Significance of Phonological Awareness

To understand phonological awareness, we must first know what a phoneme is. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in our language that makes a difference in a word’s meaning. For example, the word cat has three phonemes, /k/- /a/- /t/. By changing the first phoneme, we can produce the word bat. Changing the second phoneme creates the word cot, and we can create the word cab by altering the final Phoneme. Words in English (in fact, in all languages) are composed of strings of phonemes. This is fortunate, because it allows us to create all the words we will ever need by using various combinations of just 44 different speech sounds!

The human brain is specifically adapted for processing many different kinds of linguistic information, and one part of our biological endowment allows us to process the complex phonological information in speech without actually being aware of the individual phonemes themselves. This is one of the human abilities that makes acquiring speech a natural process, so that almost everyone in the world learns to speak a language with very little direct instruction. However, because phonemes are represented by letters in print, learning to read requires that children become consciously aware of phonemes as individual segments in words. In fact, phonological awareness is most commonly defined as one’s sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of words in one’s language. In short, it involves the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate the individual sounds in words. One of the early signs of emerging sensitivity to the phonological structure of words is the ability to play rhyming games. In order to tell whether two words rhyme, the child must attend to the sounds in the words rather than to the meaning of the words. In addition, the child must focus attention on only one part of a word rather than on the way it sounds as a whole. As children grow in awareness of the phonemes in words, they become able to judge whether words have the same first or last sounds; with further development, they become able to isolate and pronounce the first, last, or middle sounds in words. At its highest levels of development, awareness of individual phonemes in words is evidenced by the ability to separately pronounce the sounds in even multi-syllable words or to tell exactly how two words like task and tacks are different. (The order of the last two phonemes is reversed.) Acquiring phonological awareness involves two things: learning that words can be divided into segments of sound smaller than a syllable, and learning about individual phonemes themselves. As children acquire more and more conscious knowledge of the distinctive features of phonemes (how they sound when they occur in words, or how they feel when they are pronounced), they become more adept at noticing their identity and order when they occur in words. For example, while children in the first semester of first grade might be able to isolate and identify the first or last sound of a word like man, by the end of first grade, most children can easily, and relatively automatically, segment all the sounds in a more complex word like clap.

Phonological awareness is important because it strongly supports learning how the words in our language are represented in print. When children learn to read, they must acquire two different kinds of skills. They must learn how to identify printed words, and they must learn how to comprehend written material. Their major challenge when they first enter school is to learn to accurately identify printed words, and this brings them face to face with the alphabetic principle. English is an alphabetic language, meaning that words are represented in print roughly at the level of phonemes.

For example, the word cat has three phonemes, and three letters are used to represent them; the word which also has three phonemes, but five letters are used to represent them. In our language, the alphabetic principle presents two important learning challenges to children. First, individual phonemes are not readily apparent as individual segments in normal speech. When we say the word dog, for example, the phonemes overlap with one another (they are co-articulated), so that we hear a single burst of sound rather than three individual segments. Co-articulating the phonemes in words (e.g., starting to pronounce the second phoneme, /r/, in the word frost while we are still saying the first phoneme, /f/) makes speech fluent, but it also makes it hard for many children to become aware of phonemes as individual segments of sound within words.The second challenge presented by the alphabetic principle in our language is that there is not always a regular one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. For example, some phonemes are represented by more than one letter (e.g., ch, sh, wh, ai, oi). In addition, sometimes the phoneme represented by a letter changes, depending on other letters in the word (not vs. note, fit vs. fight, not vs. notion), or pronunciation of parts of some words may not follow any regular letter-phoneme correspondence patterns, such as in yacht or choir.

If understanding and using the alphabetic principle in reading words presents such learning challenges for children, the obvious question, and one repeatedly asked over the last century, is whether it is really necessary for children to understand the principle and master its use in order to become good readers. On the basis of research on reading, reading development, and reading instruction conducted over the past twenty years, we now know the answer to this question is ‘yes’. Children who come to understand the relationships between letters and phonemes, and who learn to use this information as an aid to identifying words in print, almost invariably become better readers than children who have difficulty acquiring these skills

There are at least three ways that phonological awareness is important in learning beginning word reading skills. It helps children understand the alphabetic principle. Without at least a beginning level of phonological awareness, children have no way of understanding how the words from their oral language are represented in print. Unless they understand that words have sound segments at the level of the phoneme, they cannot take advantage of an alphabetic script.

They will also not be able to understand the rationale for learning individual letter sounds, and the common strategy of “sounding out” words in beginning reading will not make sense to them. It helps children notice the regular ways letters represent sounds in words. If children can notice all four phonemes in the spoken word flat, it helps them understand the way the letters in the written word correspond to the sounds. This ability to notice the match between the letters and sounds in words has two potential benefits to children learning to read. First, it reinforces knowledge of individual letter-sound correspondences, and second, it helps in forming mental representations of words so they can be accurately recognized when they are encountered in print again. Research has shown that the associations children form between the letters and sounds in words creates the kind of “sight-word” representations that are the basis of fluent reading.It makes it possible to generate possibilities for words in context that are only partially “sounded out.” For example, consider a class I child who encounters a sentence such as “Shiv’s father put his suitcase in the car,” and cannot recognize the fifth word. A relatively early level of phonological awareness

supports the ability to search one’s mental dictionary for words that begin with similar sounds. Thus, if the child knows the sound represented by the letter S, he/she can mentally search for words that begin with that sound and fit the context. As children acquire more knowledge of phonics and can sound out more letters in words, their search for words with similar phonemes in them can proceed much more quickly and accurately. It should be evident that, phonemic awareness has its primary impact on reading growth through its effect on children’s ability to phonetically decode words in text. Although phonetic decoding skills should never be considered the end goal of reading, research shows that, for most children, acquiring these skills is a critical step toward effective reading.

If we consider children who have general verbal ability in the normal range, children with weak phonological awareness end up about two class levels below their peers in sight-word reading ability and their phonetic reading skills were more than three grade levels below those of their peers Of course, phonological awareness is not the only knowledge or skill required to learn to read. Phonological awareness is necessary, but not sufficient, for becoming a good reader. Other phonological abilities may also affect children’s ability to acquire phonetic decoding ability and sight-word fluency, and a good vocabulary, general knowledge about the world, good thinking skills, and an interest in reading are clearly important in the development of reading comprehension

Phonological awareness at school entry varies substantially in children from different kinds of home and cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, children who fall very far below the rate of development are likely to experience difficulties acquiring early reading skills. Children may begin to develop early forms of phonological awareness as young as two and a half to three years of age. However, it is important to recognize that when we speak of phonological awareness in children as young as three years old, we are speaking of a very different level of this ability than is shown by most class I children.

When children enter school, there are substantial differences in their level of phonological awareness, and their response to instruction in kindergarten produces an even larger range of individual differences by the end of the school year. The factors that cause individual differences among children in phonological awareness when they enter school are genetic endowment and preschool linguistic experience. Mostly children vary significantly in the phonological component of their natural capacity for language. This phonological ability, or talent, is a trait that is strongly heritable. In other words, children can vary in their talent for processing the phonological features of language in the same way they vary among one another in musical ability, height, or hair color.

Talent in phonological processing can vary quite independently from other areas of intellectual ability, although many studies show that it is at least moderately correlated with general learning ability. It is clearly possible, for example, to be average or above average in general intelligence while being severely deficient in the ability to acquire phonological awareness.

Sometimes, a lack of talent for processing the phonological features of language produces noticeable effects on language and speech development prior to school entry, but frequently it does not. In other words, it is possible to have a lack of talent in the area of phonological processing that does not affect the ability to become a good speaker/hearer of one’s native language, but which does affect early reading development. The reason for this is that reading requires children to become consciously aware of the phonemic segments in words while speech does not.

The child‘s preschool linguistic environment can also exert a strong influence on sensitivity to the phonological structure of words at the time of school entry. Early experience with nursery rhymes, for example, can help children begin to notice and think about the phonological structure of words. Several research studies have shown that children who know more about nursery rhymes at age three are those who tend to be more highly developed in general phonological awareness at age four, and in phonemic awareness at age six.

It is possible that children who come from backgrounds in which they have been more frequently exposed to letters and their names and to various kinds of reading activities show more advanced phonological awareness upon school entry than those with less experience in these areas.

After children enter school, the growth of their phonological awareness depends not only on what they are taught, but on their response to that instruction. Reading programs that contain explicit instruction in phonics produce more rapid growth in phonological awareness than approaches that do not provide direct instruction in this area. In addition, children who respond well to early reading instruction grow much more rapidly in phonological awareness than those who experience difficulties learning early reading skills. In this sense, phonological awareness is both a cause and a consequence of differences among children in the rate at which they learn to read. Those who begin reading instruction with sufficiently developed phonological awareness understand the instruction better, master the alphabetic principle faster, and learn to read quite easily. In contrast, those who enter first grade with weak phonological awareness do not respond well to early reading instruction and thus do not have the learning experiences or acquire the reading knowledge and skill that stimulates further growth and refinement of phonological awareness.

It is possible to stimulate growth in phonological awareness by explicit instruction. We also know the effectiveness of oral language training in phonological awareness is significantly improved if, at some point in the training, children are helped to apply their newly acquired phonological awareness directly to very simple reading and spelling tasks.

An important question is whether training in phonological awareness before the beginning of reading instruction can actually prevent serious reading disabilities. We know classroom-level or small-group training in phonological awareness consistently produces improvements in reading growth for groups of children. However, in all studies conducted thus far, there has always been a large range of individual differences in response to the instruction, with the most phonologically impaired children showing the least growth in response to small-group or classroom-level instruction. It is very likely that classroom-level instruction in phonological awareness, by itself, will not be sufficient to prevent reading disabilities in children who have serious deficiencies in phonological processing. These children will require more intensive, detailed, and explicit instruction in order to achieve the levels of phonemic awareness required to support good reading growth.

On the basis of very substantial and consistent research findings, it is clear that high-quality instruction to enhance phonological awareness should be part of reading instruction for every child. This instruction will accelerate the reading growth of all children, and it appears to be vital in order for at least 20% of children to acquire useful reading skills. However, it is also clear this instruction is only one small part of an effective overall reading curriculum. Good training in phonological awareness should be combined with systematic, direct, and explicit instruction in phonics as well as rich experiences with language and literature to make a strong early reading curriculum. This balanced reading curriculum should also include early and consistent experiences with writing, both as a means to help children learn more about the alphabetic principle and to enhance their awareness of reading and writing as meaningful activities. Of course, all this instruction should be provided within a supportive, rewarding context that provides instructional adjustments for children depending upon the different ways they respond to the basic reading curriculum.

Please contact the Dyslexia Association of India if you notice or intuitively have a feeling that your child is not correctly processing language. Learning to and articulating speech is different from being ‘phonologically aware’ of the nuances of language. All too often parents feel that errors will rectify with age and maturity. It is not so. If a child is assessed for a ‘Learning Disability’ or a ‘Reading Disability’ it is now well acknowledged that;

Approximately 15% children who are in classes 5 and above will be brought up to grade level in normal circumstances.

If the child is in class IV, the corresponding ratio is 40%. As a parent you can see the huge difference yourself.

If you child is assessed and provided intervention when he or she is in class III only 45% can be brought up to grade level.

However if the child is identified in class I up to class II the probability that a child can be brought up to grade level is almost 80%.

You can make the difference between success and struggle in the academic sphere for your child. The effort required to take the first step is infinitesimal compared to the long term impact of ignoring an issue that is for real and which can be addressed.

Please call us – we are there to help you and help your child achieve.