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Phonemic and Phonological Awareness

Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness are two critical components of print literacy. With supportive and appropriate experiences, preschoolers easily develop knowledge and skills in these areas. Unfortunately, many children have difficulty learning to read because they lack these foundational skills – either because the skills were poorly taught or not taught at all.

Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language – the individual sounds that contribute to meaning.  In written language, phonemes are represented by letters (or other symbols in languages such as Chinese that do not use an alphabet).  English has approximately 45 phonemes, some represented by individual letters and others by letter combinations such as /ch/ in the word child.  One important component of Phonemic Awareness is Alphabet Awareness, which involves knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet along with what each letter looks like and sounds like.

Phonological Awareness covers a broader range of skills than does Phonemic Awareness.  It involves identifying and manipulating the sound units of oral language.  These sound units include phonemes, syllables, words, beginning sounds (onsets or alliteration) and ending sounds (rimes or rhymes). As children develop phonological awareness, they become able to substitute one word for another in a nursery rhyme, identify rhyming words and words that start with the same letter, and recognize when two words have the same or different beginning sounds (for example, brother, sister and bottle).  As children develop phonological awareness, they are able to recognize and ‘clap out’ syllables within a word.

Research shows that all children learn best when they are engaged in activities that are personally meaningful.  The sound of the letter B/b is unlikely to be personally meaningful! (Except, maybe, to someone named Bob.)  Unfortunately, many preschool teachers and parents who are trying to ‘do the right thing’ attempt to teach phonemic and phonological skills directly, without embedding these skills in a broader activity that children find meaningful and purposeful.

We were very fortunate to have Elizabeth Gowman on staff as we developed the aspects of the ScienceStart! Curriculum that explicitly teaches phonemic and phonological awareness.  Ms. Gowman has a masters degree in music therapy and worked with teachers, classrooms, and developers of ScienceStart! for several years.

Ms. Gowman emphasized that listening carefully is itself a skill that needs to be developed before asking children to listen for a particular phoneme.  She engaged children in activities such as listening to paper crinkle or the wind blowing.  As a musician, she especially emphasized listening to recognize a steady beat in songs and chants/nursery rhymes.  Once children can deliberately focus and control listening to a wide range of environmental sounds, they are much more able to focus on listening to individual phonemes, syllables, and words.

Ms. Gowman also made certain that teaching phonemic and phonological awareness was embedded in activities that children found engaging.  Each day, children learned songs, nursery rhymes, chants, and so on. Then, they were asked to focus directly on sound units.  For example, they were asked to find rhyming words and repeating phrases, to identify words that began with the same sound, and to substitute a different word or their own name in a rhyme.  For example, children would take turns substituting their own name and something else white in the phrase Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snowClarissa had a little lamb, its fleece was white as cotton-balls.  Basically, the skills being taught are embedded in activities that are fun and engaging and are easily learned.

The list below indicates some of the variety of ways that developing phonological awareness was incorporated into daily activities.

  • Use letters to make words.
  • Identify rhyming words and repetitions (Do the Hokey Pokey).
  • Listen for and count repetitions (This Little Piggy went to Market).
  • Listen for and count rhymes in familiar songs and chants.
  • Clap/count syllables.
  • Use musical instruments to represent the syllables in color words, for example, two drum beats for yellow, one for blue.
  • Have each child pick a favorite picture from today’s book or from picture cards, say the name of the picture, then clap the syllables of the name.
  • Ask each child to say their name, ask classmates to listen for and count the syllables in that name.
  • Use picture cues to help children think of rhyming words (pictures of bed, head, to rhyme with red).
  • Write a familiar word on the board, ask children to name rhyming words (write song, prompt children say long), talk about which letters change and which stay the same, talk about rhyming happening at the ends of words.
  • Listen for and match beginning sounds (Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumps…).
  • Sort words according to number of syllables in each.
  • Learn a simple song, then repeat it loudly, softly, quickly, slowly.
  • Listen to a song and do the actions it calls for (Do the Hokey Pokey, Teddy Bear Teddy Bear Turn Yourself Around).
  • List as many words as possible that begin with a certain sound.
  • Supply picture cards of items that begin with either Rr or Bb (or any other pair of letters) and have children sort them into two groups based on the initial sound.
  • Write the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb on the board; circle the word white, have children substitute other color names. Talk about listening to and seeing individual words in a sentence.
  • Provide a selection of small toys and three sheets of papers with the numbers 1 – 3 written on them.  Have each child select a toy, name it, and place it on the paper that represents the number of syllables in the name.
  • Have children paint a pond on a large piece of paper; give each child a picture of something that belongs in or next to a pond.  As the child places the picture, have him name it, say the beginning sound, say the number of syllables.
  • Teach the song This Little Light of Mine.  Support children in listening for rhyming words and words that begin with the sound L.
  • Sing This Little Light of Mine and have children turn their flashlights on and off each time they hear the word shine.
  • Read the book Right Outside My Window.  Have each child notice one thing they see outside the classroom windows.  Have each child name the object they saw in the phrase “I see ________,  right outside my window.”
  • Clap along with a steady beat while singing or reciting a nursery rhyme or chant.
  • Think of rhyming word pairs.
  • Think of words that begin with the same sound.
  • Change one word in a familiar song or chant; what other words need to be changed to make them rhyme?
  • Have a child pick a letter.  Work with the class to make up sentences with words starting with that letter.  For example: S  Slippery snow slid sideways.
  • I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.  What words rhyme?  How are I Scream and Ice Cream the same and different?
  • Have pictures for the words rain, puddle, water, cloud, sun, and evaporation. Have the children clap the number of syllables in each word and put them in groups of 1, 2, or more syllables.
  • Teach the children this chant: Crunch, crunch. We munch our lunch. Talk about the rhyming /unch/ sound.
  • Write the lyrics to Row, Row Your Boat on poster paper. Have children identify the rhyming words. Ask the children to follow the printed lyrics with a pointer and locate the rhyming words on each line.
  • Tap syllables on a drum
  • Make up movements to go with a chant; do these movements while reciting the words
  • Play wooden instruments.  Listen carefully and decide which sound smooth and which sound rough.

A Word On Alphabetic Awareness

One or two alphabet letters are introduced each day and the children practice making their sounds. The teacher demonstrates how to write the upper and lower case forms and often children come to the board to write these letters. Children are encouraged to think of other words that begin with the same letter/sound and these are written down. When appropriate, children are shown a similarly shaped letter and then talk about how the two are similar and different (e.g., C and G) or asked to think of a classmate whose name begins with the target letter. The target letters were selected based on the day’s topic and only five (Q/U/V/X/Z) were never selected.

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