Phonemic and phonological awareness is an essential competency for emergent literacy (Moats, 1999; Yopp, 1992). Phonemic and phonological awareness is now typically introduced during Pre-kindergarten programs. This emphasizes the need for universal Pre-K, since foundational concepts in emergent literacy are being introduced and then reinforced during the Kindergarten year. When such learning opportunities are missed or ineffective, a child might find him or herself in First Grade and in need of a Tier 2 or 3 reading intervention to develop the phonemic and phonological awareness exhibited by same-age/grade peers.
Why do we need teachers proficient in developmental reading skills? Samantha Coppola's TED Talk provides a powerful response. Effective teachers are the great equalizer with the potential to positively change a child's destiny.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992). Phonemic awareness is essential to learning to read in an alphabetic writing system, because letters represent sounds or phonemes. Without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense. Phonemic awareness is fundamental to mapping speech to print. For instance, if a child cannot hear that "man" and "moon“ begin with the same sound or is unable to blend the sounds /rrrrrruuuuuunnnnn/ into the word "run", then he or she may have great difficulty connecting sounds with their written symbols or blending sounds to make a word.
A phoneme is a speech sound. A phoneme is the smallest unit of spoken language and has no inherent meaning (National Reading Panel, 2000). Phonemic awareness involves hearing language at the phoneme level.
Phonemic awareness is not phonics. Phonemic awareness is auditory and does not involve words in print. Phonemic awareness is important because it teaches students to attend to sounds. Phonemic awareness primes the connection of sound to print. Phonemic awareness gives students a way to approach reading new words. Phonemic awareness helps students understand the alphabetic principle whereby letters in words are systematically represented by sounds.
Phonics, is the use of the code (sound-symbol relationships to recognize words. Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sound structure of language. This is an encompassing term that involves working with the sounds of language at the word, syllable, and phoneme level.
Phonemic and phonological awareness is difficult because although the English language includes 26 letters, there are approximately 40 phonemes. Sounds are represented in 250 different spellings. For instance, /f/ as in ph, f, gh, ff. Research has established that children lacking phonemic and phonological awareness skills exhibit difficulty grouping words with similar and dissimilar sounds (mat, mug, sun), blending and splitting syllables (sun-ny), blending sounds into words (m_a_n), segmenting a word as a sequence of sounds (e.g., fish is made up of three phonemes, /f/ ,/i/, /sh/), detecting and manipulating sounds within words (change “r” in “run” to “s” to make “sun”), (Kame'enui, et. al., 1997).
Teacher preparation programs need to strengthen their training in this regard and develop better partnerships with early childhood programs and elementary schools to ensure optimal training of teachers in the implementation of intervention programs that utilize a phonemic and phonological awareness approach. Acceptance of the need for this awareness will increase the likelihood of effective action planning for students identified as at-risk learners during the emergent literacy stage of learning.
Vacca & Padak (1990) find at-risk learners are seldom more academically vulnerable than during instructional situations that require them to engage in acts of literacy. Kletzien & Bednar (1990) view at-risk readers as students who see themselves “as poor learners who have limited aptitude to benefit from educational opportunities. They are at risk by being constantly discouraged and by having an inadequate understanding of their own learning abilities and potential” (p 528).
Most research-based reading intervention programs utilize a phonemic and phonological awareness approach as the foundation for their model of reading intervention. The most effective reading programs for at-risk students utilize a multisensory and systematic approach (Ehri, Nunes, Willows, Schuster, Yaghoub-Zadeh, & Shanahan, 2001; Kim, Wagner, & Lopez, 2012; Kruidenier, MacArthur, Wrigley, 2010). Research by Slavin, Lake, Davis, and Madden, (2009) found one-to-one intervention effective for students at-risk for reading failure. As noted above, effective teachers are the great equalizer with the potential to positively change a child's destiny. Developing phonemic and phonological awareness skills as a teacher of reading simply makes a teacher more effective.
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