Phonemes are the smallest discernible unit of sound in speech. Phonemic awareness is knowledge of, and capacity to manipulate, individual phonemes in spoken words.


Over the past four decades there has been an increasing understanding of the important role phonemic awareness plays in beginning reading success.

Phonological awareness and knowledge of letters have been shown in numerous studies to be the two best predictors of initial reading progress. We know that students with good phonemic awareness tend to become better readers than those without.

Phonemes are the smallest discernible unit of sound in speech, and phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and identify those individual sounds in spoken words. Beginning readers must develop an understanding that spoken words are composed of individual and distinguishable sounds, rather than perceiving each word as a single sound stream. Students need to be able to combine individual phonemes to construct a spoken word, and when given a spoken word, break it down into its constituent phonemes.

Good phonemic awareness makes it easier for beginning readers to understand that written words are composed of graphemes (printed letters and letter combinations) that correspond to phonemes, a concept called the ‘alphabetic principle’.


Phonemic awareness doesn’t always occur naturally in the same manner as speech and oral language, and often needs to be taught. Thirty percent of first-graders don’t appreciate the phonemic structure of words, and the proportion is even higher in disadvantaged children. Students with low phonological awareness develop reading ability at much slower rates. The probability that a child who was a poor reader in first grade would be classified as a poor reader in the fourth grade has been found to be a depressingly high +0.88.

Given the role of phonemic awareness in early reading acquisition, screening phonemic awareness early in children’s school careers may help prevent the long term reading failure cycle for students whose difficulties are unidentified until late in their primary years. Simple, brief phonemic awareness assessment tools are readily available, and have been shown to predict later reading difficulties with a high degree of accuracy.

By teaching children about the alphabet and engaging them in simple phonics tasks, we can prime them for a higher likelihood of success when reading instruction is introduced.


“Phoneme awareness instruction, when linked to systematic decoding and spelling instruction, is a key to preventing reading failure in children who come to school without these prerequisite skills.”
Moats (2010)
“There is strong evidence that reading development depends upon having well developed phoneme awareness: activities involving syllables and rhymes help students tune into the sounds of words but it is phoneme awareness that is critical for learning to read and spell.”
Carroll, Bowyer-Crane, Duff, Hulme, and Snowling (2011)
“We are learning from an analysis and reading of all of the research that has been conducted from the 1920s to present that phonological awareness is one of the key predictors of reading success in school.”
Landry (2013)
“Our analysis indicated that the ability to perceive and manipulate phonemes (in both segmenting and blending tasks) is the aspect of phonological awareness that is most strongly predictive of later reading and spelling success.”
Castles & Coltheart (2004)
Mum and daughter reading

KEY RESEARCH FINDINGS

In 2009 the US National Early Literacy Panel reviewed 300 studies that examined the relevant instructional emphases that led to progress in reading and spelling.

The most relevant were:

  • Knowledge of letter names and sounds
  • Phonological awareness (particularly blending and segmenting)
  • Being able to write (at least one’s name)
  • Oral language, and
  • Knowing how books work

The strongest results derived from approaches that were adult directed, and which focussed upon the structure of spoken and written words.


RECOMMENDED READING


Adams, M. J. (1990).
Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print.
Cambridge, MA MIT Press.

Ball, E. W., & Blachman, B. A. (1991).
Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling?
Reading Research Quarterly, 25, 49-66.

Bradley, L., & Bryant, P. (1983).
Categorizing sounds and learning to read: A causal connection.
Nature, 301, 419-421.

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1989).
Phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in the child’s acquisition of the alphabetic principle.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 313-321.

Byrne, B., Fielding-Barnsley, R, & Ashley, L. (2000).
Effects of preschool phoneme identity training after six years: Outcome level distinguished from rate of response.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 659-667.

Carroll, J.M., Bowyer-Crane, C., Duff, F.J., Hulme, C. & Snowling, M.J. (2011).
Developing Language and Literacy.
Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex.

Juel, C. (1988).
Learning to read & write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

McNamara, J.K., Scissons, M., & Gutknecth, N. (2011).
A longitudinal study of kindergarten children at risk for reading disabilities: The poor really are getting poorer.
Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(4), 21-430.

Moats, L.C. (2010).
Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers (2nd edition).
Paul H Brookes, Baltimore, MD.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2009).
Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, Executive Summary.
Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Ouellette, G. & Haley, A. (2013).
One complicated extended family: The influence of alphabetic knowledge and vocabulary on phonemic awareness.
Journal of Research in Reading, 36(1), 29-41.

Smith, S.B., Simmons, D.C., & Kameenui, E.J. (1995).
Synthesis of research on phonological awareness: Principles and implications for reading acquisition.
National Center To Improve the Tools of Educators, Eugene, OR.