Phonics vs Phonemic Awareness - Guide on Teaching How to Read (Part 1)

Phonics vs Phonemic Awareness - Guide on Teaching How to Read (Part 1)

Phonics vs Phonemic Awareness - Guide on Teaching How to Read (Part 1)

In the previous blog post on science behind teaching how to read, we tried to establish that teaching how to read should be informed by scientific research. A ‘systematic and explicit instruction in phonics’ is essential in helping children to read successfully. Building fluency and teaching comprehension are also equally important.

So, in the present blog, let’s get into a thorough study of the progression required in helping children to read. The report of the National Reading Panel (U.S. Department of Education) puts forward five areas of reading instruction that should be emphasized: 

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics Instruction
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary 
  • Text Comprehension

We will discuss the first two in detail in this post.

How to teach phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify sounds and understand that the sounds of spoken language combine to form words. A phoneme is the smallest part of spoken language that makes a difference in the meaning of words. For example, changing the first phoneme in the word cat from /c/ to /b/ changes the word from cat to bat, and so changes the meaning. English has about 41 phonemes. A few words, such as a or oh, have only one phoneme. Most words, however, have more than one phoneme: The word in has two phonemes (/i/ /n/); back has three phonemes (/b/ /a/ /ck/), and frog has four phonemes (/f/ /r/ /o/ /g/). 

Effective phonemic awareness strategies teaches children to notice and manipulate sounds in spoken language. We can use many activities to build phonemic awareness such as: 

A. Phoneme isolation: It involves recognizing individual sounds in a word. Adult: “What is the first sound in pan?”
Child: “The first sound in van is /p/.” 

B. Phoneme identity: It involves recognizing the same sounds in different words.
Adult: “What sound is the same in six, sun, and soap?”
Child: “The first sound, /s/, is the same.” 

C. Phoneme categorization: It involves recognizing the word in a set of three or four words that has the “odd” sound.
Adult: “Which is the odd one? pin, pig, kit.”
Child: “kit is the odd one. It doesn’t begin with /p/.”

D. Phoneme blending: It involves listening to a sequence of separately spoken phonemes, and then combine the phonemes to form a word, followed by reading and writing the word.
Adult: “What word is /v/ /a/ /n/?”
Child: “/v/ /a/ /n/ is van.”
Adult: “Now let’s write the sounds in van: /v/, write v; /a/, write a; /a/, write n.” Adult: (Writes van on the board.) “Now we’re going to read the word van.” 

E. Phoneme segmentation: It involves breaking a word into its separate sounds, saying each sound as you tap out or count it, then reading and writing the word.
Adult: “How many sounds are in black?”
Child: “/b/ /l/ /a/ /ck/. Four sounds.”
Adult: “Now let’s write the sounds in black: /b/, write b; /l/, write l; /a/, write a; /ck/, write ck.”
Adult: (Writes black on the board.) “Now we’re going to read the word black.” 

F. Phoneme deletion: It involves recognizing the word that remains when a phoneme is removed from another word.
Adult: “What is brain without the /b/?”
Child: “Brain without the /b/ is rain.”

G. Phoneme addition: It involves making a new word by adding a phoneme to an existing word.
Adult: “What word do you get if you add /s/ to the beginning of hook?”
Child: “Shook.”

H. Phoneme substitution: It involves substituting one phoneme for another to make a new word.
Adult: “The word is hot. Change /t/ to /p/. What’s the new word?”
Child: “hop”

Phonemic awareness is important because it improves children’s word reading and comprehension and helps children learn to spell. It can be very effective if we teach children to manipulate phonemes by using the letters of the alphabet. Also, the instruction should focus on only one or two rather than several types of phoneme manipulation at a time to avoid confusion.

How to teach phonics

Phonics instruction teaches children the relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language, also known as the letter-sound associations. Systematic and explicit phonics instruction significantly improves young children’s word recognition, spelling and comprehension. It is particularly beneficial for children who have difficulty learning to read and is most effective when introduced early. The following are essential components of teaching phonics and children should be given sufficient practice in mastering each of these.

A. Basic letter sounds

A (as in ant), B (as in balloon), C (as in cap), D (as in doll), E (as in elephant), F (as in fish), G (as in gorilla) H (as in hat), I (as in igloo), J(as in juice), K (as in kangaroo), L (as in lion), M (as in monkey), N (as in no), O (as in octopus), P (as in pig), Q (as in question), R (as in ring), S (as in sun), T (as in train), U (as in umbrella), V (as in van), W (as in watch), X (as in box), Y (as in yellow), Z (as in zoo)

B. Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) Words

C. Blends

When 2 or more consonants combine to make a certain sound and 2 distinct sounds can be discerned, then that pair of consonants constitutes a blend. Examples include \bl\, \cr\, \gl\, \sk\, \sm\, \st\ etc. Few examples of words with two-letter blends are skin, scan, tray, play, crow, etc. Three-letter blends can be seen in split, scrub, three, strut, etc.

D. Digraphs

When 2 or more consonants combine to make a certain sound and ONLY 1 sound is heard that is different from the sounds of the consonants, then that pair is called a digraph. Examples include \ch\, \sh\, \wr\, \ng\, \nk\ etc.

E. Diphthongs

When 2 vowels OR 1 vowel and 1 consonant combine into 1 syllable that may/may not have a sound of the vowel(s) that makes up that sound, then that pair is called a diphthong. Examples are \ow\, \ou\, \oo, \ea\, \ai\, \ee\ etc. Examples of such words are gain, enjoy, boy, spoil, zoo, etc.

The ability to discern complex sounds like blends, digraphs and diphthongs from a word is called phonological awareness.

F. R-controlled vowels

At times, when the letter ‘r’ comes at the end of a word, it modifies the sound of the preceding vowel in various ways – for example, bar, her, bird, port, curt etc. These are words with r-controlled vowels. 

G. Magic E

When the letter ‘e’ appears at the end of a word, the vowel that precedes it in the word takes on a sound that reflects the way that vowel is said – this is called Magic ‘E’. Examples such as (can, cane), (tap, tape), (bit, bite) etc. help in understanding the effect that the letter ‘e’ has.

These concepts are the building blocks of developing phonemic awareness and improving phonics skills.

We hope we were able to initiate you successfully into the challenging yet exciting pursuit of learning how to teach young children to read. We would love to know your experiences as you embark on this fruitful journey of teaching a significant skill.

P.S. Check out these resources as well:

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