What is Phonemic Awareness and Why is it Important?

Edward Wong The Educational Parenting Blog Leave a Comment

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the smallest units of language, and is a set of skills that help children learn to read faster and better

In this blog post, I will break down a fancy term used by linguists and early childhood education experts: phonemic awareness.

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is defined as the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound in language.

Phonemic awareness is not one skill, but a set of skills. Here are just a few of the skills that make up phonemic awareness:

· Phoneme isolation—the ability to recognize individual sounds in a word. For instance, a child who has mastered this skill would be able to tell you that the last sound in the word “top” is /p/.

· Oral segmenting—closely related to phoneme isolation is oral segmenting, the ability to split a word into its constituent sounds. This might involve, for example, knowing that the word “bell” has three phonemes: /b/, /e/, and /l/.

· Oral blending—essentially the reverse of oral segmenting, blending is the ability to take individual sounds like /b/, /e/, and /l/ and smoothly combine them into a complete word (“bell”).

So how is this different than knowing how to read? And why exactly are these skills so important?

Phonemic awareness is not the same as reading because it only involves sounds, and not the written text that represents these sounds. Once children have developed some of the skills that make up phonemic awareness, they can start matching these phonemes to their corresponding graphemes (that’s the technical term for the letters and letter combinations, like “a” “t” “sh” and “th”, that represent phonemes). This is the basis of phonics. We can see, then, that there are some steps between phonemic awareness and reading, but phonemic awareness is an important building block on the way to learning to read. Exercises that enhance a child’s phonemic awareness have been shown to improve reading and spelling skills1.

In my next post, I will share some easy techniques you can use to improve your child’s phonemic awareness.

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1https://web.archive.org/web/20080705194256/http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/findings.cfm

About the Author

Edward Wong

Edward Wong is a primary tutor and the Senior Designer at English Cosmos. He teaches children how to read, coaches parents on education in the home, and has been passionate about reading education since 2019. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Juris Doctor degree and qualified as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA).

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