Phonemic Awareness: Letting The Horse Pull The Cart
WHOA! First comes awareness of the individual sounds in language.
by Grace Vyduna Haskins
Regular contributor to the Gazette
January 1, 2009
Phonemic awareness has, for many years, been one of the buzz phrases in beginning reading instruction. Most of us are totally aware that it’s an important aspect in the learning process but I continue to be troubled by the processes whereby children are expected to learn to segregate phonemes within words.
So we clearly understand what we’re talking about, phonemes are individual sounds in spoken language. Phonemic awareness is exactly what the term implies – a child’s awareness of the individual sounds in language. In order to benefit from any kind of phonics instruction, the child needs to first know the sounds for which s/he is trying to supply graphemes (letters and letter strings that represent the sounds).
Suggestions on how to teach phonemic awareness abound. Children are often asked to identify words with the same beginning, medial, or ending sounds in words pronounced by the teacher. They are sometimes asked to attend to rhyming words in poetry, use alliteration (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers), listen for sounds in stories poems or songs, categorize or sort pictures based on beginning or ending sounds, etc. etc. etc. Yet, many of these exercises put the cart before the horse. Until a child really knows the individual sound, (already has phonemic awareness) s/he will have great difficulty being successful with these methods.
One of the easiest ways to isolate sounds is through stretching a word, using a rubber band as a visual tool as the teacher leads children through the exercise. Back in the late 19th century, Francis Parker termed this slow pronunciation. I like that term. It’s about as clear as one can get.
Many teachers are beginning to key in to this process but may not be aware that some words are much easier to stretch than others. For example, pan is more difficult to stretch than map because \p\ is a stop consonant and children may be more likely to say \pa\ \n\, blending the \p\ directly into the \a\ rather than segmenting \p\ \a\ \n\. On the other hand, when simply reversing the order of the same letters, \m\ is a continuant that can be stretched before the closed mouth opens for the \a\. Putting the \p\ at the end easily isolates that sound.
Much has also been written on VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) but perhaps the order should be changed to ATKV (auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, visual). The process begins with oral language, hearing sounds and moving to one’s own speech production, feeling the tongue within the mouth as sounds are produced, then to hand movements in writing graphemes and finally seeing the word in print. This is the essence of developmental spelling and emergent literacy that begins with children writing.
Direct instruction, starting with two-letter words beginning with vowels is as easy as it gets. Good words to use for phoneme segmentation include am, an,ad (as in advertisement), at, Ed, if, in, it, off, on ,up, us. The words as and is may be included if we teach the children that the \z\| sound if often represented by the letter s. Three-sound combinations that may be easily segmented and taught along with their word meanings are ant (an insect), alp (a high mountain), asp (a snake).
It’s wise to start with only one of the vowels, \a\, and add the rest later. Tell the children, “We are going to say the word am. Say it slowly with me, aaa-mmm. How many sounds do you hear?” At this point, if the letters that represent these sounds have been taught, we might ask them to write the letters that represent the two sounds. If they haven’t been previously taught, take this opportunity to teach them immediately after the slow pronunciation exercise. Writing the words helps cement both the oral and written concepts in memory. Phoneme segmentation immediately connects with the visual form, leading directly to reading.
Once the children are secure with these two and three-sound combinations, attach m and n to the beginnings of words to form man, mad, mat, and add stop consonants to form words such as map, nab, nag, nap. At this point one can add beginning continuants \f\, \l\, \s\, and \z\. If one considers \r\ to be a continuant, this may also be added to create an extended number of words that can be easily stretched – fan, fad, fat, lad, lap, sad, Sam, sap, sat, zap, etc. Always help the children stretch each word so sounds are clearly isolated. Using Elkonin boxes or laying out plastic chips as each sound is recognized can be very helpful.
As the child begins to see how phoneme segmentation with accompanying spelling works, adding stop consonants in spelling lessons to form words such as Dan, pan, pal, pat, tan, tap, etc. helps the child isolate those more difficult sounds that precede vowels. We go from using phoneme segmentation to assist early spelling efforts and from using direct spelling instruction to improve phoneme segmentation. Phoneme segmentation, taught in this way, lets the horse pull the cart and leads directly to more accurate spelling and word recognition
Grace Vyduna-Haskins is retired after spending 33 years as a classroom teacher, mostly at the first grade level. One of her greatest concerns was those children who seemed to fall through the cracks, those who failed to learn to read in spite of her best efforts. From 1980 forward she began to play with the concept of teaching systematic spelling to first graders and began to see dramatic changes in the reading ability of her students. She returned to graduate school late in her career, earning a doctorate in reading and language in 1991 from National-Louis University in Evanston, IL. In preparation for her dissertation she studied American reading/spelling relationships, noting that in the early days of our country children were taught to spell before they were introduced to reading texts. In 1993 she was recognized for outstanding scholarship as a Distinguished Finalist for the Outstanding Dissertation of the Year Award given by The International Reading Association for her dissertation, An Historical Investigation of American Reading-Spelling Relationships: 17607-1930.
Grace also looked at modern spelling research to determine the ways in which spelling can be effectively taught. She combined this knowledge with her classroom experimentation to produce The Spel-Lang Tree: Roots, a direct instruction manual for teachers. This was followed by a second volume, The Spel-Lang Tree: Trunks which can be used for second grade or at any grade level where a more analytical approach is needed. More recently she added The Spel-Lang Tree: Seeds, a manual for kindergarten teachers. Grace has done presentations for the Illinois Reading Council, the International Reading Association, the International Dyslexia Association and the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association conferences. She continues to work as a volunteer with ESL students, particularly helping Latino students pronounce English sounds that don't exist in their language.