How do we support students to develop phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is part of understanding how the parts of spoken language “works.” Having phonological awareness means being aware of words, syllables, onsets and rimes, and individual phonemes in spoken language.

When one hears language, one experiences a stream of unbroken sounds. The sounds we hear, and make ourselves, allow us to communicate effectively and purposefully with others. These sounds represent meaning, and phonological awareness begins with awareness of meaningful bits of sound. Mom, dad, toy, the child’s name—these early words are generated often and consistently by young children and their caregivers and generally occur within larger utterances of language (i.e., sentences and phrases).

As early listeners of language, young children often hear significant meaningful groups of sounds as one complete piece. Well known phrases such as “once-upon-a-time” or “a-piece-of-cake” exist in the listener’s ear and mind as a meaningful chunk of language, not as individual words. Very young children become aware of how some meaning-based syllables (i.e., prefixes, suffixes) in spoken language affect the speaker’s intent as well, such as when a caregiver says, “Let’s unlock the door.” And, even when singing the alphabet song, while it may appear that children “know the alphabet,” many children experience “l-m-n-o-p” as one word of the song, not as five individual letters. Early phonological awareness of words and syllables are part of the meaning-making process. This early awareness serves as a critical precursor to grasping the smaller bits of sound essential for written literacy development.

Becoming aware of how a word can be manipulated into smaller parts—syllables, onsets and rimes, and individual phonemes—is necessary for learning to read and write. This ability to identify and manipulate the smaller bits of sounds within spoken words underpins reading and writing development.

Auditory activities that focus on breaking the spoken stream of sound into smaller bits is how students develop phonological awareness. Before a writing lesson in a classroom, for example, taking time to say sentences slowly, emphasizing and perhaps counting each word, supports phonological awareness of words. Clapping syllables of individual words, such as when singing rhyming songs or before beginning to write the next word in a class story, assists students to identify the syllables found in words. Creating new words through sound manipulation of rhyming words supports phonological awareness development of both syllables and phonemes (i.e., changing cat to rat by changing the initial sound). Supporting students to stretch words as they listen for beginning, middle, and final sounds before writing those words in a whole-class story strengthens students’ abilities to hear the smallest components of phonological awareness, the phonemes. Awareness of phonemes is a necessary skill for decoding and encoding words.

In Flying Start to Literacy: PHONICS™, from Okapi Educational Publishing, auditory activities ask students to manipulate words by adding and removing phonemes and syllables from words they hear. For example, early in Stage One of the program, students listen to words said by the teacher to identify and say the beginning and final sounds (phonemes). Later in Stage One, the teacher asks students to produce words for themselves by changing phonemes found in the initial and final position in a word, requiring a more sophisticated phonological awareness. In Stages Two and Three of the program, students are asked to manipulate words by segmenting and blending onsets and rimes and other phonemes and syllables to form new words. Throughout the program, students are asked to listen for and manipulate sounds they hear to strengthen their ever-developing phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness of words, syllables, onsets and rimes, and phonemes helps students understand how spoken language works, how it can be manipulated, and how it relates to both reading and writing.

Take time each day to use auditory activities such as the ones mentioned above to develop every student’s phonological awareness. Debra Crouch.