Phonemic awareness is a vital skill for children who are learning to read. Put simply, it is the ability to split up and rearrange individual sounds (called phonemes) within spoken words. Some people call this pre-phonics, because a child who has learned to hear the sounds within words is ready to start connecting those sounds to letters and written words. Research has proven that phonemic awareness is one of the two best predictors of success in early literacy.
A child with high phonemic awareness has mastered three skills: Blending, Splitting, and Substituting sounds within words. Blending involves taking a series of sounds and blending them into a word. For example, /b/ + /a/ + /t/ = bat. Splitting is the division of a word into its individual sounds, such as dividing the word rock into three sounds: /r/, /o/, and /k/. Substituting is the ability to switch one sound in a word to make a new word. In the word mat, for example, take away the /m/ sound and add a /k/ sound to the beginning, and you get a new word with a different meaning: cat.
But how to teach these skills in such a way as to truly prepare children for reading? Games that focus on rhyming and alliteration are a good start, but they don’t cover everything the students need to learn.
Teaching phonemic awareness to preschoolers involves training them to hear the structure within spoken language. First they must learn how to listen and pay attention—this will be useful in all their future schooling! Follow this with lots of rhyming games and activities. Then we dive into structure: children learn first that language is made up of sentences; sentences are made up of words; and some words can be divided into syllables.
Once the children can divide words into syllables, you are ready to introduce individual sounds.
Focus first on the beginning sounds (phonemes) in words, because those are easier for a child to notice and identify. At this point you will start introducing individual letters (to see what a sound looks like when we write it out), but not written words. Then we teach students to hear and identify ending sounds, middle sounds and vowels, and finally consonant blends (such as sh and ch).
These concepts and skills may seem intuitive to adults, but they are big ideas for young children. The key is to break them down into a series of quick, fun activities.
With just fifteen minutes per day of focused instruction time, a typical four-year-old can achieve high phonemic awareness in one school year (around ten months).
About the Author
Margo Edwards is the Director of Content Development at SightWords.com, a website dedicated to the promotion of child literacy through a variety of research-based, classroom-tested, free online resources. SightWords.com is proud to be sponsored by the Georgia Preschool Association.