Monday, October 17, 2016

October 17, 2016

The Importance of Phonemic Awareness in Learning to Read

 Phonemic awareness is a critical skill for learning to read an alphabetically
 written language. Yet a fair amount of confusion, especially among educators, persists about what this skill is and why it is so important. Written for practitioners, this article describes phonemic awareness and discusses why it is a prerequisite for learning to read, how we have come to understand its importance, why it can be difficult to acquire, and what happens to the would-be reader who fails to acquire it. Our discussion of phonemic awareness is framed within a particular view of reading,
 to which we turn first.

What is reading?
Reading, or more precisely reading comprehension, is the ability to derive meaning, particularly that intended by the author, from the printed word in short, reading is understanding the meaning of written language. The major difference between the written and the spoken word is not what is being communicated, but how the communication is taking place, by eye rather than
 ear. In this simple view, reading is dependent on two major cognitive capacities. The first is comprehension, the ability to understand language. The second is decoding, the ability to derive a word phonological representation (one based in the domain of spoken words) from the sequences of letters that represent it. Skilled decoding allows the reader, through print, to retrieve the meaning of words known and organized through the learning of spoken language. Together, decoding and comprehension skills combine to permit language comprehension to take place via the printed word.

What is phonemic awareness?
Phonemic awareness is a cognitive skill that consists of three pieces. The first piece concerns a linguistic unit, the phoneme; the second concerns the explicit, conscious awareness of that unit; and the third involves the ability to explicitly manipulate such units. Phonemic awareness is thus the ability to consciously manipulate language at the level of phonemes.  Let’s take each of these in turn.
A phoneme is an abstract linguistic unit. Linguists define it as the most basic unit of language capable of making a difference in meaning. As an example, the difference between the word pairs (each containing three phonemes) bit and pit, bat and bet, bin and bid, is a single phoneme, one occurring
 in these examples in the initial, medial, or final position, respectively, of the spoken word.

Phonemes are abstract because they are not the actual sounds of which words are composed; these are known as phones. Rather they are the underlying category of which the phones are members.  To illustrate this, think of how the sound represented by the letter p is different in the words pan and span. To make this readily apparent, hold your hand close to your mouth and notice that the puff of air that is released when saying the former is much stronger than that released with the latter.  The puff, known as aspiration, is not distinctive in English, in that there are no pairs of words where this single difference
 in aspiration marks a difference in meaning. In short, these two sounds (or phones) are different, yet they represent the same underlying category (or phoneme). As we will see, the abstract nature of phonemes presents one of the obstacles a child must overcome in developing phonemic awareness.

Terms Often Confused with Phonemic Awareness
Phonics: An instructional
 approach for helping children learn the relationship between letters and sounds.
Phonetics: The process used by linguists to describe the speech sounds
 in natural language.
Phonology: The linguistic component of language that deals with the systems and patterns of sounds that occur in languages (distinguished from the other two components of language, which are syntax
 and semantics).

Phonological awareness: A general term for metalinguistic awareness of any of the phonological characteristics of language, including phonemic units, syllables, rimes, and words.

Nora Sierra
EC Assistant Principal
Discovery School

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