Phonemic Awareness: What Is It, and Why Do People Talk About It?
Parents often hear speech, language, hearing and reading professionals use the term phonemic awareness. The term phonemic awareness refers to the knowledge that words are made up of sounds, and that sounds can be manipulated to form words, make new words, and even be added to make the meaning slightly different. For example, most children know (even though they are not consciously aware) that if they add a /s/ or /z/ sound to the end of a noun, they mean more than one. Phonemic awareness is knowing that if I say the word "rack" and I add the /t/ sound to the beginning of the word, I have formed the word "track." Similarly, it is knowing that if the short sound of the letter /a/ were changed to the short sound of the letter /u/, the word "truck" would be formed.
Phonemic awareness is essential for the development of literacy skills. It isn't hard to understand why. We know that children learn reading using an organized, structured phonics approach. We know that phonics programs require a child to understand the connection between sounds and symbols. If a child does not have a consistent mental representation for a sound, s/he will not be able to attach a symbol to it. Furthermore, once a sound-symbol connection has been made, s/he has to be able to blend those sounds. Let's say a child is reading the word "hat". S/He has to take the sounds /h/-/short a/-unaspirated /t/, blend them together to make the sound sequence /hat/ and then read the word "hat". If a child knows how to read and spell the word "hat", and s/he sees "hit", s/he has to be able to substitute the short a with the short i, and figure out what this new word is. Then, if the beginning letter was changed from /h/ to /s/, and the beginning sound was likewise changed, we have a new word, "sit".
So how can parents facilitate their child's phonemic awareness? One activity is similar to "The Name Game" song, in which the first sound in a word is changed. Pick a word and ask your child to change the first sound. "Say house…now change the first sound /h/ to /m/." Another activity is to say a word and together with your child, count the sounds in that word. "Say boat" "Now let's count the sounds in that word, "b (1 finger), o (long o, holding up a second finger) and t (holding up a third finger.) Three, there are three sounds in the word "boat". These are just a few ideas that can be helpful to your child.
In sum, phonemic awareness is necessary to connect a sound to a symbol, to blend those sounds, and then to read them either aloud or silently. Well developed phonemic awareness is considered to be an important underpinning of reading and all language arts.