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The Importance of Phonological Awareness

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Learning to read!
by Lynden Punnett Dip. Sp.LD (Dyslexia)

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the understanding of different ways that oral language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated. Spoken language can be broken down in many different ways, including sentences into words and words into syllables, onset and rime and individual phonemes.

Manipulating sounds includes deleting, adding or substituting syllables or sounds. Being phonologically aware means having a general understanding of all these levels. {{more}}

The most sophisticated level of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds or phonemes and the ability to manipulate these phonemes either by segmenting, blending, or changing individual phonemes within words to create new words.

The National Research Council (US) on reading distinguishes phonological awareness from phonemic awareness in this way:

The term phonological awareness refers to a general appreciation of the sounds of speech as distinct from their meaning. When that insight includes an understanding that words can be divided into a sequence of phonemes, this finger-grained sensitivity is termed phonemic awareness. (Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998)

Phonological awareness differs distinctly from phonics. Phonological awareness involves the auditory and oral manipulation of sounds. Phonics is the association of letters and sounds to sound out written symbols; it is a system of teaching reading that builds on the alphabetic principle, a system of which a central component is the teaching of correspondences between letters or groups of letters and their pronunciations. Phonological awareness and phonics are intimately entwined, BUT they are not the same.

Why is Phonological Awareness so Important?

An awareness of phonemes is necessary to grasp the alphabetic principle that underlies our system of written language. Developing readers must be sensitive to the internal structure of words in order to benefit from formal reading instruction. If children understand that words can be divided into individual phonemes and that phonemes can be blended into words, they are able to use letter-sound knowledge to read and build words. As a consequence of this relationship, phonological awareness in kindergarten is a strong predictor of later reading success.

Many children with learning disabilities demonstrate difficulties with phonological awareness skills. However, many other children have such difficulty without displaying other characteristics of learning disabilities. Although a lack of phonemic awareness correlates with difficulty in acquiring reading skills, this lack should not necessarily be misconstrued as a disability. Children who lack phonemic awareness can be identified, and many of them improve their phonemic awareness with instruction. Furthermore, although explicit instruction in phonological awareness is likely to improve early reading for children who lack phonemic awareness, most children with or without disabilities are likely to benefit from such instruction.

Teaching Phonological Awareness

There is ample evidence that phonological awareness training is beneficial for beginning readers starting as early as

age 4 (Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991)

In a review of phonological research, Smith et al. (1998) concluded that phonological awareness can be developed before reading and that it facilitates the subsequent acquisition of reading skills. Instruction for

4-year-olds involves rhyming activities, whereas kindergarten and Grade 1 instruction includes blending and segmenting of words into onset and rime, ultimately advancing to lending segmenting and deleting phonemes. Teachers can easily make coloured cards or pictures to be used to make abstract sounds more concrete.

Instruction in phonological awareness can be fun, engaging, and age appropriate, but the picture is not as simple as it seems. Evidence suggests that instruction in the less complex phonological skills such as rhyming or onset and rime may facilitate instruction. Rather, integrated instruction in segmenting and blending seems to provide the greatest benefit to reading acquisition.

Torgesen et al. (1994) concluded that training for at-risk children must be more explicit or more intense than what is typically described in the research literature if it is to have a substantial impact on the phonological awareness of many children with severe reading disabilities. There should be two tiers of instruction:

The first tier of instruction is the highly engaging, age-appropriate instruction.

The second tier of instruction includes more intensive and strategic instruction in segmenting and blending at the phoneme level.

Curriculum design is very important in phonological awareness instruction. (Chard & Osborne (1998) suggest the following principles to increase students’ success:-

• Start with continuous sounds such as /s/, /m/ and /f/ that are easier to pronounce than stop sounds such as /p/ /b/ and /k/;

• Carefully model each activity as it is first introduced;

• Move from larger units ( words, onset-rime) to smaller units ( individual phonemes);

• Move from easier tasks ( e.g. rhyming) to more complex tasks (e.g. blending and segmenting)

• Consider using additional strategies to help struggling early readers manipulate sounds. These strategies may include using concrete objects (e.g. blocks, bingo chips) to represent sounds.

Research suggests that by the end of kindergarten children should be able to demonstrate phonemic blending and segmentation and to make progress in using sounds to spell simple words. Achieving these goals requires that teachers be knowledgeable about effective instructional approaches to teaching phonological awareness and be aware of the ongoing progress for each of their students.

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