The Path to Becoming Phonologically Aware
The National Reading Panel (NRP) report found that teaching students to recognize and manipulate the segments of sound in words (also referred to as phonological awareness) and to link those sounds to letters is necessary to prepare them to read words and comprehend text (Foorman et al., 2016).
Phonological awareness is sensitivity to the sound of language. It demands the ability to turn one’s attention to spoken language while temporarily shifting away from its meaning. When asked if the word caterpillar is longer than the word train, a child who answers the word caterpillar is longer is demonstrating the ability to focus on the word itself, and not the meaning.
Young children have a natural propensity to play with language. The early years are the optimal time to foster and encourage these natural motivations. Offering an exposure to a wealth of language in a playful way will engage children while at the same time building their expressive (words used) and receptive (words understood) vocabulary. Children can benefit from being surrounded by the sounds of language as they sing, listen to books, and play games with sound manipulation (Yopp and Yopp, 2009).
Knowing that vocabulary development refers to the knowledge about meanings, uses, and pronunciation of words, including receptive and expressive vocabulary, we can build on the children’s understanding that words are made up of smaller sounds like syllables and phonemes that help them “break the code” of written language and acquire the alphabetic principle
The alphabetic principle refers to the fact that written words represent spoken words in a sound-by sound correspondence. The smallest sounds or phonemes are signified by a single letter, or, in some cases, several letters indicating a single sound in a word (e.g., “sh” and “ch”). When teachers and parents tell a child who is trying to read to “sound it out,” this suggestion will only make sense if the child grasps the concept that the word can be broken down into to smaller components. Phonological awareness, letter name knowledge, and letter sound knowledge come together in young children to forge this conceptual understanding and to facilitate reading and writing development. This is accomplished when children use their understanding of the regular relationships between sounds and letter to sounds to unknown words (Ehri, 2002; Foorman et al, 2003; Phillips and Torgessen, 2006; & Share and Stanovich, 1995).
Early childhood educators must teach phonological awareness students on how to recognize that words are made up of individual sound units. Educators must begin by introducing students to larger segments of speech such as words with which they will be more familiar, and gradually draw their attention to smaller and smaller sound segments. By doing this it will prepare them to learn about the individual sounds that represent letter-sound relations and then to recognize those sounds and letters as they are used in word building.
Students who struggle persistently with phonological awareness often benefit from one-one- or small group intervention to help isolate sounds in speech link the sounds to letters. The Panel advice from the What Works Clearinghouse states that early intervention can often remedy this phonological core deficit that otherwise may lead to deficiencies in single word decoding, which is a hallmark of reading disabilities or dyslexia (Foorman et al., 2016).
- Ehri, L. (2002) Phases of acquisition in learning to read words and implications for teaching. In R. Stainthorp & P. Tomlinson P. (Eds.), Learning and teaching reading. London: British Journal of Educational Psychology Monograph Series II.
- Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., ... & Keating, B. (2016). Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade. Educator's Practice Guide. NCEE 2016-4008. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
- Foorman, B. R., Chen, D. T., Carlson, C., Moats, L., Francis, D. J., & Fletcher, J. M. (2003). The necessity of the alphabetic principle to phonemic awareness instruction. Reading and Writing, 16, 289-324.
- Phillips, B. M., & Torgesen, J. K. (2006). Phonemic awareness and reading: Beyond the growth of initial reading accuracy. Handbook of early literacy research, 2, 101-112.
- Share, D. L., & Stanovich, K. E. (1995). Cognitive processes in early reading development: Accommodating individual differences into a model of acquisition. Issues in education, 1, 1-57.
- Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. H. (2009). Phonological awareness is child's play!. YC Young Children, 64(1), 12.
Upward Scaffolds for Expressive Phonological Awareness
Receptive and expressive language skills develop from infancy. When babies turn to look in the direction of a sound, startle at loud noises, or smile when spoken to, they are exhibiting early receptive skills. On the other hand, differentiated cries for various needs, babbling, cooing and imitating different speech sounds are early expressive language skills. These skills continue to develop as children are exposed to more language.
In Phonological Awareness this ability to hear distinctions versus the ability to produce the sounds heard is critical in developing the requisite skills for later reading. For four year olds, receptive tasks are easier than expressive tasks. It is easier for children to identify whether two words rhyme for example, which is a receptive skill. To successfully answer whether two words rhyme, a child must know what rhyme means and then just listen to see if the two words fit that.
When a child has to give a word that rhymes with another word, it requires them to search their memory for a word that sounds the same at the end and produce it to make up a word that would fit the sound pattern.
Also it is easier to move from concrete objects to pictorial representations to abstract, than to stay at the abstract level (word). When children can see a representation of an object, it is easier for them to remember the words that were given; any phonological awareness activity can be made easier or more difficult by moving between receptive and expressive language skills.
Upward scaffold example:
A child can clap the syllables in a word heard as a receptive task.
Cow-boy. How many syllables have you heard? Child responds by clapping twice or saying the number 2.
A child can delete syllable parts as an expressive task.
Cow-boy. What is cowboy without cow? Child responds by saying boy.
Find more strategies in the CIRCLE Activity Collection.