What is Phonemic Awareness?

In order to understand what phonemic awareness is, you must appreciate that it is a totally different concept from phonics - it is not the same thing. In simple terms, it is the ability to hear and recognize sounds within phonemes, which is the correct term used to describe spoken words. Essentially, this in-depth awareness of the sounds that all words are made up of is a vital stage in learning to read.

Without having an understanding of phonemes, attempting to read sentences and paragraphs in a book, say, is very difficult. Gaining a thorough knowledge of how words are built and what speech sounds they consist of allows us to determine how words are different from one another, and later on: their individual meanings. This is a particularly useful skill for words that start with the same letter, but end differently.

Phonemic awareness is also necessary to aid the process of learning to spell. The popular 'sounding-out' method that is applicable to the majority of basic words cannot be done unless the student understands letter sounds. By using these and combining them together, words can be built.

It's easy to look at why it is so important to a student's development, but how is phonemic awareness actually developed? What tasks and activities are used to guide students through the learning process? One of the most popular exercises is categorization. Within this, teachers encourage pupils to identify individual sounds and place them into small groups based up on their similarities and differences.

As well as the ability to classify and categorize, substitution is another skill demanded to make new words, as well as the addition and deletion of sounds to change existing ones. As touched upon above, mixing or blending sounds together is one way of making new words - after all, reading is simply the ability to recognize these and speak them out loud.

What happened to the basic alphabet then? Although it is a good start in learning to read, we must remember that although there are a total of 26 letters in the alphabet, there are many more sounds within it than this. This is because we have to combine a collection of letters together to achieve sounds, for example, 'sh' - as well as just 's' and 'h'.

Aside from the specifically designed exercises described above, parents, guardians or friends of a student who can already read may be able to help develop their phonemic awareness outside of school. Even by simply reading a book or singing songs, the person learning can begin to develop their awareness of phonemes.

The process is not learned overnight, but rather it takes time to firmly establish the wide range of letter sounds in one's head. There are several stages within the development of phonemic awareness: from identifying letter sounds, to blending them together in order to create whole words. By getting it right from the very beginning, students will find they are able to develop their reading skills much more effectively in the future.