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Phonemic awareness: a natural step toward reading and writing.

When Maryann was in school in the 1960s, phonemic awareness (PA) was not mentioned in reading-methods courses; in fact, you do not find much written about it until the 1990s. Today, PA is mentioned in legislation, and has become a popular subject of professional development. Some primary teachers even have mandates for how many minutes they should focus their instruction on it.

About 10 years ago, someone asked Maryann to explain the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics. Even though she had taught reading for many years, responding to the question was not easy. Finally, she said, "Phonemic awareness is when you hear a word and can divide it into the smallest parts. Phonics is when you are looking at the letters in a word and you make sound-symbol correspondence." At that moment, she was not sure if she had provided a good answer because she did not know much about PA.

She now knows that evidence indicates that students who can read are phonemically aware. As Goswami (2000) states: "Agreement on the importance of phoneme awareness for reading development is universal. It is probably true to say that every study that has measured the relationship between phonemic awareness and progress in reading has found a positive connection" (p. 255).

Since that time, she has conducted many researches on phonemic awareness with her colleague and mentor, Constance Kamii (Kamii, Long, & Manning, 2001; Kamii & Manning, 2002; Kamii & Manning, 2005). Tsuguhiko Kato joined in the study in 2003. From these studies, we have learned that when we teach reading and writing, we can observe children's PA development simultaneously. For example, we can see PA growth from students' invented spelling. As we analyze students' writing, students move along the path from not isolating phonemes to becoming competent spellers.

One study that we conducted with Kamii concerned how PA is assessed. We were concerned about the validity of the Phonemic Segmentation Fluency (PSF) portion, one subtest of the DIBELS tests that purports to determine a student's ability to segment three-and four-phoneme words into their individual phonemes. The DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) is a commercial test that is being used widely around the United States, not only in Reading First schools but also in schools that are using it with all primary children. An example from the PSF portion is the examiner saying "sat," to which the student must respond "/s/ /a/ /t/" to receive three points. The correct number of phonemes produced in one minute determines the child's score.

The DIBELS authors state that "the PSF measure has been found to be a good predictor of later reading achievement" (Good & Kaminski, 2002, p. 16), and we were curious to find out if this test was correlated with current achievement in reading and writing. We analyzed the January scores of 101 first-graders on the PSF DIBELS subtests and two other assessments (the Slosson Oral Reading Test and a writing task). A vast majority of the students were white and had been heterogeneously assigned to seven classrooms in a public school in a rural area in the southern United States.

The children were asked to write four pairs of words on a blank sheet of paper--ham and hamster, butter and butterfly, melon and watermelon, and berry and strawberry. These words had been used in a previous study (Kamii & Manning, 1999). The children's writing was categorized into four levels, with many sublevels in three. The levels range from children who write strings of random letters with no relationship between the number of letters written and the length of a spoken word; children who write all the words, generally using between three and seven letters with a minimum quantity of random letters; children who move toward writing more unconventional letters for longer words to those who write some letters conventionally; and finally, children who use "invented" spelling that can be read.

The Slosson Oral Reading Test was administered to test children's ability to read single real words, and to count the number of words the child said correctly.

Findings About DIBELS Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF)

The Pearson r between PSF and the Slosson was found to be only .07 and our 1st-graders scored slightly more frequently toward the lower end of the PSF distribution; moreover, we found that 87 percent (78 percent + 7 percent + 2 percent at levels 3YC & 3YD, 4, and 5) were writing with at least some "invented" spelling. The great majority of children writing at relatively high levels are distributed across the entire range of PSF scores, and there are as many low-PSF cases (21-40 percentile) as high-PSF cases (61-100 percentile) writing words at a relatively high level. Therefore, it is possible to write words at a relatively high level without being able to segment words phonemically on the DIBELS PSF. These findings strongly suggest that the utility of the DIBELS PSF must be questioned.

Causal Relationship

We have a real concern today that phonemic awareness is being viewed as a skill you teach, rather than an ability that children develop as they become literate. We often hear of and read the works of several educators who speak and write as if a causal relationship existed between PA and learning to read (e.g., Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998a, 1998b; Stanovich, 1993). Our research found that as children begin to read and write, PA and knowledge of phonics develop gradually and simultaneously.

We want to share what we have learned about how to quickly assess a child's PA development and how to help your students become more aware of individual phonemes.

Becoming Phonemically Aware

Not all children become phonemically aware at the same age or grade. Some 4-year-olds can segment multi-syllabic words, and some 6-year-olds cannot segment a one-syllable word. Although we have read about children older than 8 who are not phonemically aware, we cannot find them except for those with extreme written language delays. Occasionally, we test an older English language learner who appears to not have developed PA, but if someone who is fluent in the child's language asks that a word be segmented in the home-rooted language, the child proves his or her competence in PA.

Assessing Phonemic Awareness

You can determine each of your students' phonemic awareness level in three minutes or less. You will know within one minute which students have not developed phonemic awareness.

First, demonstrate how several words can be divided into phonemes. Say, "desk," and then say, "Now I'm going to break the word into little bits." Say, "d-e-s-k." Ask the child to say the word, followed by the segmented phonemes, with you. Because phonemic awareness is a developmental process, many 5- and 6-year-olds cannot segment one-syllable words, even when you repeat the segmented phonemes. If the student can segment one-syllable words, follow the same process by repeating words with two syllables, such as "Mary," "copy," "monkey," and "zebra." When you listen to the child's segmentation of the words, you will know the PA level.

You also can observe invented spelling to determine PA level. If the child is not writing in invented spelling that you can read, the child is at Level I and cannot segment. When there is one letter for each syllable (e.g., mk for monkey and is for sister), the child is at Level II. If you can begin to read the invented spelling because it has the consonants and letter-name vowels and there is a mixture of letters that represent more than just a single syllable (e.g., cmt for cement or apl for apple), the child is at level III. If the child is almost conventional (even if consonant blends and short vowels are not conventionally spelled), the child is at Level IV.

PA Games

Many of the daily writing activities your students perform help them develop PA. Two PA games that can be played in kindergarten and 1st-grade classrooms for very short periods of time are Turtle Talk and the Itty Bitty Bit game.

Turtle Talk. We were introduced to Turtle Talk by Dick Allington, president of the International Reading Association. He suggests instructing children to pretend they are talking turtles who say every word very slowly, so you can hear every sound. Young children enjoy Turtle Talk, and some move their heads forward when they say each phoneme. They also like saying the words together to see who can stretch out the word the longest.

Itty Bitty Bit. Tell children you are going to play a game called Itty Bitty Bit. Begin by demonstrating how you can say a word in little bits. For instance, say "pencil: p-e-n-c-i-l," elongating each sound. Ask the children to take turns choosing words and saying them sound-by-sound. Younger children may just be saying the word slowly with no phoneme segmentation, while others may be dividing the word by syllables; ultimately, they will segment by phonemes.

Note: Parts of this piece were first published in the November/December 2005 issue of Teaching K-8, pp. 68-69.

References and Resources

Adams, M. J., Foorman, B. R., Lundberg, I., & Beeler, T. (1998a). The elusive phoneme. American Educator, 22(1 & 2), 18-29.

Adams, M. J., Foorman, B. R., Lundberg, I., & Beeler, T. (1998b). Phonemic awareness in young children: A classroom curriculum. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Good, R. H., & Kaminski, R.A. (Eds.). (2002). Dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skill (6th ed.). Eugene, OR: Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement. (Available:

Goswami, U. (2000). Phonological and lexical processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol III, pp. 251-267). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kamii, C., Long, R., & Manning, M. (2001). Kindergartners' development toward "invented" spelling and a glottographic theory. Linguistics and Education, 12(2), 195-210.

Kamii, C., & Manning, M. (1999). Before "invented" spelling: Kindergartners' awareness that writing is related to the sounds of speech. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 14(1), 16-25.

Kamii, C., & Manning, M. (2002). Phonemic awareness and beginning reading and writing. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 17(1), 38-46.

Kamii, C., & Manning, M. (2005). Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS): Tool for evaluating student learning? Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20(2), 81-96.

Stanovich, K. E. (1993). Romance and reality. The Reading Teacher, 47, 280-291.

Maryann Manning is Professor Education; and Tsuguhiko Kato is graduate Early Childhood Education, University of Alabama
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Author:Kato, Tsuguhiko
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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