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What is Phonemic Awareness? The Eyes Closed Skill

Updated: Jan 30, 2023


If you are new to education, a veteran teacher or a parent trying to support their young reader at home, chances are you have heard about phonemic awareness. With new research from the Science of Reading, along with increased efforts to help kids catch up in literacy post COVID, phonemic awareness has become a buzzword in education. And rightfully so... it SHOULD be a buzz word. Phonemic awareness is the first important step in the developmental process of learning to read. Phonemic awareness is so important, every educator needs to know what PA skills are.


So…What IS Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the most complex skill set under the phonological awareness umbrella. Phonemic awareness involves being able to identify individual sounds, or phonemes in a word. After being able to identify individual sounds in any position, students who have strong phonemic awareness can then manipulate, delete, isolate, blend, change, segment or add onto the phonemes or sounds they hear. The tricky part to building phonemic awareness is that it is all done auditorily without letters or graphemes. I like to call it the "eyes closed literacy skill" because students could play PA games with their eyes closed. Although it sounds complicated, there are many word play games that help support students who are building their phonemic awareness skills.



Individual PA Skills

Isolating Sounds

Being able to listen to a word and isolate a sound is one of the first ways to build phonemic awareness. This can look like giving a child a word like “cat” and then asking, “what is the first sound in the word cat”. As young children begin to grasp listening for beginning sounds, then can then listen for middle or end sounds.


Deleting Sounds

Once students can identify sounds in different positions, then they can begin removing or deleting sounds within a specific position. When young readers are beginning to practice with sound deletion, it is best to begin with deleting a beginning or end sound. This can sound like giving the reader a short word, then asking what would the word be without a sound. Going back to our cat example, you could ask a young reader, “What would the word cat be without the /k/?” or “what would the word beat be without the /t/”?


Once a reader can delete the beginning or end sound, they can then delete a sound in the middle of the word. An example of how this would sound is, “What would the word frog be without the /r/”. This requires a student to hold the word and sounds in their head and then remove the sound and re-blend the word.


Blending Sounds

Another skill that not only supports phonemic awareness but is also a key skill in early reading is blending phonemes together. When students are learning to read, they are identifying printed phonic symbols (letters) and then blending them into words. Blending phonemes practices this skill with sounds they hear auditorily. This can sound like blending each individual sound, “what word does the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ make?” or blending sound parts, “what word do the sounds /c/ and /at/ make?”


Segmenting

The opposite of blending sounds together is segmenting or taking a word and breaking it into the sound parts we hear. When readers are asked to do this work, we are asking them to work from whole to parts. This can sound like, “what sounds make the word cat?”. This skill requires the reader to be able to pull each individual sound out from the whole of the the word.


Substituting and Adding

Finally, the most challenging phonemic awareness skill is substituting or adding phonemes to a word. When readers substitute within a word, they are changing a single phoneme in the word. This can sound like “what word would you get if you changed the /c/ in cat to a /p/?”. This skill requires readers to hold the word in their mind, manipulate the word and then blend the new word together- without any visual cues.


When readers are adding a sound to a word, they can add to any position- beginning, middle, or the end of the word. This could include, “take the word at and add a /k/ to it. What word do you get?” or “take the word sick, and add an /l/ after the /s/. What word do you get?” For young readers, holding the sounds in a word and then adding or substituting sounds can be challenging and is a pretty advanced phonemic awareness skill.


For more information about what phonemic awareness looks like in the classroom, check out our 5 Quick and Easy Games that Build PA.

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