Phonemic Awareness: What is it?
Phonemes are smallest units of speech sound which link to the letters of the alphabet. In English there are 40 – 50 different sounds. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that every word is a made up of linked or sequenced sounds. Children become aware of syllables, rhymes and alliterations before they can segment words into phonemes. Usually, children gain phonemic awareness at six or seven years of age.
Why do children need to have phonemic awareness to learn to read?
Children need to have phonemic awareness to understand the way the alphabetic principle works. They need to use the alphabetic principle to decode words; to read new words. To understand and make sense of the alphabetic principle, children must know that the individual sounds they hear in words are linked to the written letters of the alphabet.
Phonemic awareness does not mean the same thing as phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is just one part of phonological awareness.
In truth, it seems that good readers forget the difficulties they may have had in learning to hear and identify individual sounds. After we’ve learned how to read, instantly knowing that there are separate sounds in words seems very obvious.
Why is developing phonemic awareness so difficult?
We don’t pay attention to phonemes as we speak or, as we listen to others speak. Naturally, we are far more interested in understanding what is being said, not to attending to the small sounds of speech which in themselves have no meaning. This is what makes it difficult to get children to pay attention to phonemes.
For beginning readers, phonemes are best learned through making the sound rather than through listening to the sound. Children need to discover how their voices and the position of their mouths and tongues change as they say each sound.
Research shows that the understanding that the words we say to each other are made up of linked individual sounds does not come naturally. In fact, around 25% of middle-class first graders and many more of those who come from less literacy-rich backgrounds, have difficulty with phonemic awareness and need direct teaching in this area. If the direct teaching of phonemic awareness does not take place, these children have serious problems when learning to read. (Phonemic Awareness In Young Children: Adams, Marilyn Jager; Foorman, Barbara: Lundberg, Ingvar; Beeler, Terri; 1998)