Phonemic Awareness & Phonological Awareness

Why It Could Be Holding Back Your Child’s Reading & Comprehension

If reading is your child’s door to the future, phonemic awareness is the key to unlock that door. Without phonemic or phonological awareness, learning to read, reading fluency and reading with comprehension are all challenging.

A good starting place to helping a struggling reader is to understand phonemic (and phonological) awareness and the role language processing plays in reading.

What Exactly Is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness describes an awareness of the phonetic or sound structure of words. Some call this phonics or phonetic awareness. There are three lengths of sound bite:  (a) syllables such as /mic/ in phonemic, (b) onsets (vowels at beginning of words) and rimes (vowel and consonant blends at the end of words, such as /ic/ in phonemic) and (c) phonemes (each individual sound, such as /ph/ in phonemic).

phonemic awarenessThe most powerful indicator of phonological awareness in a young child is rhyming skill. Not being able to rhyme at 3-4 years of age shows an inability to identify the sounds —  the rime — at the end of words. It shows a lack of phonological awareness.

What Exactly Is Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness has a narrower definition. It describes the ability to pick out phonemes — the sounds that make up words — in spoken words.  By pick out we mean hear each unique phoneme, and to identify and manipulate each phoneme.

Before children learn to read the written language, they need to become aware of how the sounds in words work. This is phonemic awareness.

How Reading Works And Why Phonemic Awareness Matters

From birth, we build our vocabulary and semantics (meaning) through listening, through oral language. The brain identifies every phoneme in every word, stores it in oral word memory and attaches a meaning.

Then, when we read, we translate the text symbols we see on the page to phonemes and thereby connect to words and understanding in our oral word memory. For instance, if your child’s word memory has “dog” stored as having phonemes: /d/ /o/  /g/,  then she sees d-o-g as text, she will recognize it immediately.

Phonemes are the connectors of text symbols back to our oral language.  Phonemic awareness is the connection skill.

How Weak Phonemic Awareness Undermines Reading Comprehension

If however your child’s oral word memory is muddy, text will not always be instantly recognizable and written English looks like a whole new language. If your child does not hear the phonemes in “dog,” the text d-o-g makes no sense. It’s a word your child doesn’t know.

This is the case for millions of 4-7 year olds.  When the brain’s recognition of phonemes is muddy, unclear, learning to read is much harder.

In later grades, as language processing skills mature, phonemic awareness skills improve. But oftentimes that improvement is incremental only. Sounding out is accurate, but it still requires concentration. It is not automatic, effortless.  This lack of automaticity and need to concentrate when decoding, when sounding out unrecognizable words, slows reading down and gets in the way of reading comprehension.

The general lack of reading proficiency in 8th grade as per the NAEP test is a measure of the nation’s reading comprehension problems.  It is in large part due to a lack of automaticity in decoding and phonemic awareness. It’s a difficulty that affects millions.

What Causes Phonological Awareness Delays?

Phonological awareness difficulties (and the subset, phonemic awareness) come from language processing delays, exacerbated by the challenges of learning English.

Being able to process language is one the brain’s most challenging functions since natural language is lightning fast. The processing of words as whole sounds for listening and speech is not so hard.  It’s the additional processing clarity skills  — think, auditory pixels  — needed for phonemic awareness that are challenging.  Many children do not fully develop so called natural language-speed processing until after the age at which they are expected to read.

And so, an inability to master phonological awareness before they are biologically and cognitively ready puts many children behind in reading from the outset. And in today’s standardized system, with annual reading milestones, it’s a stress point for everyone, parent and child.

Furthermore, there is a reason many English language learners struggle with English, Its so-called orthographic depth makes it a hard language to read with a higher incidence of dyslexia than most other languages. English is a phonetic language that requires great precision, making the basic and essential starting skill of sounding out difficult:

  • Phonemic awareness requires language processing at 40 sounds a second
  • Sounds are represented in 250 different spellings (e.g., /f/ as in ph, f, gh, ff)
  • These sound units (phonemes) over-lap, i.e., they are not distinctly different

Most Struggling Readers Have Phonemic Awareness Issues

It is not surprising that 64% of 4th graders read at below grade level in the NAEP reading test, the nation’s report card. Most struggling readers, 88% according to a 10-year NIH study, share one common problem, weak phonemic awareness.

A great number of research studies identify phonological awareness as a reliable predictor of reading fluency and comprehension.  In addition, National Reading Panel research focuses on phonics and phonological awareness training as the most powerful way to improve reading.

As children get older language processing improve, therefore phonemic awareness improves and therefore reading improves, naturally. But to the extent that phonemic awareness is not automatic, decoding is not automatic.

This becomes the impediment to the ultimate reading goal, reading with comprehension.  The distraction and concentration on the mechanics of decoding take away from and compromise reading comprehension. This means reading at grade level will always be a challenge, explaining the poor NAEP results.

Helping Your Child Develop Phonemic Awareness

Because phonological awareness does not fully mature in many children until the age of 7, many countries delay reading instruction until that age. Unfortunately, that is not an option in North America.

If your young child is off to a slow start with reading, bear in mind that the natural cognitive skills required for phonological awareness may still be developing. And so it probably wise not to exert too much pressure and risk turning your child off reading until these skills develop. Some call it go slow early in reading to go fast later.  It may be better to work on oral language at home — rhyming games, rapid naming, lots of conversation, etc. — rather than text. In addition, you can exercise and improve phonological awareness with sound-based exercises or phonics instruction.

What Does the Lack of Phonological Awareness Look Like?

The most reliable sign of a lack of phonological awareness is a lack of rhyming skill at 3 years of age. If your just-turned-4-year old child is not able to rhyme, you should start looking at ways to accelerate language processing skill growth.

phonological awareness for young childrenOnce your child is 5 or older, and reading a little, here are some other signs of difficulty to look for.  Your child may have a language processing delay (weak phonological awareness) if he has difficulties such as:

  • Identifying rhyming words
  • Perceiving the difference between similar sounds (for example, m and n)
  • Identifying the first sound in a word
  • Remembering the sequence of sounds in a word
  • Break words down into a sequence of phonemes (e.g., dash has three phonemes: /d/ /a/ /sh/)
  • Manipulating sounds within words (change r in rush to b)

Famous researcher, Reed Lyon from NIH put it like this.”The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units (phonemic awareness).” (Lyon, 1995)

Children with auditory processing problems tend to encounter reading problems at the decoding stage or with reading comprehension later on. While many reading programs deal with this issue by loading on additional reading practice and word drills, etc., a better approach is to first exercise the language processing skills and develop phonemic awareness. This replicates the path taken by good readers.  Once there is phonemic awareness mastery, natural growth in reading should take place.

Summary of Phonological Awareness Terminology

Phoneme:
A phoneme is a speech sound — it has no inherent meaning.

Phonemic Awareness:
The ability to hear language at the phoneme level, i..e, to hear the individual sounds that make up words.

Auditory Processing:
Auditory processing is a cognitive skill for detecting and manipulating sound and language. Most phonological awareness deficits stem from a weakness in auditory processing.

Phonics:
Use of the text to break down and recognize words.

Phonological Awareness: 
This is a broad term that covers processing sounds of language at the word, syllable, and phoneme level.

Onset-Rime:
The onset is the part of the word before the vowel; not all words have onsets. The rime is the part of the word including the vowel and what follows it.