When should we introduce phonological and phonemic awareness activities?  

It’s widely recognised that phonemic awareness training is effective for assisting children who may be at risk for reading disability. Preschool children can begin to appreciate the rhythm and rhyme of the English language. When we ask children to clap beats in their name or a word, they are tuning in to the rhythm of our spoken language and identifying syllables. Being able to identify syllables is an important strategy for both later reading and spelling. These skills can be taught through reading high quality children’s literature and oral word play rhyming games.

When children become aware of how words rhyme, they are  demonstrating phonological awareness. If they can recognise and produce patterns such as man, pan, can, ran they are deleting the first phoneme (onset) in the syllable and replacing it with another. Rhyming skills can be helped along by sharing high quality rhyming picture story books. Enjoying rhyming stories and games provides children with an opportunity to become aware that words do not just represent meanings, but they are also patterns of sound that can be manipulated. This awareness is an essential first step to the understanding of the alphabetic principle.

Phonological awareness activities that focus on the larger units of sound, such as syllables and onset-rime segmentation are easier for children than the more complex skills of segmenting, blending, deleting and manipulating sounds.

For children starting school, long periods of isolated phonemic awareness activities do not have a significant effect on a child’s reading and spelling performance. Once basic phonemic awareness has been established in the first weeks of school, further phonemic awareness instruction should occur in tandem with systematic phonics instruction. Phonemic awareness when combined with systematic phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension instruction, or the 5 keys of reading, has the potential to increase reading and spelling performance of all students, including those individuals at greatest risk of reading failure or those with reading disabilities.

For older struggling readers with a phonological core deficit,  phonemic awareness continues to play a role in helping them make progress with word-reading skills. These students are often referred to as ‘treatment resistors’. Given that phonemic awareness plays a central role in developing sight vocabulary, phonemic awareness for older readers must involve more than just the skills than segmenting and blending. Studies that trained the more advanced skills of manipulating phonemes (deleting/ substituting or reversing) yielded very strong outcomes for older readers.  

   

Powerful phoneme awareness development programs have the following characteristics:

 

 A gradual, systematic progression through a developmentally and linguistically appropriate sequence of activities

Brief, fun, active manipulation of oral language

Minimal or carefully chosen use of print in the beginning lessons

Gradual introduction of print as children become aware of sounds

Instruction in how to blend sounds together as well as how to take them apart or substitute them for one another

Use of modelling, demonstration, and application rather than lengthy explanations

Use of active responses from children, such as moving counters into boxes, showing syllables or sounds with blocks, matching objects, moving cards in a pocket chart, clapping, speaking, and singing (worksheets are seldom effective during PA lessons)

Louisa Moats (2010) Language Essentials for Teachers. (2nd ed) Baltimore: Brookes Publishing

The sequence of phonological awareness

 

Phonological awareness Segment words into syllables Simple
Rhyme
Alliteration
Phonemic awareness Onset-rime segmentation
Segment initial sounds
Segment final sounds
Critical Achievement – segment and blend sounds
Deletion & manipulation of sounds Complex

Adapted from Schuele and Murphy (2014) intensive phonological awareness program. Baltimore : Brookes Publishing