Phonological awareness (PDF, 54 KB)
Before they can start to work with print, learners need to be able to hear the sounds in spoken words. The ability to hear and work with the sounds in words is known as phonological awareness. It is an awareness that operates at different levels and becomes (as the chart below shows) increasingly finegrained, involving awareness at the levels of whole word, syllable, onset–rime and, finally, phoneme. Note that letters appearing between slashes (//) should be read as sounds (phonemes), not letter names, although standard letters are used here rather than phonetic notation.
Examples of the levels of phonological awareness
Levels of awareness
At the syllable level, phonological awareness is an awareness that words can be divided into syllables. A syllable is a unit of speech that has a vowel phoneme. Syllable awareness is identifying that, for example, the word run has one syllable, paper has two syllables (pa-per) and remember has three syllables (re-mem-ber).
The onset in a syllable is the consonant or consonants before the vowel, and the rime contains the vowel that follows the onset, plus any consonants. For example, in the word cat, c- is the onset and -at is the rime. The rime usually contains one or more vowels and consonants. Onset–rime awareness is “inside” the syllable and is usually shown through rhyming tasks because, in order to have an awareness of rhyme, there must be an awareness that words share a rime unit (for example, the -ed sound in bed, fed and thread).
Phonemic awareness is the most finegrained level of phonological awareness.1 A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can change the meaning of a word, but a phoneme has no meaning itself. There are approximately 41 phonemes in spoken English, represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet singly or in combinations. One letter may have more than one phoneme; for example, the letter c has two phonemes: /k/ (as in cat) and /s/ (as in city).2
Learners with phonemic awareness can hear that bad and boy begin with the same sound, /b/. They know from listening that mad and bad end with the same sound, /d/. They can substitute phonemes, for example, by changing the vowel in a word: bed, bid, bod, bud, bead, bide. They can rearrange phonemes; for example, they know that if you take the /b/ away from bread (or bred) you would be left with red.
Phonological awareness, particularly at the phoneme level, is a gradual attainment that continues to develop as decoding skills develop: it is not an all-or-nothing concept.3 It is therefore important to find out just what a learner knows and can do, through careful assessment.
Research evidence supports the critical role of phonological and phonemic awareness in learning to read in an alphabetic writing system.4 A level of phonological awareness, however, is critical to developing decoding skills. Although the great majority of research in this area has involved children, the few studies done with adult beginning readers seem to indicate that learners of all ages take the same steps through phonemic awareness towards reading.5
Adults who are non-readers may have no phonemic awareness.6 Further, limited phonemic awareness is typical of adults with poor reading skills internationally.7 Learners in these groups can hear the words but they may not be aware of the individual sounds (phonemes) within them.8 Once again, the research with adults (and, in particular, with ESOL adults) is limited. One study with 26 ESOL adults who had little or no formal education showed significant improvement in phonological awareness and decoding after a year of instruction in phonological awareness.9
If an ESOL learner has phonological awareness in their mother tongue, this ability will not automatically transfer to phonological awareness in the English language.10 Learners need to develop phonological awareness in their second (or third or fourth) languages also. This need is particularly strong for learners from non-European language backgrounds. Children can acquire phonological awareness in a second language in a similar way to their acquisition of the first language, but most adults do not have this facility and will require explicit instruction.11 See the suggestions for instruction in ‘Knowing what to do’.
Knowing the demands
Although most people acquire awareness of these sound units without consciously thinking about them, many adults who are non-readers or poor readers will not have this ability. The connections between phonological awareness and reading are very strong; many researchers assert that, without phonological awareness (and, in particular, phonemic awareness), reading will not develop.12 The road to proficient reading requires all readers, regardless of their age, to develop decoding (‘sounding out’) skills,13 but poorly developed phonemic awareness is a roadblock to developing decoding skills. Indeed, from research findings it appears that phonemic awareness continues to develop because it is used to aid decoding: the more it is used, the more it develops until decoding becomes well established.14
Learners who do not develop or who lack phonemic awareness have great difficulty understanding letter–sound relationships15 and therefore experience serious difficulty in learning to read and spell. Lack of phonemic awareness usually marks the start of a vicious cycle:16
Knowing the learner
Phonological awareness is assessed orally only; it is about hearing sounds, not making connections with written letters. Assessment is used to find out what level of awareness a learner has already. With this information, explicit instruction can then follow to extend their awareness by building on what they can do. The following notes indicate areas that can be assessed; they are not designed to be used as assessment tasks in this form.
To determine whether the learner can hear and count syllables, check if they can:
- tap out and count the syllables in words
- complete a word when only a part is given (for example, say table when the first part only is said, “ta-”), and
- identify syllables that are the same or different in words (for example, the “tel/e” in television, telephone; the “day” in Monday, Saturday, birthday).
Hearing rhyming words
To determine whether the learner can detect rhyme, check that they are able to:
- add a rhyming word to a list (for example, hair, chair, bear, fair), and
- identify the odd word out in a list of rhyming words (for example, fit, hot, sit).
The ability to detect rhyming words is part of onset– rime awareness. To check for further awareness of onset and rime, find out if learners are able to:
- play with (manipulate) the parts of words (for example, changing the /th/ of thing to /s/, /cl/, /w/, /sh/ to form sing, cling, wing, shing; changing the /ing/ of thing to /ick/, /ink/, /og/ to form thick, think, thog).
Because adults who are non-readers will probably not be able to distinguish sounds at this finegrained level, it will be more useful to focus on syllables and rhyming words until you are sure that they are hearing the sounds. Next, check learners’ ability to rearrange sounds at the onset–rime level. Finally, assess for phonemic awareness using contextualised tasks; for example, picking up on a word used during a shared reading lesson (see here). Use the activities described here as a general guide to check for phonemic awareness, substituting words that are familiar to the learners. Check one or two areas only in any one session.
The activities typically used to assess phonemic awareness include:17
- isolating phonemes: “What is the first sound in bed?” (/b/)
- identifying common phonemes: “What is the sound that is the same in bed, boy and back?” (/b/)
- categorising phonemes: “Which word does not belong?” bike, car, bus (car)
- segmenting phonemes: “What sounds can you hear in bag?” (/b/ /a/ /g/)
- blending phonemes: “What word is made with these sounds: /m/ /a/ /t/?” (mat), and
- deleting phonemes: “Say not. Now say it again without the /n/.” (/ot/).
Knowing what to do
Instruction (based on individual assessment) picks up on and extends the activities used for assessment. Bear in mind that, for some learners, phonemes may be too difficult. You may need to start with developing phonological awareness by working with syllable segmenting and rhyming, moving on to smaller units of sound within words when learners are able to distinguish sounds at the broader level.
- Focus on one or two aspects of phonological awareness at a time. Although these are oral rather than written tasks, using letters occasionally as well can help to reinforce the connections between hearing sounds and recognising them in print. Teaching should be done within the context of real activities the learners are carrying out in their course rather than in isolated activities.
- Focus on rhyming words used during general discussions and instruction, and encourage learners to listen for the rhyming used in rap and hip hop music.
- Compose a group rap orally, playing with the options for rhyming the lines.
- Focus on syllable segmenting and blending activities, using words that are of high interest to the learners, such as dinner, computer, newspaper, cafeteria, marae, mechanical, polytech, whakapapa, rapping, newspaper, hamburger. Say a word as syllable segments (news/pa/per, com/pu/ter) and have the learners repeat the word back, first in the segments then as the whole word. Learners can take turns to think of and segment multisyllabic words for others to repeat then blend.
- Sound blending: using words that have come up during a lesson, say the sounds of a word and have the learners put them together as a single word; for example, “What word do these sounds make: /m/ /i/ /x/?”. For this activity, use words that are regular – that is, words where the letter sounds are directly related to the spelling (/s/ /l/ /ee/ /p/ rather than /c/ /ou/ gh/).
- Notice learners’ spelling attempts when they write and identify the sounds they are hearing as they approximate spellings. For example, if a learner writes jumt for jumped, it shows they are hearing and identifying four of the five phonemes in the word. Talk about the sounds the learner hears in the head when they are about to write a word – but don’t worry about spelling at this point.
- Note that there are many words in te reo Ma–ori and other alphabetic languages that lend themselves well to phonological awareness activities and capitalise on learners’ specific interests. The point of learning in this starting point is for learners to listen for and identify the units of sound in words. If learners have this skill in one language, show them they can transfer their awareness to English sounds.
For further examples of teaching activities, see the publications by Nicholson and Henry.18 See also the appendix on teaching decoding in Teaching Adults to Read with Understanding: Using the Learning Progressions.
Jim is a 20-year-old man, attending basic reading classes at a community centre. He has a two-yearold daughter and wants to learn to read with her. Because of his unsettled family life, Jim missed out on a lot of schooling and has never learnt to read beyond a few high-interest words. He does not seem to have phonological awareness beyond the whole word and syllable level; he can tap out the syllables in familiar words such as people’s names. Jim likes listening to music, especially rap music.
Teaching suggestions for Jim
- Use Jim’s interest in music to develop stronger awareness of syllables and sounds in words by identifying specific words and building and manipulating the sounds in them.
- Explore the words in raps with him, identifying (by listening closely) the parts of words that rhyme and building more rhymes.
- Isolate some rhymes and use these to explore onsets and rimes; for example, move from brother to br-o, br-a, br-eak; then br-eak, shake, m-ake.
- Give Jim opportunities to practise and reinforce his new learning using language experience (see here) and generative words (see here).
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