Pillar 1: Phonemic Awareness

Science of Reading is an instructional method that expects all children to have explicit language instruction and practice in order to masterfully read.  After decades of cognitive neuroscience research, the experts agree that these five pillars are essential and should be explicitly taught for successful reading instruction.

The five pillars are:
  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Oral Reading Fluency
  5. Comprehension

In this article, we will explore Phonemic Awareness: the ability to identify and manipulate sounds as parts of words.

Phonics and phonemic awareness are often closely tied together but the phonemic awareness abilities are often developed prior to phonics. You can think about it this way: phonics is looking at letters and understanding the correlating sounds.  Phonemic awareness is being able to manipulate and change the sound patterns in words.  You can often practice phonemic awareness without any visual cue like a letter from the alphabet.

Some skills students should master on their reading journey in the Phonemic Awareness pillar are: rhyming, identifying initial sounds, changing initial or ending sounds, adding word endings, blending and segmenting sounds, omitting and adding sounds to words.

Phonemic Awareness is a great pillar for caregivers to practice at home because it often takes no materials or preparation.

Some common games that promote Phonemic Awareness are:
  1. I-Spy letter find: “I spy something in the room that starts with B…”
  2. Sound segmenting: “What sounds do you hear in the word lip?”
  3. Rhyming game: “Tell me all the words you can think of that rhyme with…”
  4. Sound hopping: “Let’s hop three times because there are three sounds in big, we can say the sounds as we hop…”
  5. I wonder: “I wonder what happens to the cap, if we change the c to a t”

Caregivers can play phonemic awareness games in the car or bath and promote their child’s skills using Science of Reading tools.  It’s important to remember that Phonemic Awareness focuses on sounds not letters in the alphabet.  So, when you are practicing Phonemic Awareness, you shouldn’t say the word “starts with the letter B” instead you’d say it starts “with the sound /b/” and make the sound.

Phonemic Awareness skills often precede phonics skills.  This is why it’s common for a child to be able to rhyme before they can identify the letters in the alphabet.  Most children start playing with sounds before they are even two years old.  It’s important to encourage this practice by letting them make and manipulate silly sounds and learning rhymes, poems, and songs together.

The Phonemic Awareness skills children get the least opportunity to practice is often segmenting and blending.  Segmenting is pulling the sounds of a word apart and saying them individually. This is important because later when children start reading words, they will begin by segmenting the sounds. Blending is putting the sounds together to form a word.  Think of it like going on a slide. Segmenting is saying one sound with each step up a slide and blending is the smooth slide of saying an entire word.

If your child has learned Phonemic Awareness skills and is manipulating the alphabet then read our next article on the Science of Reading Pillars, Pillar 2: Phonics.

Remember, all five pillars from the Science of Reader are part of your child’s journey and it’s important for children to practice and master all of them but they also weave together to develop a masterful reader.

It’s commonly understood that children need significant opportunities to practice with phonics and phonemic awareness to develop as early readers.  As such, many schools use Amira Learning to support children’s reading practice.  Amira is an AI reading tutor that listens to children practice reading out loud and deploys Science of Reading support to help them persist.  Amira also has an Early Reader Skills Scaffold that emphasizes phonics and phonemic awareness for the earliest readers.
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