Research shows that for children to become enthusiastic, fluent readers, they need a firm grasp of phonics and the alphabetic code. That’s where phonological and phonemic awareness — the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words — come into play.
Having said that, we understand that it can sometimes be hard to know where to begin. And as a parent, you may or may not have even heard the term “phonemic awareness” before.
Good news! We’re here to break down the concepts of phonological and phonemic awareness and show you how you can use them to encourage a love of reading in your child.
What is Phonemic Awareness?
As we mentioned above, phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds. Put another way, it’s a concept that deals with how we understand the function of sounds, specifically, phonemes.
A “phoneme” is the smallest possible unit of sound in a language. Every word we use is made up of a combination of phonemes. These sounds blend together to form words.
The easiest way to understand phonemic awareness as a concept is by playing around with words yourself (and with your child, but we’ll get to that part later.)
If you take a simple word like “ball” and change the beginning sound from a /b/ to a /t/ sound, you get a different word — tall — with a completely different meaning.
Phonemic Awareness Vs. Phonological Awareness
Phonological and phonemic awareness have a good bit of overlap, which can make the two ideas confusing! We’re here to simplify them and show you how these technical terms are actually fun, important parts of your child’s reading journey.
Phonological awareness is an umbrella term that includes different skills your child will encounter while on their journey to becoming an enthusiastic, engaged reader. These are:
- Blending syllables
Really, phonological awareness is all about groups of sounds and how they relate to each other. Combining and playing with multiple syllables, or even the amount of words in a sentence, is the meat and potatoes of phonological awareness.
Phonemic awareness, by contrast, focuses on single sounds — or phonemes. The same skills can be used to engage your child’s phonemic awareness.
From a practical standpoint, the fact that phonological and phonemic tasks are so closely related means you can utilize the same blending and sound-swapping exercises; if you’d like your child to focus on phonemic awareness specifically, simply use the exercises with individual sounds.
Maybe you’re thinking to yourself: well, that’s about as clear as mud. We hear you!
For the sake of your child’s learning, don’t sweat over working on these phonological and phonemic skills as individual, separate components. The distinction is mostly academic. Our examples will help you work both at once.
Singing nursery rhymes or silly songs is a great place to start! This will build your child’s phonological and phonemic awareness skills by allowing them to play with and manipulate sounds and words.
Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important?
Phonemic awareness is one of the first skills your child will need in their toolbelt for reading, which, of course, is an important part of learning. It’s also one of the first steps to building their confidence with sounds (and, later, words!).
Phonemic awareness is an effective tool for helping your child become an engaged, self-motivated reader in the future. A child with a healthy foundation of phonemic awareness stands the best chance to read with fluency and for fun!
Jumping straight into matching up sounds with letter forms may seem like the obvious first step. Your instincts are on the right track; that’s an important part of helping your child learn to read!
But another way to help your child with phonemic awareness is to focus on listening skills — such as isolating individual sounds, blending them together, and then moving sounds around to create new words — will help your emerging reader get to their end goal.
As you’re working with your child, keep in mind that phonemes may take a while for kids to grasp. That’s okay! You can relax knowing that phonemic awareness will come with time and exposure.
How To Encourage Phonological And Phonemic Awareness
You’ve probably realized by now that when it comes to helping your child develop a love of reading, phonemic awareness is important. But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring or difficult!
At HOMER, we believe in learning that’s fun and functional for your family. We don’t want the prospect of helping your child with their phonemic awareness to feel intimidating.
That’s why we’re here to share tips for encouraging phonemic awareness in a way that is engaging, stimulating, and educational for your child (without eating up all of your wind-down time as a family!).
The good news is that phonemic and phonological awareness practice can be incorporated into your family’s busy lifestyle while allowing you to help your child build their reading confidence and bond with you at the same time.
The best way to build up your child’s awareness of sounds in words is to play easy and fun games together. Light-hearted and entertaining activities will keep your little one happy, calm, and excited to learn (without really knowing they’re learning in the first place!).
This one is probably part of your routine family life already. You may not have realized it, but by singing along to nursery rhymes with your child, you’re already engaging their phonological awareness!
Exposure to rhymes is the easiest and first step to your child learning to manipulate sounds. And who doesn’t love an old-fashioned sing-along in the middle of afternoon traffic or Sunday morning chores?
If you want to focus on your child’s phonemic awareness skills more specifically, you can encourage them to make rhymes by only the beginning sound in a word.
For example, you could start with the word “rat.” Your child might reply with the word “hat.” On and on you can go together!