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Phonemic awareness is needed before students can learn to read.

Phonemes are the sounds of spoken language, and English is comprised of about 41 of them. Before children can learn to read, they must demonstrate phonemic awareness, the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the phonemes in spoken words. Some competencies exhibited by children having phonemic awareness are:
   •  pronouncing phonemes in isolation (/m/ /r/ /s/);
   •  blending phonemes to form words (/d/ /o/ /g/ dog);
   •  identifying words that begin with the same sound (fish, fan, fire start with /f/); and
   •  segmenting the first and last sounds of a word (bat starts with /b/ and ends with /t/).

The importance of phonemic awareness to early reading success has only come to the forefront in the past 15 to 20 years. The NICHD synthesized data from over 100 researchers at 14 sites, and the findings indicated that lack of phonemic awareness is the underlying cause of reading disabilities, including dyslexia. Most children learn to read regardless of how they are taught, yet an estimated 30 percent lack phonemic awareness. In spite of this, studies also show that nearly all beginning readers can develop phonemic awareness if given intensive systematic instruction.

Research also validates the superiority of methodology in which phonemes are taught in isolation and then blended to form words. Analytic approaches, which are commonly used, require students to extract like sounds from words. This task requires a sophisticated level of phonemic awareness, so students lacking this skill cannot compare, contrast, or extract sounds.

Phoneme instruction
Hands-on, natural approaches are far more effective with young children, so manipulatives are ideal for developing phonemic awareness. The following sequence is recommended.

Step 1 - Teach phonemes as isolated sounds
First, teach the most commonly used English phonemes in isolation. This is referred to as a synthetic approach. Auditory associations that children have heard and can relate to are most effective since this helps them to hear, say, and recall the phonemes. In early instruction, do not associate letter names with the sounds. The English Phonemes Resource List, which is available for download at the end of this section, specifies associations used in the Reading Manipulatives Phoneme Songs & Blending program.

Step 2 - Blend phonemes to form words
In the early stages of blending, teachers should help students blend isolated phonemes to form words. A worthwhile strategy is to use pictures that represent the phonemes. Line up three phoneme pictures that can be blended into a word. Help students to blend the phonemes from left to right to read the word. Start with picture blending even though some students may already know the graphemes that represent the phonemes.

Step 3 - Break three-phoneme words into onsets and rimes
The onset of a syllable is the initial phoneme or blend; the rime is the vowel and any subsequent consonants (also called a phonemic or graphemic base). One of the most effective methods for introducing blending is with word families. These groups of rhyming words are formed with a common base and multiple initial phonemes or blends (i.e., -at with phonemes: bat, cat, chat, fat, hat, mat, pat, sat, that; -at with blends: brat, scat, slat). By representing phonemes with picture associations, word families can be done before letters are attached to the sounds.

Step 4 - Work with phonemes in words
Once students are able to hear and produce phonemes, they can work with sounds at the word level. The following analytic activities require preexisting phonemic awareness concepts. For instance, if students are presented with groups of words that begin with or contain a phoneme, they must deduce that the similar sound in each example is what is being considered. They must already know what phonemes are and the sounds they make in order to perform this task. For this reason, the following analytic activities extend and solidify phoneme competency:
   •  phoneme isolation - student hears individual sounds within a word (man begins with /m/)
   •  phoneme identity - student hears same sounds in different words (/f/ in fan, father, fish)
   •  phoneme segmentation - student breaks a word into separate sounds (sock = /s/ /o/ /k/)
   •  phoneme addition - student creates a new word by adding a phoneme (/s/ + top = stop)
   •  phoneme substitution - student changes phoneme to make new word (fire /f/ to /t/ = tire)
Initial Phoneme, Final Phoneme, and Blend & Digraph Sorts afford student with plentiful practice on these skills. In addition, the pictures can be used to teach vocabulary words.

Download Phonemic Awareness Tips
Download Phoneme Songs Resource List