A Key Indicator of Early Reading Ability that You Probably Haven't Heard of
English is a complicated language to speak, write and read. The English alphabet has only 26 letters, but there are 600,000 words in the English language. Adding to the difficulty is that many words don’t follow proper spelling rules and even more don’t sound like they’re spelled. It’s for this reason that many children spend time in preschool and kindergarten memorizing sight words—after all, many sight words are words that sound differently than the way they are spelled. But if you’re really looking to cement your child’s future success in reading, writing and speaking English, invest time in improving your child’s phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds made by a letter, and it’s a key indicator of how well a child will take to reading during their first 2 years of school. You probably used phonemic awareness when you were in school and told to “sound it out” while reading aloud. Phonemic awareness is complicated precisely because it relies on the sound of the letters in our alphabet. There are about 40 phonemes across about 250 different spelling/sound combinations. As an example, the letter F makes a “ffff” sound, but you also can make this sound with “ph” as in phase, “gh” as in laugh, and “ff” as in staff. Being able to understand which sounds go with which letter and which letter goes with which sound makes it easier to 1) rhyme words 2) spell words, and 3) read words.
In fact, a child’s ability to process phonemes is the biggest difference between good readers and poor readers. Good readers can isolate, blend or substitute phonemes to create words, identify words, and identify similar sounding words. Studies have shown that children who can invent spelling— that is, attempt to spell words based on the sounds they hear in the words—have stronger reading skills than kids who do not. So how do you improve phonemic awareness in children? Here are some key Phonemic Awareness skills with ways to practice them:
- Identify Individual Phonemes At the Start, Middle and End of Words. Ask your child to pick out the sounds they hear at the beginning, middle and end of simple words. Simple words are defined as 1 syllable words with sounds that are easily identifiable and directly align with the letters in the word, like “bat”, or “pan”. Words like “cake”, while 1 syllable, are harder for kids because the e at the end of the word is technically silent.
- Differentiate Phonemes by Presenting Word Trios. Say three words to your child in succession, like “Bat, Ban, Cab”. Then ask your child to pick out which beginning sound is different. The same can be done with endings. Say three words to your child in succession, like “Pat, Cat, Can”. Then ask your child to identify which word has a different ending, and what that ending is. Notice that in both examples, two of the three words share a single phoneme. You can also ask your child to identify which sounds across the 3 words are the same.
- Combine and Blend Phonemes to Make Words. Pick out a simple word like “play”. Sound out the individual phonemes (in this case, “p”, “l”, “a”, and “y”) and ask your child to blend them together to form the word. In our household, we’ve found that saying the phonemes slowly and then saying them quickly helps children more readily blend the sounds.
If your child has mastered these steps, you can go further and ask them to do the following:
- Isolate all the Phonemes in a Single Word. Say a simple word like “Cup” and ask your child to identify the 3 phonemes that create the word cup.
- Remove a Phoneme To Create New Words. Ask your child what a word would sound like with its beginning sound removed. For example, what would happen if we removed the “p” from “play”?
- Substitute Phonemes To Create Rhyming Words. Ask your child what a word would sound like if its beginning sound was replaced with a different beginning sound. For example, if we replaced the “p” in “play” with a “c”, what would the new word sound like? You can also try this technique with endings.