Before children can learn to read, they need to be able to hear the individual sounds within words. This is called phonemic awareness, and it is learned and developed during early childhood.
What Is a Phoneme?
Phonemes are the smallest pieces of sound a word can be broken into. When you hear the word mop for example, you can likely identify its three phonemes: m, o, and p (denoted as /m/, /ŏ/, and /p/).
Phonemes are not the same as letters, however. In written language, it may take more than one letter to form a phoneme, like the long /ō/ sound in the word boat or the /f/ sound at the start and end of the word photograph.
Hearing individual phonemes is an important step in learning to read and write. In fact, to avoid problems, children should not progress much further in their literacy instruction until they have mastered phonemic awareness.
How to Develop Phonemic Awareness
Talking and reading to children frequently is the best way to build a foundation for literacy and to help them develop phonemic awareness. Surrounding babies and young children with language is the best thing we can do for them.
Narrate your day from early in the baby’s life. Talk them through what you are doing, whether it’s pouring a bowl of cereal or tying your shoe. Avoid baby talk and speak normally, using correct grammar.
Read books to your baby every day, even before you think they can understand. Reading aloud helps ensure that you share spoken language, along with building cultural familiarity with the written word. Hold the baby on your lap and show affection so that language and love become intertwined.
Somewhere around age two to two-and-a-half, we can begin to work deliberately on phonemic awareness through a series of games.
The Sound Games
Montessori philosophy uses a version of the classic “I Spy” game to hone in on phonemic awareness. Children should master all levels of this game before moving on to reading instruction.
How to play: In level one, three objects with different beginning sounds are presented on a mat. The guide tries to choose familiar objects, but she also ensures that the children can name them before starting.
Let’s say that the three objects are a cat, a dog, and a box. She asks the child to point to an object that begins with /k/, making the sound of the c in cat, not saying the letter’s name. She continues with the other objects and mixes up the objects so that the child begins to practice all of the beginning consonant sounds.
Level two focuses on ending sounds. Objects may begin with the same sounds, putting the focus on hearing end sounds. For example, a box, a bat, and a bell. Level three looks at middle sounds, such as the different vowel sounds heard in cat, pen, and box.
Matching Sounds to Symbols
Symbols are introduced after phonemes can be heard and distinguished, in other words, after the child has mastered the first three levels of the sound games.
Phonemic symbols are the letters or combinations of letters that denote each sound. Phonemes in the English language include, /a/, /m/, /th/, and /j/. We begin with the single-consonant sounds and the short vowel sounds.
Phoneme symbols are introduced using lower-case letters because they are used so much more in written language. Guides will refer to each phoneme by the sound it makes and completely avoid using letter names to circumvent the confusion this can cause. Every child progresses through and masters phonemic awareness at their own rate, and it’s important to let them master every step before pushing them to move on. A strong foundation sets the stage for proficient decoders who love reading and seek out knowledge.