Phonemic Awareness:
The "Buzz" in Early Childhood Education

Phonemic awareness is one of the current "buzz words" in early childhood education. But, what does it mean?

The smallest units of speech in our language correspond to the letters in our alphabetic system. Phonemic awareness is the awareness that our language is made up of these small, discrete sounds. When we speak, we are not conscious of the individual speech sounds in words. We process the spoken phonemes automatically and focus on meaning. In order to use the alphabet to read and write, we must understand and be able to manipulate phonemes. Approximately 25% of first graders from literacy-rich backgrounds do not have good phonemic awareness and must receive explicit instruction.

Developing an awareness of the sounds of speech is not always simple for young children. Phonemic awareness varies greatly among young children and directly relates to how children learn to read. Preschool children's phonemic awareness is the strongest predictor of success in learning to read. Children without good phonemic awareness have serious difficulties when learning to read and write and the correlation of phonemic awareness to success carries through to the twelfth grade. This is true the world over, independent of the language of the child.

Children's phonemic awareness can be developed and enhanced through direct instruction. Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness has been shown to support and even accelerate children's progress and achievement levels in both reading and writing.

What can you do to increase your child's phonemic awareness?

1) Read to your child.
Children begin to show an interest in the sounds of words at the preschool age. They are interested in words that sound "odd" or "funny", words that rhyme, words that begin with the same sounds, and words that imitate sounds in their familiar environment. By reading nursery rhymes and poetry to you child, you provide him with the opportunity to hear language that is rich in sounds. The experience that two and three year olds have with the language of nursery rhymes directly correlates to the knowledge they have of phonemes and rhyming when they enter kindergarten. Poems, songs, stories, and finger plays can be used both in preschool settings and at home to promote the awareness of speech sounds.
Mother Goose books
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
by Bill Martin, Jr.
Busy Buzzing Bumblebee and Other Tongue Twisters
by Schwartz
Book of Poems
by Tomie de Paola
Raffi tapes and songbooks
Eye Winker, Tom Tinker, Chin Chopper: Fifty Musical Finger
plays by Glazer are just some of the countless sources of luscious language for your little one!
2) Play listening games.
Put a few items in a box such as scissors, crinkly paper, two blocks, and two coins. Show your child the objects and let him listen to the sounds - i.e. of the scissors opening and closing and the blocks banging against each other. Then, blindfold your child, make a sound, and have the child pick the object that made the sound! Move on to listening activities involving following directions.
3) Play with rhyme, all the time! Speak it; sing it! It's no crime!
Children can clap out syllables. Ask your child to listen for how many claps or chunks he hears in "candy." Then clap "can" and "dy." Count the claps. Have your child clap out favorite nursery rhymes and songs. Fill a film canister with beans or macaroni and make a "syllable shaker."
There are many ways you can manipulate sounds with your child. Play in the car or while making dinner. Have your child think of all the words he can that begin with the same sounds that "cat" does, i.e. cake, castle, candy, kick, kettle. Remember, you are looking for "sounds" not letters!
Play "I am thinking of." Tell your child you are thinking of something that begins with the /s/ sound (make sound; don't say the letter) that can be used to cut paper. It has a place for two of your fingers. It's a pair of ______!

Work with your child to increase his phonemic awareness. Be sure to ask about the phonemic awareness curriculum content when visiting pre-schools. These "games" are just a few of the fun, enriching and simple actions you can take to enhance your little one's phonemic awareness.


Maureen Ruby, DMD, is a Kindergarten Teacher, Technology Education Teacher: K-3, in North Branford and Adjunct Professor at SCSU teaching a graduate course in Developmental Language Arts.


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