-breaking) paired with those letters are what make up words (Adams, 1990).
What is needed, and what many practitioners probably already actually implement, is a balanced approach to reading instruction--an approach that combines the language- and literature-rich activities associated with whole language activities aimed at enhancing meaning, understanding, and the love of language with explicit teaching of skills as needed to develop fluency associated with proficient readers. Honig (1996) offers a review of reading research supporting such a balanced approach and presents detailed guidelines on how to integrate whole language principles with the necessary foundation reading skills.Back to the Table of Contents
Research indicates that phonological awareness can be taught and that students who increased their awareness of phonemes facilitated their subsequent reading acquisition (Lundberg et al, 1988). Teachers need to be aware of instructional activities that can help their students become aware of phonemes before they receive formal reading instruction, and they need to realize that phonemic awareness will become more sophisticated as students' reading skills develop.
The following recommendations for instruction in phonemic awareness are derived from Spector (1995):
Yopp (1992) offers the following general recommendations for phonemic awareness activities:
Spending a few minutes daily engaging preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade children in oral activities that emphasize the sounds of language may go a long way in helping them become successful readers and learners.Back to the Table of Contents
Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc. ED 317 950
Griffith, Priscilla, and Mary W. Olson (1992). "Phonemic Awareness Helps Beginning Readers Break the Code." Reading Teacher, 45(7), 516-23. EJ 439 120
Griffith, Priscilla, et al. (1992). "The Effect of Phonemic Awareness on the Literacy Development of First Grade Children in a Traditional or a Whole Language Classroom." Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6(2), 85-92. EJ 460 128
Harris, Theodore L., and Richard E. Hodges (1995). The Literacy Dictionary: The Vocabulary of Reading and Writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. ED 385 820
Honig, Bill (1996). Teaching Our Children to Read: The Role of Skills in a Comprehensive Reading Program. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. CS 012 479
Lundberg, I. et al. (1988). "Effectiveness of an Extensive Program for Stimulating Phonological Awareness in Preschool Children." Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 263-84. EJ 373 262
Olson, Mary W., and Priscilla Griffith (1993). "Phonological Awareness: The What, Why, and How." Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 9(4) 351-60. EJ 474 132
Spector, Janet E. (1995) "Phonemic Awareness Training: Application of Principles of Direct Instruction." Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 11(1), 37-52. EJ 496 026
Stanovich, Keith E. (1993-94). "Romance and Reality (Distinguished Educator Series)." Reading Teacher, 47(4), 280-91. EJ 477 302
Yopp, Hallie Kay (1992). "Developing Phonemic Awareness in Young Children." Reading Teacher, 45(9), 696-703. EJ 442 772
-------------- (1995). "A Test for Assessing Phonemic Awareness in Young Children." Reading Teacher, 49(1), 20-29. EJ 513 301Back to the Table of Contents
THIS DIGEST WAS CREATED BY ERIC, THE EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES INFORMATION CENTER. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT ERIC, CONTACT ACCESS ERIC 1-800-LET-ERIC
Roger Sensenbaugh is CIJE Coordinator at the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication.
This publication was prepared with partial funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract number RR93002011. Points of view or opinions, however, do not necessarily represent the official view of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
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