Phonemes: Building Blocks of Words
When children are first learning to read, they need to become aware of the individual sounds that form words. Every spoken word is composed of one or more speech sounds known as phonemes. For example, the word cat has three phonemes: /c/, /a/, and /t/. If one of the phonemes is changed, such as substituting /b/ for /c/, it makes an entirely different word.
In normal speech, each phoneme is usually not articulated separately. Instead, sounds are coarticulated, or run together, which can make it difficult for children to detect the separate phonemes without specific instruction.
Phonemic or phonological awareness should be taught at the same time as other reading and writing skills. Instruction in phonological awareness involves teaching children to identify the different sounds that make up words. The ability to distinguish and isolate individual sounds is a necessary prerequisite to learning how letters correspond to these sounds, and leads up to learning how to decode words.
Some Methods of Teaching Phonemic Awareness
Rhyme, blending, and identifying initial sounds are three ways to teach phonological awareness.
Rhyming words are an excellent way to foster awareness of the ending sounds of words. Read nursery rhymes or other rhyming books aloud to students, and point out that the final words of rhyming lines have the same ending sounds.
Blending involves combining onsets and rimes to make words. The onset consists of the beginning consonant or consonant cluster, such as d- st- or pl-. The rime (note that this is not the same word as rhyme) consists of one or more vowels and the consonants that follow them, such as -ant, -oon, or -ing. Blending can be introduced by pronouncing the individual phonemes of words, and then saying the word with the sounds blended together, such as /c/ and /ar/ make car, /r/ and /at/ make rat, or /n/ and /ap/ make nap.
A third area of instruction in phonemic awareness is identifying initial sounds of words. It is best to start with one phoneme at a time, and add a new one each day. Continuant consonants such as /m/, /n/, /s/, and /f/ are usually easiest for children to grasp, because they can be drawn out. Have students say them while stretching out the sound, as in mmmoon, sssun and fffish. Ask students to pay attention to what they do with their mouth when they make these sounds, such as pressing their lips together to say /m/. Plosive consonant sounds that cannot be drawn out, such as /p/, /t/, and /b/, can be repeated, or iterated, to emphasize the sound: p-p-p-pop, t-t-t-top, b-b-b-box.
Reading alliterative books aloud is a good method to reinforce phonemic awareness of initial sounds. Some good picture books include Animalia by Graeme Base, Aster Aardvark’s Alphabet Adventures by Steven Kellogg, Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne and William Steig, and Dr. Seuss’s ABC.
Gunning, Thomas. Creating Literacy Instruction for All Children, 4th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 2003.