One of my goals for this year is to read more. Not with my kids – but for my own learning! Coincidentally, I have stacks of books around our house that have been recommended to me as a dyslexia tutor/advocate. I’m plowing through some of these now by reading a little everyday. I read for 20 minutes most mornings and 20 minutes most evenings.
One book I’m reading is Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick. It isn’t the easiest of reads but it is has some no nonsense, research-based strategies for teaching reading to kids with learning differences. One thing that I was surprised to learn was that advanced phonemic awareness is critical to becoming a fluent reader.
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What is Phonemic Awareness?
Also referred to as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in words.
Why Strong Phonemic Awareness is SO Important
The importance of phonemic awareness is no surprise. It is well-known that a lack of phonemic awareness is almost always associated with reading difficulties and is one way to assess young kids for potential reading struggles. It is common to practice phonemic awareness activities with kids in the younger years. Many Orton-Gillingham-based reading programs begin with a level of phonemic awareness instruction.
What was surprising to me was that the research shows that unless kids with reading struggles attain advanced phonemic awareness skills, they will not become fluent readers. So even if your kids can segment and blend the sounds in words to read them, there are more skills they need to master. If you have older kids that aren’t reading fluently, they likely don’t have advanced phonemic awareness skills.
Levels of Phonemic Awareness
What are advanced phonemic awareness skills? Take a look at the following progression of levels of phonemic awareness skills to see what I mean:
Early phonemic awareness: These skills typically develop in preschoolers and include rhyming (e.g. cat, hat, sat, mat), alliteration (e.g. the big brown bear), being able to segment words into syllables (e.g. /car/ /pen/ /ter/), and being able to identify the first sounds in words.
Basic phonemic awareness: These skills typically develop throughout kindergarten and first grade. Basic phonemic awareness skills include phoneme blending and phoneme segmentation. These basic skills are instrumental in phonic decoding and early spelling.
- Segmenting is breaking words into their syllables and words into their individual sounds. Segmenting can also be practiced with separating a sentence into its individual words.
- Blending is the opposite of segmenting. Rather than separating a word into its individual sounds, it involves combining individual sounds to say a whole word.
Advanced phonemic awareness: These skills are typically developed by about third or fourth grade. Advanced phonemic awareness skills include the ability to manipulate phonemes, such as
- Deleting phonemes (“Say ‘cat’. Say it again without the /k/”. Correct answer ‘at’ )
- Substituting phonemes (“Change the /m/ in mad to /s/. What is the new word? Sad.)
- Reversing phonemes within words (Say ‘map’. Now say it backwards. ‘pam.’)
Kids with dyslexia or specific language learning disabilities need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. These skills do not develop naturally as they do with traditional learners.
Why Advanced Phonemic Awareness is so Important for Reading Fluency
On the surface, you would think that the only phonemic awareness skills necessary for reading would be blending and segmentation. So why then does the research say that more advanced phonemic awareness skills are needed for fluent reading?
When reading connected text (sentences and paragraphs), the degree of phonemic awareness skill needed to instantly and effortlessly process phonemes (sounds) of unfamiliar words requires a great deal of proficiency.
When reading one word, all of the child’s working memory resources are devoted to segmenting that word. But while reading text, kids are focusing on multiple processes at the same time. First they are identifying the letters and words and blending sounds, all while trying to remember and understand what has already been read. The child’s attention is split between multiple processes at the same time.
A child with weak phonemic awareness is going to be using more of that limited working memory to decode resulting in less memory for comprehension and fluency. Studies have shown that becoming a fluent reader requires more advanced phonemic awareness skills. Interestingly, both the use of advanced phonemic awareness skills and those skills required for reading fluently require a great deal of working memory.
What comes first? Working memory or advanced phonemic awareness skills? We don’t know. What we do know is that phonemic awareness skills can be taught (and likely build working memory skills at the same time). Kids with dyslexia, need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. It does not develop naturally as it does with traditional learners.
How to Assess Your Child’s Level of Phonemic Awareness
Your child may have some early and basic phonemic awareness skills and be able to sound out words. If they have not reached reading fluency, defined as the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression, they may lack some of the more advanced phonemic awareness skills. Visit Literacy Resources for this free phonemic awareness assessment. This will give you an idea of which areas your child still needs practice.
How to Teach Phonemic Awareness
The good news about teaching phonemic awareness is that is can be a lot of fun! If you’re teaching the early levels of phonemic awareness read this post on teaching early phonemic awareness. You also don’t need to create your own program because there are many excellent programs already out there.
Resources for Teaching Phonemic Awareness
I dug through my reading resources and pulled out some resources to add into my daily instruction of both of my young boys who are not yet reading fluently.
By far, the best resource for teaching advanced phonemic awareness skills is Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick. It is based off recent research that shows that advanced phonemic awareness skills are the most important skill struggling readers need to be working on.
It is a complete guide to everything you need to know to systematically teach phonemic awareness from early to basic to advanced.
Phonemic Awareness in Young Children is a classic phonemic awareness text that is full of a wide range of exercises for practicing phonemic awareness skills.
If you’re already familiar with the All About Reading & Spelling Programs, you’ll love their Pre-Level 1 which teaches phonemic awareness. Full of games, books, and charts, this program is easy to teach and is a good start to teaching phonemic awareness. This program is definitely designed for younger kids and is a great starting point for kids who need to learn their letter sounds as well as early and basic phonemic awareness. If you have older children who need practice with phonemic awareness, keep reading.
Both Logic of English Foundations levels (for kids 4-7) and Essentials level (for kids 8+) incorporate a wide variety of techniques for improving both phonemic awareness as well as auditory discrimination. Note, these are complete reading programs that include phonemic awareness exercises into their daily lessons.
Level 1 of the Barton Reading & Spelling program is an excellent phonemic awareness program. It is perfect for older kids who still need practice with phonemic awareness because there are no illustrations. Unlike other programs, Barton Reading and Spelling level 1 includes advanced phonemic awareness practice. This is a pricey program. If the cost is prohibitive, try to find used copies on eBay, etc.
The Phonological Awareness Bundle from The Literacy Nest (via Teachers Pay Teachers) is an excellent phonemic awareness program with tons of creative, hands-on activities for teaching. It includes phoneme manipulation as well as early and basic phonemic awareness activities. For $36 you get a LOT of games and activities to practice.
Best Apps for Teaching Phonemic Awareness
Click on the image below to find a list of the best apps for teaching phonemic awareness.
If your kids are still working towards fluency, try adding in 10-15 minutes of phonemic awareness exercises everyday. According to research, this may be the missing piece of the puzzle.
How about you? Do you teach phonemic awareness to your kids?