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What is Phonemic Awareness?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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Phonemic awareness is the ability to distinguish the sounds, or phonemes, in spoken language as they relate to the written language. Phonemic awareness is not the same thing as phonics, but rather a precursor to understanding phonics, which is like a code for learning to sound out written words. This awareness is considered extremely important in the early stages of literacy and has been studied closely as it applies to early childhood education and the development of literacy skills.

Researchers have determined this awareness is important because it requires readers to become aware of the sounds that letters represent and helps beginning readers better identify with the alphabet. The English alphabet consists of 26 letters, but there are well over 26 sounds in the English language, each represented in print by a single letter or group of letters. Phonemic awareness is the auditory process of identifying the sounds so that later, the printed letters can be matched up with their proper sounds.

In kindergarten and the primary grades of many schools, phonemic awareness is both taught and assessed as part of the process of learning to read. To teach this awareness, children are introduced to the individual sounds of many different words before they are introduced to syllables. In other words, even though the word “hat” has only one syllable, it has three different sounds: /h/ /a/ (short a) /t/. Children who are taught to listen for and can hear the different sounds early on have proved to become stronger readers.

There are many different exercises that can be done to help raise phonemic awareness. Working with rhyming words such as “hat” and “cat” and words that begin with the same sound such as “cat” and “car” can help children identify the auditory differences and similarities. Assessing awareness usually begins in Kindergarten, but sometimes as early as preschool. Teachers often present children with single letters to see if they know the sound or sounds that the letter makes.

To help your own child learn to read better, help them increase their phonemic awareness early on. Many children as young as two can begin to learn letter names and sounds. Even though a child may speak the sounds, the sounds themselves and their association with letters must be taught. The earlier a child begins, the better their chances of becoming strong readers later in life.

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Discussion Comments
By anon145319 — On Jan 23, 2011

Doing rhymes and finger plays, and singing songs helps as well. Early Childhood music classes are a must!

By icecream17 — On Jun 30, 2010

Reading any book by Dr. Seuss really helps a child develop phonemic awareness. The sheer repetition of the sounds in various word families along with the entertaining text makes children learn letter sounds without even knowing it. Nursery rhythms also sharpen a child’s phonemic awareness. Classic Mother Goose rhymes appeal to children sense of silliness while training a child to begin to recognize specific sounds. Also, books on tape work well in a car or when a parent is unable to read to a child. Here when the narrator reads the story, the child follows along and starts making connections with various words and sounds.

By comfyshoes — On Jun 30, 2010

Parents that read to children frequently develop children with keen phonemic awareness sooner than other children. When a parent reads to a child, the child begins to understand that the written words have sounds. By the parent highlighting each word with a finger the child will also start to recognize familiar words. Reading road signs, labels and virtually anything written will facilitate the process further. Educational shows such as “Between the Lions” display various settings in which children not only learn individual letter sounds but even develop knowledge of diphthongs. The program breaks up letter sounds by syllables and word families which really develops a strong literacy foundation.

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