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Phonemic awareness and phonics for learners of every age

Stacy Hurst
July 26, 2021

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Phonological and phonemic awareness and phonics are widely recognized as essential building blocks of early literacy instruction, but they can also eliminate barriers for older students who are struggling with reading and writing.

Regardless of the age of students, from preschool to adult learners, it is critical that we teach students how to proficiently connect letters on a page to the sounds that they represent in order to read and comprehend text. I find it helpful to focus on 10 general principles for teaching phonological awareness addressed by Louisa Moats in her book Speech to Print.

Principle 1: Follow a progression of skill development.

The first principle is to follow a progression that begins with tasks related to an awareness of larger units of speech and progress to tasks that involve identifying and manipulating individual phonemes. At the early phonological level, students learn skills like rhyming, counting syllables, and identifying the firsts sounds in words. This is usually addressed in pre-K to build the foundation for the ability to match these individual sounds to the letters that represent them. One way to work on these skills easily is to swap out the first phoneme of each student's name as you call roll, so using the phoneme /d/ Luka becomes Duka and Maddy becomes Daddy.

Next, in kindergarten and first grade, students begin to develop basic phoneme awareness, and can learn to count, blend and segment phonemes.We know from research that this has the most direct effect on reading and spelling ability among students this age, so it’s important to get them blending and segmenting phonemes as soon as they are developmentally ready.

To practice these skills, we can give students a series of phonemes, such as /r/ /u/ /n/, and ask them to tell us what word they combine to create.

At the most advanced level in our progression, typically in grades 2-4, students learn to add, delete, substitute, and reverse phonemes. To support efficient word recognition and sight vocabulary development, they must be able to do these things automatically.

Principle 2: Focus on sounds first

The idea here is to start with speech sounds before focusing on letters. Louisa Moats refers to phoneme instruction as the creation of “parking spots” in the brain that will eventually be filled with corresponding graphemes, the letters or groups of letters that represent each sound. Once students have phonemic awareness, an awareness of the alphabetic principle (the insight that print represents speech), and have mastered at least a few letter names and the sounds they represent, we can use letters in our phonemic awareness instruction. 

Principle 3: Mouth awareness

As students work on individual phonemes, we can encourage what Louisa Moats refers to as mouth awareness, or the specific manner of articulation by which we produce each sound. This is important to reading because this is how the brain recognizes individual sounds.

For adult learners, this stage can be especially important because no one has ever intervened to help them do it correctly. Often, just a little change or a new awareness of the difference between sounds can open a whole new world up for adult language learners.

Understanding a student’s mouth awareness can help identify larger challenges as well. Once I had a couple students, Miranda  and Oliver, who both had trouble pronouncing the /r/ phoneme at the beginning of first grade. They say “Miwanda” instead of “Miranda,” for example. One day, we were making lists of things students do before coming to school. They were writing “brush teeth” on their lists and Miranda  spelled “brush” with a w in place of the r. Oliver, however, spelled brush correctly. He had an articulation problem, whereas Lauren’s spelling indicated a processing issue with the sound /r/. 

Principle 4: Teach all 44 phonemes

This principle is another that is not only necessary for younger learners but can be very powerful for older learners as well. When you show people who have been struggling with English for years that there are a discrete number of sounds in the language and words are made with different combinations of those sounds, it’s often like a lightbulb turning on. With struggling English learners, it’s always a good idea, no matter their age, to go back and make sure they understand the basic sounds before moving along and working on blending the phonemes. 

Principle 5: Make it multisensory

Moats refers to making literacy learning multisensory, but we might also call it multimodal. We want to make sure that speaking, listening, reading, and writing are all involved in the learning process. If instruction is addressing all of those modalities, students will be using their eyes, mouths, ears, and physical movement (e.g. writing) as they practice what they are learning.

Games are also a great way to help develop gross motor skills. In my class, for example, we would sometimes play “Swat.” I would divide students into two teams and project two images on the board. Each team would have to swat the picture that began with the same sound as whatever word I called out.

Principles 6, 7, 8: The how

Principles 6-8 all focus on how we actually deliver instruction.

Principle 6: For phonological and phonemic awareness, we really only need brief activities of 5-10 minutes a day for about 12-20 weeks for young children. Adult learners may need daily practice for an extended period before literacy instruction, however.

Principle 7: With phonics, it’s also important to follow the “I do, we do, you do” sequence. As the teacher, I show you (I do), then we practice together (we do), and finally students do it on their own with my support (you do).

Principle 8: And of course we always want to give immediate and corrective feedback. So if, for example, a student says a letter name when we’ve asked for its sound, we need to explain the difference and ask for the correct response.

Principle 9: Connect sounds to letters

Remember principle 2, when we described the sounds or phonemes as the “parking spots” graphemes would fill? This is where those cars all get parked. For example, we have already primed students to think of the phoneme /ē/ and we can now teach  them that one way that sound  can be represented is with the letter combination “e-e.” Teaching an explicit phonics sequence will also help students learn and retain other spellings that represent /ee/.

This might seem a little overwhelming if we think about the fact that we have 44 phonemes in English, but we only have 26 letters, and then we combine them in more than 250 different ways to represent those 44 sounds. That is, of course, spelling, which is notoriously difficult in English. But we can help students come back to basics here by focusing on the alphabetic principle, which is the idea that sounds can be represented by letters. Just keep focusing on connecting sounds to letters and phonemes to graphemes using an explicit and systematic phonics sequence.

Principle 10: Phonemic proficiency

Phonemic proficiency is achieved when students no longer hesitate when connecting sounds to the letters as they read and spell. Not everyone is going to reach phonemic proficiency at the same time. Remember, accuracy comes first then practice, practice, practice. Eventually, it will no longer be clear who achieved proficiency in record time and who needed a little more time to become proficient.

No matter the age of the learner, focusing on the basics of connecting sounds to letters improves reading fluency and comprehension and provides a solid foundation for lifelong literacy.

Stacy Hurst is an assistant professor of teacher education at Southern Utah University, where she teaches courses in literacy and early childhood education. She has degrees in sociology and elementary education and a master’s degree in education. Her extensive experience also includes teaching first grade and working as a literacy coach and reading specialist. Stacy is the co-author of a foundational literacy program and is also the chief education officer at Reading Horizons, an educational software company. Stacy is passionate about literacy and believes that learning how to read well is a civil right.

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