Inside: Learn what phonemic awareness is and how to assess for it. Plus some IEP goals for Phonemic Awareness.

The other day, my 13-year-old sports fan and I had a short but confusing discussion. I knew he was looking at a sports-something on Instagram, and it was the first day of NBA free agency. “Mom, what does resigned mean?”

I explained to him that it means to quit, as in quitting a job. “No,” he went on. “Re-signed.” he said, putting emphasis on the ‘re.’

Again, using my clues and cues and knowing that he was following NBA players, I told him that meant that a player must have re signed with his team. Signed again.

“No. He can’t play with them anymore.” At this point I asked to look at his phone.

phonemic awareness means you have to know the difference in context

Rescind. That’s the word he was looking at.

“Ah! Rescind!” Now that I could see the word, I could explain it to him.

1. Phonemic Awareness

He was decoding and trying to comprehend.

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He was getting there, using his existing knowledge base and the clues around him. He knew what this player had done (domestic violence) and knew that my answers of “quitting” and “signing again” were incorrect.

2. Phonological Awareness vs Phonemic Awareness

Phonological awareness is an essential skill that kids need order to be successful with reading. Reading is an inherently oral activity. It’s almost impossible for children to read fluently without the ability to hear words and decode their meaning.

3. Definition of Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and segment sounds into their component parts, phonemes. This helps kids understand how combined letters create words and how individual letters (and sometimes groups of letters) can change the word they’re creating. Phonemic awareness is critical because it helps kids break down words they read and comprehend them better.

It also plays a role in reading comprehension and fluency. Besides, having good phonemic awareness makes reading easier for elementary school kids because it provides a foundation for learning to read decently.

Specifically, phonemic awareness helps children identify individual speech sounds (phonemes), analyze the letter combinations that make up those sounds, and use this knowledge to break down new words they encounter into their component parts.

So what is the difference between phonological and phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a part of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness in kindergarten is to be expected, though of course they won’t be experts.

child laying down reading a book and developing phonemic awareness

They are often used interchangeably but they are not the same thing.

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Phonemic awareness is the ability to discern the separate sounds within a word. Such as, breaking down the word “word” into its separate sounds–the w, the or/er sound and the d sound.

Phonological awareness takes it a step further. The child can decode the word “word” but can also count the syllables, coming up with a list of rhyming words, a list of other words that begin with w and so on.

Phonemic awareness is a pre reading skill.

Some kids can practice reading aloud and sounding out words, also called decoding, with little intervention. Some students, if not given any explicit instruction, will naturally learn phonological awareness skills on their own through listening and speaking activities.

But, not every child can learn these skills inherently–they need direct explicit instruction.

And, this is where many struggling readers get “stuck.”

toddler reading a book and working on her phonemic awareness skills
Phonemic Awareness is why so many toddler books are so popular.

Priddy Books are very popular, and phonemic awareness skills is a big reason why.

4. Phonemes

A phoneme is a small part of a word that has an individual sound in the English language. For example, the word “book” begins with a b-, which is pronounced as [b].

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Phonemes also include:

  • Consonants
  • Diphthongs
  • Triphthongs
  • Final Consonants
  • Final Vowels

If a child has a learning disability of some kind, you can see how this will affect phonemic awareness. APD or Auditory Processing Disorder may mean that it sounds different to them than it does others. Or, that they process the information more slowly with autism, ADHD or dyslexia.

When you don’t struggle with information processing, we tend to take it for granted.

If your child is struggling to learn to read, don’t delay. Go with your gut and ask for IEP evaluations. If interventions are not given to the child, the gap will only widen with something called the Matthew Effect in Reading.

chart explaining the matthew effect and reading skills

5. Developing Phonological Awareness

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), there are four important aspects of phonological awareness that must be trained in order to develop fully.

Letter-Sound Knowledge

Letter-sound knowledge is the ability to know what letter sounds a word starts with and ends with. This knowledge is foundational in reading and learning more complex words. For example, if your child knows that “di” begins with the letter “d,” they will be able to read the word “die,” which is a much easier task than if they don’t know where the “d” sound begins.

Word Recognition

The ability to recognize a spoken word is the first step to learning how to read. Once your child has mastered recognizing words, they will be able to learn about word structure and better understand what’s going on when they read.

Word Segmentation

A big part of phonological awareness is word segmentation. This is the ability to identify where one word ends and another begins.

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For example, you may see all of these words as separate words, but they are actually just one word with three different sounds. Word segmentation includes being able to recognize which sounds belong to a word and understanding that some words can be made up of two sounds.

Word Fluency

NICHD also says that word fluency is a skill that must be trained for children to be able to read at a higher level. This includes the ability to read aloud, sounding out words with little or no hesitation, and reading quickly.

The goal of teaching phonological awareness skills is to help kids develop basic reading skills, but these skills are also important for their future success in school and beyond.

6. Phonemic Awareness Strategies

I’m really no fan of Dr. Seuss books anymore. However, his books were fantastic for teaching phonemes.

Dolch Sight words help do this too, with repetition.

  1. Help children get to know words in context. One of the best ways to help children with phonemic awareness is to help them get to know words in context. When kids see a word out of context, they’re less likely to understand it. One way you can help your child learn new words is by introducing them via pictures. For instance, if your child was learning the word “pancake,” you could show him or her a picture of pancakes and introduce the word.
  2. Teach how sounds are used in words. One of the best ways to help kids with phonemic awareness is by teaching them how sounds are used in words. One way you can do that is by making a list of some words that have similar phonemes, like “hit” and “fit”. Then, ask your child what sounds they hear when they see these words written on the board. If you want, you can also ask your child to make a picture of the word using their individual letters or start with a drawing of one letter and then write out the word using that letter and any other letter in the word (e.g., H-I-T).
  3. Point out how letters combine to make new sounds. When kids are learning how to read, they often struggle with how to break down words. One way to help your child is by pointing out how letters combine to make new sounds. For example, point out that “c-a-t” has a combination of two sounds: /k/ and /t/. Pointing out these combinations can help your child understand the word better, which will allow them to decode and comprehend words better. When your kid encounters a word they don’t know, you can also introduce it with a letter combination. For example, if your kid doesn’t know the word “ant” you could say “A-N-T”. The more familiar they become with these letter combinations, the easier it will be for them to learn words from reading.
  4. Talk about visual cues for phonemic awareness. When your child is learning to read, they may have a tendency to focus on the letter combinations of individual words and not the individual letters. What you can do is help them learn to work with their eyes more. Provide your kid with visual cues for phonemic awareness by giving them guided practice opportunities. For example, use a worksheet in which the child has to identify flashcards that have different phonemes on it. This will help your child see where each sound is and how they can recognize it later when they’re reading or writing. This a great phonemic awareness activities for kindergarten.
  5. Have fun with phonemic awareness activities. There’s a reason so many parents and teachers advocate for a “language rich” environment for their kids and students. Being surrounded by it, the constant repetition in a natural environment, helps build skills. It might seem silly to play “I Spy” while driving. But think about how many decoding, environmental and phoneme skills you’re working on! The flip side of this–If you frequently try to play this game on car rides, and one of your kids is not successful and hates playing it….it may be a sign that they struggle with phonemic awareness. It’s hard to “Spy something that starts with the letter T….” if you don’t know what sound T makes.

7. Phonemic Awareness Evaluations

Phonemic awareness is commonly assessed via a phonemic awareness assessment. This assessment is usually done by an occupational therapist, speech-language pathologist, or teacher. If you disagree with the results, you should learn and pursue asking for an IEE.

They may also use the results of their assessment to recommend a plan for your child.

Make sure the assessment is normed or calibrated for your child. For example, if your child is 3 years old, he or she would need an assessment that was for children aged 3-6 years old to get the most accurate results.

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You can also ask your occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist which assessments they prefer to use when working with children who share your child’s concerns.

8. Phonemic Awareness IEP Goals

I have reading IEP goals, including Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness, in other articles.

Here are six IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals for phonemic awareness:

  1. Goal: The student will demonstrate the ability to identify and produce rhyming words. Objective: Given a set of words or pictures, the student will correctly identify and generate at least five rhyming words for each given word, with 80% accuracy.
  2. Goal: The student will improve phoneme segmentation skills. Objective: Given a spoken word, the student will accurately identify and verbally separate the individual sounds or phonemes in the word, with 90% accuracy.
  3. Goal: The student will develop phoneme blending skills. Objective: Given a set of individual phonemes or spoken sounds, the student will accurately blend them together to form a complete word, with 80% accuracy.
  4. Goal: The student will enhance phoneme manipulation abilities. Objective: Given a word, the student will change, add, or remove individual phonemes to create new words, demonstrating understanding of phoneme manipulation, with 75% accuracy.
  5. Goal: The student will improve phonemic awareness of initial sounds. Objective: Given a set of pictures or objects, the student will correctly identify and verbally state the initial sound of each item presented, with 90% accuracy.
  6. Goal: The student will develop phoneme substitution skills. Objective: Given a word, the student will replace one or more phonemes with different sounds to create a new word, demonstrating understanding of phoneme substitution, with 70% accuracy.

Remember, these goals and objectives should be tailored to the individual student’s needs and abilities. It’s essential to collaborate with the student’s educational team to develop appropriate and measurable goals for their specific phonemic awareness skills.

Remember, phonemic awareness is the pre skill to phonological awareness. Don’t let your IEP team put the proverbial cart before the horse–they have to learn one before they can move on to the other.

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