Phonemic Awareness


Phonemic Awareness

Breaking the Sounds Barrier





The following is an excerpt from the book, "Help, I Can't Read!" (available on this website).

Phonemic Awareness – Are You Aware?

Phonological processing* is the ability to understand the sounds of our language whether those sounds form words, syllables, or the individual sound units (phonemes). The ability to hear the phonemes that form a word is called phonemic awareness.

Example: The letter “d” says /d/,* “o” says /ŏ/, and “g” says /g/. Those sounds don’t mean anything by themselves, but if we blend them together, /d/-/o/-/g/ becomes a furry animal that barks. It isn’t until the sounds are blended together that they become a word with meaning.

This is the skill that causes dyslexics and other struggling readers the most trouble—and it doesn’t matter if they’re six-years-old or sixty. Dyslexics have strengths in many of the more advanced reading skills, but unfortunately, phonemic awareness is the foundation upon which all reading is built. If a struggling reader hasn’t mastered it, this is where we must begin reading instruction

Note: It is possible for people to learn to read without phonemic awareness by memorizing the shapes of words, or some other decoding* skill, but their reading ability will always be limited until they master phonemic awareness. This is true for all age readers—so this chapter applies to the college-age struggler as much as it does for the struggling kindergartener.

As I state before, phonemic awareness is the necessary beginning step on the path to literacy. This chapter will divide it into two phases.


Phase 1 – Sounds Only

Pure phonemic awareness is completely auditory (hearing only) and involves no written symbols (no pictures, no letters of the alphabet). In order to begin the process of learning to read, children need to develop phonemic awareness. It doesn’t matter how old that “child” is, if he or she doesn’t understand that language can be broken down into individual sounds, it is impossible to become a completely fluent reader.

Some reading instruction methods have made the mistake of skipping Phase 1. This is a serious omission. Struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia, need explicit instruction in breaking the language into sounds (phonemic segmentation) and pushing individual sounds together to form words (blending).

  • Segmentation = “What sounds do you hear in “ship”? Student answers “/sh/-/i/-/p/.”
  • Blending = If I say the sounds: /d/-/o/-/g/, what word do they make?

Skipping Phase 1 is devastating for struggling readers. If your students showed a weakness in phonemic awareness when you put them through “The Assessment Sieve” (Chapter 3), it is critical that you begin their instruction here.


Phase 2 – Attaching Sound to Symbol

Once students can segment and blend the sounds of our language, it’s time to move toward learning which written symbols represent those sounds. This phase is the natural transition from phonemic awareness to using symbols (the alphabet) to represent sounds. It is the bridge between phonemic awareness and phonics, and must be taught clearly and sequentially for struggling readers.

Some teacher resource books would move this transitional period into the phonics chapter—but then its importance is overlooked. We must explicitly teach the transition to alphabetic symbols just as carefully as we built the phonemic awareness skills of our students.

There is a sequence in Phase 2 that works well.

1)    Sound to Picture – picture only where the shape of the picture imitates the shape of the alphabet letter (rebus picture)

.Rebus Picture

(Picture used with permission from Zoo-Phonics.)

2)    Picture to Symbol – laying the symbol over the rebus picture

 Merged Rebus and Symbol

(Picture used with permission from Zoo-Phonics.)

3)    Symbol alone – removing the picture until only the symbol remains.     



Few reading methods include Phase 2. Many curriculums leave it out altogether, or they go directly from phonemic awareness to alphabet letters (symbol alone). Some children may be able to make this transition without the gradual release into the alphabet, but it will overwhelm dyslexics. They can remember pictures, but the alphabet doesn’t stick. Our alphabet letters are abstract symbols that have no logical relation to the sounds they represent. This is the major reason readers struggle. The transition into written symbols must be taught as carefully as phonemic awareness.

 (For more information, see book "Help. I Can't Read!")



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