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Beginning Reading And Phonological Awareness
For Students With Learning
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E540
Learning to read begins well before the first day of school. When Ron and Donna tell nursery
rhymes to their baby, Mia, they are beginning to teach Mia to read. They are helping her to
hear the similarities and differences in the sounds of words. She will begin to manipulate and
understand sounds in spoken language, and she will practice this understanding by making up
rhymes and new words of her own. She will learn the names of the letters and she will learn the
different sounds each letter represents. As she gets a little older, Ron and Donna will teach her
to write letters and numbers that she will already recognize by their shapes. Finally, she will
associate the letters of the alphabet with the sounds of the words she uses when she speaks. At
this point, she is on her way to learning to read!
When she tries to read books with her parents, at school, and on her own, Mia will learn how to
learn new words by sounding them out. With more practice, she will begin to recognize familiar
words easily and quickly, and she will know the patterns of spelling that appear in words and
the patterns of words as they appear in sentences. She will be able to pay attention not just to the
letters and words, but to the meanings they represent. Ultimately, Mia will be able to think about
the meaning of the text as she reads.
Where does phonological awareness fit into this process?
Key to the process of learning to read is Mia's ability to identify the different sounds that make
words and to associate these sounds with written words. In order to learn to read, Mia must be
aware of phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest functional unit of sound. For example, the
word cat contains three distinctly different sounds. There are 44 phonemes in the English
language, including letter combinations such as /th/.
In addition to identifying these sounds, Mia must also be able to manipulate them. Word play
involving segmenting words into their constituent sounds, rhyming words, and blending sounds
to make words is also essential to the reading process. The ability to identify and manipulate the
sounds of language is called phonological awareness. Adams (1990) described five levels of
phonological awareness ranging from an awareness of rhyme to being able to switch or
substitute the components in a word. While phonological awareness affects early reading
ability, the ability to read also increases phonological awareness (Smith, Simmons, &
Many children with learning disabilities have deficiencies in their ability to process
phonological information. Thus, they do not readily learn how to relate letters of the alphabet to
the sounds of language (Lyon, 1995). For all students, the processes of phonological
awareness, including phonemic awareness, must be explicitly taught.
Children from culturally diverse backgrounds may have particular difficulties with phonological
awareness. Exposure to language at home, exposure to reading at an early age, and dialect all
affect the ability of children to understand the phonological distinctions on which the English
language is built. Teachers must apply sensitive effort and use a variety of techniques to help
children learn these skills when standard English is not spoken at home (Lyon, 1994).
How is phonological awareness taught?
To teach phonological awareness, begin by demonstrating the relationships of parts to wholes.
Then model and demonstrate how to segment short sentences into individual words, showing
how the sentence is made up of words. Use chips or other manipulatives to represent the
number of words in the sentence. Once the students understand part-whole relationships at the
sentence level, move on to the word level, introducing multisyllable words for segmentation into
syllables. Finally, move to phoneme tasks by modeling a specific sound and asking the
students to produce that sound both in isolation and in a variety of words and syllables.
It is best to begin with easier words and then move on to more difficult ones. Five
characteristics make a word easier or more difficult (Kameenui, 1995):
- The size of the phonological unit (e.g., it is easier to break sentences into words and
words into syllables than to break syllables into phonemes).
- The number of phonemes in the word (e.g., it is easier to break phonemically short
words such as no, see and cap than snort, sleep or scrap).
- Phoneme position in words (e.g., initial consonants are easier than final consonants and
middle consonants are most difficult).
- Phonological properties of words (e.g., continuant such as /s/ and /m/ are easier than
very brief sounds such as /t/).
- Phonological awareness challenges. (e.g., rhyming and initial phoneme identification
are easier than blending and segmenting.)
Examples of phonological awareness tasks include phoneme deletion ("What word would be left
if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?"); Word to word matching ("Do pen and pipe begin
with the same sound?"); Blending ("What word would we have if we blended these sounds
together: /m/ /o/ /p/?"); phoneme segmentation ("What sounds do you hear in the word hot?");
phoneme counting ("How many sounds do you hear in the word cake?"); and rhyming ("Tell me
all of the words that you know that rhyme with the word cat?") (Stanovich, 1994).
Beginning readers require more direct instructional support from teachers in the early stages of
teaching. This is illustrated in the following example: The teacher models the sound or the
strategy for making the sound, and has the children use the strategy to produce the sound. It is
very important that the teacher model the correct sounds. This is done using several examples
for each dimension and level of difficulty. The children are prompted to use the strategy during
guided practice and more difficult examples are introduced. A sequence and schedule of
opportunities for children to apply and develop facility with sounds should be tailored to each
child's needs, and should be given top priority. Opportunities to engage in phonological
awareness activities should be plentiful, frequent, and fun (Kameenui, 1995).
Adams, M.J. (1990) Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA:
Kameenui, E.J. (Winter, 1996). Shakespeare and beginning reading: The readiness is all.
TEACHING Exceptional Children, 27 (2).
Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.
Lyon, G.R. (1994). Research In Learning Disabilities at the NICHD. Technical document.
Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes
Smith, S.B., Simmons, D.C., & Kameenui, E.J. (February, 1995). Synthesis of research on
phonological awareness: Principles and implications for reading acquisition. (Technical Report
no. 21, National Center to Improve the Tools of Education). Eugene: University of Oregon.
Stanovich, K.E. (1994). Romance and reality. The Reading Teacher, 47, 280-291.
A companion digest, #E539, and a companion ERIC minibibliography are available on request.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated,
but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from
the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under Contract No. RR93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do not
necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
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