The Stepping Stone To Reading That Parents Often Overlook
Mathilde Cerioli, PhD in cognitive neuroscience & positive discipline advocate
- Phonemic awareness: individual sounds of a language that make up spoken words. Phonemic awareness is a crucial step to promoting fluent literacy. Once children master phonemic awareness, they will be ready to move on to phonics
- Phonics: the relationship between the phonemes and written symbols
It is almost as exciting for parents to see children start to recognize the alphabet as it is to hear them say their first words. As such, parents often tend to focus most of their attention on singing the alphabet song and teaching their children the letters. Indeed, letter recognition is an integral part of learning to read. However, there is an often-overlooked reading skill that children need to master before learning to read: phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness is the last step of phonological awareness. When children learn a language, they will first develop word awareness, which is their ability to distinguish the beginning and end of each word. Then, syllable awareness, the ability to isolate each syllable, and finally, they will develop phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness refers to the oral and auditory understanding that spoken words are made up of individual sounds called phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a given language. For example the words <tap> and <beak> are both made up of 3 phonemes /t/a/p/ and /b/i/k/. Children can develop phonemic awareness without recognizing any letters, and this skill will be essential for them in learning how to read. In fact, this skill predicts literacy performance more accurately than other variables such as intelligence, vocabulary, and socioeconomic status, according to Gillon, 2004.
It probably feels counterintuitive that an essential skill to becoming a fluent reader doesn’t have to do much with letters at all. But both reading and writing are highly auditory processes. Before even knowing what letter makes what sound, children have to have a clear and distinct understanding of the different sounds that make up their language. This is why phonemic awareness is critical for both reading and writing.
When reading a word, children have to understand what phonemes are present. For instance, « tap » and « top » are highly similar. To read and spell them correctly, children need to distinguish between and properly identify the phonemes /a/ and /o/. The more confident children are with associating phonemes together and manipulating them, the easier reading will be. This skill will largely contribute to helping them become fluent readers.
When writing a word, phonemic awareness becomes essential for proper spelling. To correctly spell a word, children need to identify each phoneme present. For instance, when writing the word tap, children must first find all the phonemes of /t/, /a/, /p/. When children start spelling, they can often overlook the medial sound or misidentify it and spell it « tp » or « tup ».
Once children start mastering phonemic awareness, they will be fully ready to move on to the next phase of learning to read with phonics. This is when they begin learning the relationship between the phonemes and written symbols. For example, children will learn that to make the phoneme /t/, we use the letter t, or that to form the sound /th/, they have to combine the letters t and h together. It is easy to understand that to get to this stage, having a clear understanding of all the different phonemes that make up oral words will play an essential role in reading and writing.
In other words, if you want to help your preschooler learn to read, don’t start by trying to make them read! Instead, play games with them to encourage the development of phonemic awareness. You can make it easy and fun. And, because it is auditory, you can do it on the go (see article for suggestions on-the-go activities to promote phonemic awareness). You can also use this printable made of fun and engaging activities to help your little one develop their phonemic awareness.
Gillon, G. T. (2004). Phonological awareness: From research to practice. New York: The Guilford Press.
Blachman, B. A. (2000). Phonological awareness. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Rosenthal, P. D. Pearson, and R. Barr (eds.), Handbook of reading research, 3, pp. 483-502. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.