The role of phonemic awareness is to sensitise students to the alphabetic principle, or the idea that letters and letter combinations represent speech sounds of a writing system. The results of the meta-analysis in the USA, the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP 2008) show that children as young as three can begin playing with letters. Parents often develop this by playful interactions and sharing of picture books. Where this is not done at home it is essential that early learning environments, such as school explicitly promote learning about letters. Information on how to teach the alphabetic principle can be found here.

In order to to acquire phonemic awareness children must have experiences that focus their attention to the sounds in words. It’s important to understand that most children do not have trouble hearing sounds in words but many have problems with analysing the sounds in words. The explicit teaching of phonemic awareness page provides examples of phonological and phonemic awareness activities that can assist children with analysing sounds.

Why is it so important?

Phonological and phonemic awareness are essential foundations and have been shown to predict later reading progress. Those students who start school with a wealth of phonological and phonemic awareness are more successful readers than those who do not (Kame’enui, 1996; Smith, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1995).

Phonemic awareness doesn’t always develop naturally in the same manner as speech and oral language, and often needs to be taught. Learners will struggle to master phonics if they have weak phonemic awareness skills and poor phonemic awareness is a common contributor to specific reading disability or dyslexia. Research has demonstrated that children with specific language impairment or children with a family history of dyslexia may need more frequent exposure and practice to phonemic awareness activities in order to reach the same level of phonemic awareness as their peers. ‘Any child who lags behind their peers in phonological awareness development should be considered at risk for reading disability.’ (Schuele and Murphy, 2014).

Snow, Burns and Griffin observed that,

“….because phonemes are the units of sound that are represented by the letters of an alphabet, an awareness of phonemes is key to understanding the logic of the alphabetic principle. Unless and until children have a basic awareness of the phonemic structure of language, asking them for the first sound in the word boy, or expecting them to understand that cap has three sounds while camp has four, is to little avail.”

The phonemic awareness skills of segmenting and blending are the most critical. It is important to note that phonemic awareness has the strongest effect on word reading skills when combined with teaching children about the letters which represent phonemes, therefore it’s important to provide opportunities for children to use their new found letter knowledge and phoneme blending and segmenting skills in the context of reading and writing activities. The National Reading Panel report 2000, showed the effects of teaching phoneme awareness were twice as large for small group than whole group teaching, and phonemic awareness activities in small groups is best to ensure ALL children gain mastery of what is being taught.

Phonemic awareness continues to be important in assisting older struggling readers to make substantial gains in word level reading skills, particularly those with a phonological-core deficit. A phonological core deficit relates to problems with any of the phonological processes of learning to read, these include difficulties with phonic decoding, phonological working memory, rapid automatic naming and phonological awareness.