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Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important? (You MUST Know This For Beginning & Struggling Readers)

Phonemic awareness skills need to be in place for a child to best succeed with reading.  When a child lacks proper phonemic awareness skills, phonics, vocabulary, spelling, and reading comprehension and reading fluency all are impacted. Find out in this article why phonemic awareness is important and how to address it.  There are ways to help your child become a better reader!

phonemic awareness

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There are many aspects to reading.  When everything falls into place and a child develops reading skills accordingly, an amazing sense of accomplishment happens not only for the child but also the parent and/or teacher.

However, when difficulties arise and a child is not developing reading skills accordingly, fear, panic, sadness, uncertainty and stress can sit in.  It is difficult on both the student and the guardian/teacher.  Finding out what the problems are and a solution for the problem may seem like an uphill battle.

From a teacher's perspective, it is overwhelming to see many kids in need of reading help and having limited time to decipher the problems and accurately help the students.  From a parent's perspective with family members with reading challenges, it is upsetting and alarming not see your child progressing in a manner that will lead them to becoming a successful reader.  

To better help students, it is important to address the beginning stages of reading.  Knowing that the foundation is properly laid out for the child and the phonemic awareness aspect is addressed is reassuring.  It is one place to start of the journey to helping your child become a more successful reader.

This post is all about phonemic awareness including what it is, why it is important, and solutions for becoming a better reader.

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

First, we need to address what a phoneme is.  A phoneme is an individual sound in a word.  For instance, one phoneme in the word chatter would be /ch/.   

This brings us to what phonemic awareness is.  According to the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program, phonemic awareness is:  "the ability to identify, number, and order phonemes in syllable and words."  

Phonemes need to be properly identified and sounded out by the reader in order to read a word correctly. If a reader is not able to properly hear or identify a letter sound, then manipulating sounds and decoding is difficult for that child or person.

Phonics includes the process of using all of the individual phonemes to sound out words. Phonics is the use of sounds and letter knowledge to break down, put together and identify words.

Phonemic awareness is the small component to phonics.  First the child must know how to identify a phoneme properly in order to have success with phonics.  Phonemic awareness is a smaller and narrowed down component to phonics.

What phonemic awareness problems look like

Here are samples to view that will make understanding phonemic awareness easier.  This will help you to better help your student or loved one.

Some examples of what good phonemic awareness skills look like are as follows:  

The word cat

  • proper phoneme skills- /c/, /a/, /t/
  • Wrong phoneme skills-/c/, /u/, /a/, /t/

In this instance the person thinks the sound for c in cat is actually pronounced /cu/.  Therefore the child or student will have a difficult time quickly identifying the word cat.  They will also have difficulty sounding out longer and more difficult words in the future.  

The word bring

  • proper phoneme skills- /b/, /r/, /i/, /n/, /g/
  • wrong phoneme skills- /b/, /u/, /r/, /e/, /n/, /g/

In this case the child is using the b and u together for the sound /b/ and is not properly identifying the /i/ sound.  

Phonemic awareness means that the person is aware of how to properly manipulate and work with phonemes in individual words.  This makes it easier in the future to pronounce more sophisticated words.  You see how problems with phonemic awareness can quickly become problematic for the child learning to read.

Here are letter tiles that are handy for practicing phonemic awareness skills.  Attaching a magnet to the back of the letters for manipulating on a tray is handy as well.

Try not to use black and white letter tiles.  They can be difficult for students with reading difficulties.

Why phonemic awareness is important

phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is important because it sets the foundation for children learning to read.  They need to be able to accurately pick out the sound of each phoneme correctly in order to begin blending a word together. Once this is in place, automatic reading of words will begin.

It is important to note that we discuss phoneme instead of saying letter sounds.  This is because ch, sh, ph, also known as digraphs, are examples of phonemes as well.  The letters together make up one sound.  For instance the letters ph together make the /f/ sound.  

However, if the child does not know how to form the basic alphabetic letter sounds correctly, then knowing that ph makes up the /f/ sound will not necessarily matter.  The /f/ sound needs to be correctly used when reading the word.

I have heard parents say to me that they do not understand why their child is having a difficult time read. They state that the student knows all of the phonics rules, but they still are not able to read or recognize the word.  

The first thing that I go back to is phonemic awareness.  Is the child able to identify and form the actual phonemes correctly.  If they think the letter f makes the fu sound instead of fff, then they are not going to understand read the word.

Oral language and text symbols are connected through phonemic awareness.  Once phonemic awareness is learned and implemented, people begin to recognize words and form them to memory.  Text symbols are read and are translated to phonemes by a person.  They then are recognized as words that are stored in that person's memory.

How phonological awareness relates to phonemic awareness

Phonological awareness encompasses phonemic awareness.  It is important to be aware of this because the phonological awareness is broader.  Phonemic awareness is one part or subcategory of phonological awareness.  

I am mentioning this because the two subjects overlap and phonemic awareness is a part of the phonological process; They are critical in reading.  

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds in words.  It is the overall spectrum of relating oral sounds to words.  Being able to rhyme is one identifier of phonological awareness skills. Often phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are categorized together for this reason.  They two categories are all vital components to reading.

Activities and programs need to be practiced in order to work on these skills.  However, phonemic awareness should focus on the student being able to form the letter sound correctly in order to relate the letter with the sound.  

This is further discussed later down under the how to help this reading difficulty heading.

Reading difficulty Signs to look out for

These signs include problems under the umbrella of phonological awareness.  Since phonemic awareness and phonological overlaps, it only makes sense that problems persist for both.  All reading issues must be addressed in order for the best outcome to occur.

Signs to watch out for:

  • Pronunciations and formations of letter sounds.  (Watch mouth movements) 
  • Syllable recognition- Can the child break a word into syllables?
  • Weak rhyming skills
  • Difficult with decoding words
  • Spelling problems
  • Addition or omitting of letters in words (whether sounding them out or spelling them)
  • Reluctance to read a word

 problems in older grades

Phonemic awareness continues to be problematic in reading if it is not properly addressed.  Student's phonemic awareness skills do improve as they get older, but often times the improvement is gradual or not at grade level.

This may not seem like a big deal to some since kids do mature and learn at different rates.  I do believe in acknowledging and embracing this.  However, when I hear a teacher say to a parent not to worry because most likely reading will improve when they get older, it eventually will click, I cringe.

How about if it doesn't.  Shouldn't a preventative step be implemented?  Nothing is going to be lost by providing a little extra help to ensure the person is able to understand and correctly carry out all aspects of the reading process.

When reading a word, an automatic transition will take place.  A child should progress from sounding out a word to effortlessly blending together the word.  If this does not take place, more concentration is needed when reading.  

A students who needs to focus on word decoding or blending will not comprehend text as well. They will need to tend to the words individually. This in turn will impact fluency and their ability to concentrate on the meaning of the passage they are reading.

Spelling is also a difficulty with a person with weak phonemic awareness skills.  It is difficult to know how to spell correctly if a student is not able to break a work into sounds or syllables correctly.  

It is also important to note that we are addressing phonemic awareness only.  There are other issues that arise in reading that effect reading fluency and comprehension. We are only reviewing how phonemic awareness plays a role in these areas of reading.

Help and Reading Resources

Finding a reading program that will help with phonemic awareness is important.  A multisensory approach is beneficial for the student.  It allows the student to practice and be taught from different angles.  The program below is the one I used prior to implementing my regular reading program.  I loved the fact that it specifically targets letter foundation with the mouth.

The reading program I recommend is The Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program for Reading, Spelling, and Speech.  I do not receive compensation through this site for recommending their program.  I did not use this program specifically online, however, I did use their manual and manipulatives kit successfully.  The book allows you to teach the program yourself.

pronunciation of the letters by viewing the model speaker.  There are step-by-step instructions in their book on how to carry out the lesson. 

Proper mouth and lip formation are necessary for children to recognize and form sounds.  Once the child is able to do this, they are able to use the phoneme properly in the word to read.  It is an intense program that recommends that you have a background with reading if implementing with the book.  

This is the reason I recommended the above program.  I used the book successfully myself.  It takes dedication, consistency and patience.  

Additional helpful resources for Reading and Phonemic Awareness Practice

Another book that I have not used but contains useful strategies is The Struggling Reader and is at a reasonable, low price.  You can purchase the book here.

Square Color Tiles- These are handy for writing your own letters or pre-reading activities using just tile without letters.

Seeing Stars Phonemic Awareness Activities- This is a high quality program also offered by Lindmood Bell.

This post is all about phonemic awareness including what it is, why it is important, and solutions for becoming a better reader.

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