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Phonics Teaching is Slow Without Phonemic Awareness

Teaching phonics and phonemic awareness often go together and are seen by parents as the same, but they are not. Here is the headline difference:

  1. Phonemic Awareness is about processing sounds, hearing letter sounds in words
  2. Phonics is about the connecting those letter sounds to text symbols

Most reading instruction starts with phonics.  But phonics mastery is frustrating, verging on humiliating, if a child cannot hear the letter sounds that are supposedly inside words that  are represented by text symbols.

And so phonics teaching is distressing for many children, because the phonemic awareness is not there.  Phonemic awareness should be the first focus of reading instruction, which comes down to efficient language processing and accurate listening.  Once a child processes sound accurate and can hear the sounds inside words, connecting those sounds to letter symbols is so much easier.

What many parents miss

For adults who’ve been reading since before they can remember, it’s hard to understand how difficult it can be to learn the basics of language. The process of learning words, how they’re built out of letters, how they fit together, and what they mean is literally what sets humans apart from animals.

But even though our brains can learn these things, there is no reading region and so it requires a great leap in each child’s mental development. The intuitive process children use to bridge that gap relies on phonics and phonemic understanding.

Students must learn that words are made up of sounds before they can understand the sound-spelling relationships of written words. The two concepts are intertwined despite having different meanings.  And it’s a lot more challenging for a young brain that most parents suspect.

About Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify, manipulate, and differentiate individual phonemes (the smallest units of sound in a language) in spoken words. It focuses on the oral aspect of language rather than written symbols.

Phonemic awareness activities involve recognizing and manipulating sounds, such as blending sounds together to form words, segmenting words into individual sounds, deleting or substituting sounds in words, and identifying the beginning, middle, and ending sounds of words. Phonemic awareness is essential for developing strong reading and spelling skills, as it helps children understand the sound structure of words.

More on phonemic awareness here.

Teaching Phonics

Phonics refers to the relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds (phonemes) they represent. It involves teaching children the systematic and predictable relationships between letters and sounds, enabling them to decode words. Phonics instruction typically involves teaching letter-sound correspondences, blending sounds together to form words, and segmenting words into individual sounds.

Phonics is important of course, as it helps children understand how written language works and supports their ability to decode and to spell words accurately.  Phonics mastery is the gateway skill to reading automaticity and comprehension.

Teaching children to connect written letters with sounds  – phonics teaching – is a foundational element of early education. Learning the relationship between the symbols that make up the alphabet and the sounds they produce is one of the key building blocks of literacy.

The most effective way to learn phonetics is a structured and repetitive review of each letter and its associated sound. Even if your can can hear phonemes in words, it can be a long, gruelling process. Teachers will often use multiple senses to reach every type of learner. For example, you could have children write a letter in shaving cream using their fingers while repeating its sound. This leverages movement, touch, and smell to build the connection between the symbols and their pronunciations.

Once students learn each letter and its sound, they’re ready to move on to common letter blends — the sounds produced when letters such as “ch” or “sh” are used together. Once that is mastered with automaticity, learning to read can truly start.

So, Is your child hearing phonemes?

Processing language as whole words requires good language processing skills.  Being able to pick out all of the sounds inside words requires even better processing skills. Think of it like sound pixels.  Adding more pixels to words to make the phonemes clearer is challenging for many children.

Language processing matures for many if not most children around 7 years of age,  and later for many more.  Phonemic awareness won’t kick in until auditory processing is fully developed.  Check out these symptoms of an auditory processing delay.

And so, if your child has any delays whatsoever related to reading, your starting point should be language processing.  Is your child processing well enough to hear phonemes.  If not, then he or she is stuck at the phonics teaching stage, the starting gates of learning to read.

To get out of the starting gates, a child needs to not only hear phonemes, but that processing needs to be effortless, automatic. Only then can decoding be automatic. And only then can reading comprehension and thinking while reading fully develop.

More on the steps to reading proficiency, the sequence every child needs to follow, here.

How to Address Delays in Phonemic Awareness

This comes down to stimulating auditory processing skills.

For younger children, nothing beats being read to and talked to in an adult voice. The more words a child hears, the more language processing is practiced and the better phonemic awareness becomes.

If these delays are still evident at school age, more help might be needed. Gemm Learning uses Fast ForWord software to stimulate language processing skills, phonemic awareness and phonics. More on our reading program here.

Phonemic awareness

Segmenting and blending are two of the most important phonemic awareness skills to teach children. Segmenting is the act of breaking a word into individual sounds; blending is the ability to put those sounds together to say a word.

If children know enough phonics to recognize the sounds each word represents, they will be able to use phonemic awareness to sound out unfamiliar words and learn them. For example, deciphering the sounds in C-A-T and saying those out loud is segmenting. Recognizing those sounds as “cat” is blending. Knowing phonics is essential to having good phonemic awareness, and phonemic awareness is an important step of transferring that knowledge into the ability to read.

An easy way to remember the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness is that phonics is visual while phonemic awareness is auditory. Both are effective tools for helping children understand the symbols and sounds that create our alphabet and the words those letters build. Create good readers and writers from an early age by emphasizing both phonics and phonemic awareness.