Reading First: A Guide to Phonemic Awareness Instruction

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words.

In order for children to learn to read print, they must be aware of how the sounds in words work. They must understand that words are made up of individual speech sounds, or phonemes. Phonemic awareness involves segmenting (dividing spoken words into individual sounds), blending (putting these sounds together), and manipulating (adding, deleting, or substituting sounds). Although people often use the terms interchangeably, phonemic awareness is actually a subcategory of phonological awareness, which refers to a more general understanding of the sound structure of language.

Achieving phonemic awareness is not easy for many children. Without direct instructional support, roughly 25% of middle-class children - and substantially more children from less economically advantaged homes - fail to develop this crucial understanding. Fortunately, phonemic awareness can be developed through instruction, and doing so significantly accelerates students reading and spelling development.

Assessing Phonological Awareness

Children's phonological awareness includes a continuum of skills that develop over time. From the simplest to the most complex, these include rhyme and alliteration, word and syllable awareness, and onset-rime and phoneme awareness. A careful assessment of your students' phonological awareness will enable you to identify the levels of development in your class and plan instruction that is appropriate for your students' needs.

Instructional Activities to Develop Phonological Awareness: Rhyme and Alliteration

The activities described in this section of the guide help to develop the broadest areas of phonological awareness - specifically, rhyme and alliteration. They are designed for emergent readers who need practice developing a sensitivity to sound.

Instructional Activities to Develop Phonological Awareness: Words and Syllables

Besides developing an ear for sounds, emergent readers need practice manipulating larger chunks of language - words and syllables. These oral abilities develop simultaneously with a child's concept of word in print.

Instructional Activities to Develop Phonemic Awareness: Onset-rime and Phoneme

Once children can orally blend and segment syllables in words, they are ready to focus their attention on the smaller units that make up a syllable. Onset-rime and phoneme level tasks are appropriate for beginning readers who are learning to decode and spell words. They include blending and segmenting tasks as well as manipulation tasks (deletion, addition, substitution). Instruction at this level is most effective when it is connected to letters.

Although many of the instructional activities included in this guide can be done with your whole class, it is best to teach phonological awareness in small groups. Small group instruction enables you to gear instruction toward each groups level of development. When planning your instruction, it is not only important to consider the level of your students (i.e., where they are on the phonological awareness continuum), but also the difficulty level of the task. For example, blending tasks are generally easier for students than segmentation tasks, which are in turn easier than activities requiring manipulation - adding, deleting, or substituting sounds.

As with all good teaching, be sure to model the task at the beginning of each activity before asking students to respond. Then provide opportunities for students to practice with your support and guidance. Many phonological awareness activities also lend themselves to individual or paired practice. After students become familiar with these activities during small group instruction, they can be incorporated into your literacy block during center or seatwork time.

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

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