What is Phonemic Awareness and Why Is It Important for Struggling Readers?

More and more schools across the country are implementing Science of Reading concepts into their curriculum, in an effort to better serve the needs of students struggling with reading and other learning disabilities. A paradigm shift is taking place as we speak, from the ideas and concepts taught through Balanced Literacy to a more structured and cohesive curriculum that incorporates Structured Literacy. 

What is Structured Literacy again? It’s an instructional approach revolving around building the foundational skills of writing, reading, and spelling, in a comprehensive and strategic manner. Structured Literacy concepts and methods are aimed at supporting and guiding both general education students and those struggling with special needs or learning difficulties. 

The Science of Reading and Structured Literacy focus on the following core components and areas of focus: phonological, or phonemic, awareness, phonics and word recognition, reading fluency, listening and reading comprehension, vocabulary, and written expression. We went into detail about each of these components in a previous post on the Da Vinci Collaborative blog. Today, we’re diving deeper into one of the most crucial components of Structured Literacy, namely phonemic awareness. 

What exactly is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is one of the pillars of Structured Literacy, and is one of the stepping stones towards reading fluency. Research has shown that it is a core skill for proficient reading, as it focuses on expanding a student’s capacity to discern and use words, break them down into syllables, and recognize the individual sounds within words. 

Phonemic awareness is crucial in the early stages of learning to read and write, especially for struggling children. Phonemes are the smallest sound units that can easily change the meaning of a word, for instance: the word cat features the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/. Teachers and tutors specialized and trained in phonemic awareness aim to teach the student to recognize and understand the distinct sounds within words, as well as to distinguish and manipulate them. 

Achieving phonemic awareness requires the development of several skills, including phoneme identification (for instance, being able to isolate and identify the /s/ sound in the word ‘son’), phoneme segmentation (breaking words into their individual sounds, for instance ‘cat’ into /k/, /æ/, and /t/), phoneme blending (blending individual sounds together to form words, so in a way reversing phoneme segmentation), and phoneme manipulation (manipulating or changing words in sounds to create new words, like replacing the /p/ sound in ‘pig’ with /m/ to form ‘mig’). 

Why is phonemic awareness important?

Phonemic awareness is one of the stepping stones towards literacy and fluency, and the precursor to reading and spelling. It’s important because it sets the groundwork for the development of reading and writing skills, helping children understand how words are formed, the sounds within them, and how they can manipulate them to create new words. 

Phonemic awareness helps children understand and process sounds, syllables and words, which ultimately helps them get better at decoding words and processing them during reading exercises. It helps develop phonics skills, helping students connect sounds to the corresponding letters or letter combinations, and learning to decode unfamiliar words with ease. 

Another crucial benefit of phonemic awareness is vocabulary expansion. By breaking down words into their individual sounds, children learn to spot the subtle differences between similar words, and recognize them instantly and naturally. This in turn will help them understand words and broaden their vocabulary, as well as their listening skills. By practicing decoding and breaking down similar-sounding words into individual sounds or syllables, children develop an enhanced listening ability that will elevate their language and communication skills, as well as their reading skills, and improve spoken word pronunciation. 

Research shows that the majority of readers struggling with fluency and literacy have difficulty with phonemic awareness and have poor phonological skills. Poor readers tend to struggle with phoneme awareness more than other cognitive tasks, which shows just how important this component is for developing literacy and fluency skills later in life. This is exactly why the Science of Reading and Structured Literacy place phonemic awareness as the very foundation on which reading, writing, and spelling skills are built on. 

Want to learn more about phonemic awareness and other crucial components of Structured Literacy? Are you interested in finding ways to incorporate Science of Reading concepts into your curriculum? Reach out to Da Vinci Collaborative with any questions, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. 

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