Over the past 20 years, considerable research has been devoted to
phonemic awareness and the role it plays in young children's
learning to read (Cunningham, 1990; Stanovich, 1986; Wagner et al.,
1997). Unfortunately, much of this work has been limited to the research
community and to elementary school reading teachers. It has not been
effectively communicated to one of the most important
audiences--teachers of young children. This lack of communication may be
due to misconceptions about phonemic awareness. Teachers of young
children may be reticent about discussing phonemic awareness because
they assume that phonemic awareness is 1) phonics, and 2) not
developmentally appropriate for young children.
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
According to a recent joint position statement by the International
Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education
of Young Children (NAEYC), phonemic awareness is "typically
described as an insight about oral language and in particular about
segmentation of sounds that are used in speech communication"
(NAEYC/IRA, 1998). In other words, phonemic awareness is the ability to
auditorily recognize and manipulate individual sounds in words. The
initial emphasis is placed on auditory recognition because 1) the
auditory processing of language helps differentiate sounds in words, and
2) often, words that sound the same do not share visually similar
characteristics, such as the words "friend" and
"mend," and "knee" and "bee."
A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech. In the word
"cat," for example, there are three phonemes: /k/,/a/, and
/t/. Letters do not make specific, consistent sounds. The specific sound
that a letter makes is determined by the other letters within a given
word. The sounds are determined by context. For example, the letter
"a" makes a different sound in the word "cat" than
it does in the word "late." Even consonant sounds change with
context; the "t" sounds different in "cat" than it
does in "the."
The "awareness" part of phonemic awareness is important
because it implies the level of knowledge that children, especially 4-
and 5-year-olds, should have. Phonemic awareness is not the mastery of
sounds in words, but rather the awareness of those sounds in words.
Children can have phonemic awareness without knowing the letter name or
the label for the sound. Part of phonemic awareness is the understanding
that two words may sound the same, or rhyme, or begin with the same
Children who are immersed in a rich language environment and who
have many opportunities to play with language often naturally manipulate
sounds in words. Think of children who hear a familiar word such as
"man" and spontaneously play with other words, saying
"can," "tam," "lamb," "van," and
"Sam." While the children may not be aware of the names for
the different sounds in the words or understand why the words rhyme,
they are aware that they can create words that sound the same and, more
important, that this activity is fun. In the course of playing with
rhyming words, the child may invent words to fit the rhyme. For
instance, the child may begin with the words "cup" and
"pup," and continue with invented words such as
"lup" and "rup." The child may not yet understand
that some of the rhyming words are not real; at this point, however, it
is not important for the child to produce real words. Playful
manipulation of words and sounds in words still represents an important
first step (Yopp, 1992).
Although the terms sound similar, phonemic awareness is not the
same thing as phonics (IRA, 1998). While phonemic awareness is a
precursor to understanding letter sounds in words, it is not the
systematic presentation of letter sounds in words. Regardless of the
method used to teach reading (whole language, systematic phonics, or a
combination of the two), children first need a strong basis in phonemic
What Research Says About Phonemic Awareness
The research in early literacy amply documents the role that
phonemic awareness plays in early literacy acquisition (for extensive
reviews, see Adams, 1990; National Research Council, 1998). Four
particularly important findings from this research are outlined and
First, a relationship exists between young children's phonemic
awareness and their subsequent reading achievement in the 1st and 2nd
grades (Adams, 1990; Juel, 1988; Stanovich, 1986). That is, children who
know how to manipulate sounds in words at an early age have greater
success in learning how to read in the 1st and 2nd grades. The opposite
is also true. Preschoolers and kindergartners with poor phonemic
awareness tend to have difficulty learning to read later on (Scanlon
& Vellutino, in press; Vellutino et al., 1996). In particular,
children whose home environments lack print-rich experiences have weaker
phonemic awareness and experience a higher rate of subsequent reading
problems (Robertson & Brady, 1993).
Second, children as young as 3 and 4 have demonstrated phonemic
awareness. Maclean, Bryant, and Bradley (1987) assessed 3- and
4-year-olds on a variety of phonemic awareness tasks, such as knowledge
of nursery rhymes, beginning sounds of words, and word segmentation.
This sample of children, chosen from a middle- and working-class section
of England, participated in organized play groups and had significant
experience with language. More than half of the 3-year-olds demonstrated
either some understanding of rhyming words or an awareness of sounds in
words. Most of the 4-year-olds were able to recognize words that rhymed,
as well as words that shared similar beginning sounds. This study
suggests that young children are interested in, and can attend to,
sounds in words.
Third, opportunities to play with language result in the
development of phonemic awareness (Bryant, Bradley, Maclean, &
Crossland, 1989). In a study by Maclean et al. (1987), young children
who were knowledgeable about nursery rhymes and who had opportunities to
manipulate sounds in language also had well-developed phonemic
awareness. Nursery rhymes are a natural way to expose children to words
that sound the same. Other research suggests that by learning rhymes,
poems, and jingles children develop awareness of sounds in words (Yopp,
1992). Natural play with language can encourage children to attend to
the sounds that words make.
Fourth, adults can create opportunities for children to learn
phonemic awareness (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991; Lundberg,
Frost, & Peterson, 1988). This is an important finding, because it
implies that schools and other settings can provide opportunities to
become phonemically aware for children who may not have these
experiences at home. Teaching phonemic awareness to 1st- and 2nd-graders
who have had difficulty reading resulted in significant improvements in
their ability to read and spell words (Vellutino et al., 1996).
Research also has shown that children learn phonemic awareness best
when provided with an explanation of what it means for words to have
similar sounds, and what it means to hear sounds in a word. Cunningham
(1990) demonstrated that children who are provided with an explanation
of the underlying purpose and meaning of the phonemic awareness
activities outperformed children who were not given an explanation for
the skills being taught.
The Development of Phonemic Awareness
Research points to a developmental progression in children's
acquisition of phonemic awareness (Adams, 1990). As young children
develop language, they begin attending to sounds in words. Initially,
children can recognize words that rhyme and those that have the same
beginning sounds. With increasing opportunities to hear and play with
language, such as those provided by nursery rhymes, children can produce
and discriminate among words with similar beginning and ending sounds.
Initial letter isolation, the ability to identify the initial letter
sound of a word, such as the /k/ sound in cat or the /d/ sound in
"dinosaur," is one of easiest tasks for young children (Stahl
& Murray, 1994). Initial letter isolation differs from the ability
to produce words that have the beginning sound, as it requires the child
to separate the initial sound of a word from the whole word, as opposed
to producing words that begin with the same sound, which is a more
As children gain more experience with language and with
manipulating sounds in words, they can identify the syllables, or the
sound chunks, in words. This is a more complex task, one that
kindergartners more consistently demonstrate than younger children do
(Share, Jorm, Maclean, Matthews, & Waterman, 1983). By segmenting
the syllables of words, children begin to understand that words can be
broken down into chunks of sounds. The word "dinosaur," for
instance, is composed of three chunks of sounds: din-o-saur.
Eventually, as children become more adept at identifying syllables
in words, they can focus on the individual phonemes in each syllable.
For example, children begin to hear the three distinct sounds in the
word "bat," which are /b/, /a/, and /t/. It is important to
understand that the progression from hearing similar sounds in words to
identifying individual phonemes varies for each child, and that the
experiences offered should be appropriate for the readiness of the
child. For example, individual phonemes should not be emphasized when
children are just starting to hear the similarities of beginning and
ending sounds in words. In addition, do not expect children to master
syllable segmentation early on.
Creating a Classroom Environment That Supports Young
Children's Phonemic Awareness
In helping young children to become literate, it makes sense to
encourage the development of phonemic awareness. However, we must avoid
creating an environment in which children are drilled in phonemic
awareness, especial]y if the associated activities are separate from
regular classroom activities.
Phonemic awareness can be incorporated into preschools and
kindergartens in a developmentally appropriate fashion. Young children
can easily understand the idea that things make sounds. In pretend play,
children frequently imitate the sounds of animals and mimic the sounds
of objects such as cars and airplanes. They understand that words make
sounds, and sometimes words sound the same, such as "moo" and
"boo." Storybook reading, nursery rhymes, poetry, and circle
time activities create opportunities for children to attend to the
sounds in language.
Storybook Reading. Reading stories aloud provides a great
opportunity for young children to hear sounds in words within the
context of connected text. Many good children's books can
facilitate the development of phonemic awareness. Many of the books
recommended by Yopp (1995)reinforce the patterns found in natural
language and facilitate children's attention to the sounds in
Storybooks that contain rhyming words appeal to young children and
can facilitate phonemic awareness development. Many of the Dr. Seuss
books, with their silly stories using rhyming words, are a great source
of fun and provide opportunities for playful experiences with language.
It is best to choose stories with rhyming words that are easy for young
children to hear. This means that the rhyming words should be in close
proximity to one another in the story and simple enough for children to
understand. Some Dr. Seuss books are better than others in this respect,
such as One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; Hop on Pop; Green Eggs
and Ham; and Wocket in My Pocket. In these books, the rhyming words are
in close proximity to one another, are easy for young children to
discern, and follow a defined, predictable pattern. In contrast,
although such books as The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes
Back contain many rhymes, the rhyming words are scattered throughout the
text. This can make it difficult for young children to distinguish the
few words that sound the same.
Storybooks containing alliteration provide opportunities for
children to hear words that have the same beginning sounds. The
repetition of "Trip, Trap, Trip, Trap" in Three Billy Goats
Gruff, for example, or the many words beginning with the letter
"d" in Dinorella by Pamela Duncan Edwards, provide
opportunities for children to hear certain sounds repeated.
Alphabet books are another way to expose children to the beginning
sounds in words, by allowing children to hear both a letter and a word
that begins with the letter. Dr. Seuss's ABC Book and the
Berenstain Bear B Book are good examples of such books. Books that
contain objects, animals, or themes that young children can understand
and relate to will help facilitate phonemic awareness. Shirley
Hughes's Alfie's ABC's is a good example of an alphabet
book that presents objects that can be easily identified by young
children. In contrast, if children hear that "Q" is for
"quetzal," a word they may not know and would have limited
experience with, the task of understanding how "Q" relates to
the word becomes too difficult. Other alphabet books, such as Chicka
Chicka, Boom Boom, weave a story around the letters and create a context
for a repeated pattern of alliterative and rhyming words.
Phonemic awareness activities can be used to introduce young
children to new vocabulary. Having children clap the syllables of new
words as they hear them will help them to hear, and pronounce, all the
sounds in the word. For example, as children learn about plants and come
across the word "daffodil" for the first time, they could clap
the syllables as they pronounce this new word. This clapping activity
can draw children's attention to each sound in the word, as well as
direct their attention to hearing the different parts of a "big
After reading storybooks that contain rhymes and/ or alliteration,
teachers can engage the children in story extension activities that
promote thinking about sounds and words. For example, after reading
Dinorella, the children can draw pictures of all the things they know
that also begin with "D." The teacher also can ask if
anyone's name begins with the same sound. Such story extensions can
help the children make connections between what they learned from the
story and what they know from their own experiences. With repeated
discussion about and exposure to listening to sounds in words, the
children will begin to think about words in this way.
Nursery Rhymes, Jingles, Poems, and Finger Play Activities.
Children love nursery rhymes, jingles, poems, and finger play
activities. Such activities allow children to hear the rhythm of
language, as well as words that have similar beginning and ending
sounds. When reciting a nursery rhyme, teachers can ask children to
listen for words that sound alike.
Nursery rhymes, jingles, and poems are often heard and shared in
preschool and kindergarten classrooms. What is often missing, however,
is a conversation about how words can sound the same. When introducing
young children to rhyming words, teachers can discuss what it means for
words to rhyme and how we can train our ears to hear words that sound
It is important to use care when selecting the nursery rhymes,
jingles, finger plays, and poems to use in phonemic awareness
activities. Here are some guidelines that may be helpful to consider.
First, select poems and rhymes that actually do contain rhyming words.
Many popular rhymes, such as "This Little Piggy," do not
contain true rhyming words, and thus will not promote phonemic
awareness. The rhyme is "This little piggy went to market/This
little piggy stayed home/ This little piggy had roast beef/ This little
piggy had none/ And this little piggy cried, Wee-wee-wee/ All the way
home." "None" and "home" are only partial
rhymes, and they are far apart in the poem.
Second, it is easier for young children to hear words that rhyme if
they are in close proximity to one another. In many poems and rhymes,
the rhyming pattern is ABAB and so the rhyming words are not in
consecutive lines, but rather in every other line. It is easier for
young children to hear rhyming words that are situated in closer
proximity. The rhyme "One, two/ Buckle my shoe" is a good
example of a poem with rhyming words that are in close proximity to one
Teachers can encourage children to make up their own rhymes and
jingles, using their own names or the names of their classmates. Names
are very special and salient to young children. Playing rhyming games
with, or creating jingles about, their names will help them understand
the role that sounds play in words.
Circle Time Activities. Circle time activities typically revolve
around the calendar, the weather, the daily schedule, and topics that
the children are learning as part of a class theme. Any one of these
activities can be used to help make students aware of sounds in words.
For example, if a child reports that it is raining, the teacher can ask
if anyone can think of a word that rhymes with "rain." The
teacher can also ask if anyone can think of a word that begins with the
same sound as rain. In another example, if the children are learning
about seeds and plants, the teacher can talk about what a seed is and
ask what sound the word "seed" begins with. The teacher can
model making these connections for children--pointing out that the words
"seed" and "soil" begin with the same letter and
sound, for example--so that they can begin to see the relationship
between words themselves. As the children repeat the two words,
"seed" and "soil," they can hear the /s/ in both
words. The teacher can also ask which classmates' names begin with
the same sound as "seed" and "soil."
Because phonemic awareness relies significantly on the ability to
hear sounds in words, it is best to conduct these activities orally and
avoid visual presentation of words for these activities until the
children's auditory skills are well-established and they can begin
to understand inconsistencies between the way words sound and the way
they are spelled. Words that sound the same can look very different from
one another. For example, while word pairs like "hare" and
"pair" or "bow" and "toe" may rhyme, they
are visually dissimilar. Words in poems or rhymes that sound the same
but look different can be confusing for young children (Yopp, 1992).
Therefore, it is not necessary, and may be undesirable, to write the
words that sound the same on the board. The primary goal is training the
ear to hear distinctions.
Writing. Providing children with opportunities to write helps
strengthen the connections among speech, sounds in words, and written
words. If Tommy writes a straight line to represent his name, he is
beginning to understand the relationship between print and the spoken
word. Sulzby (1992) showed that even very young children can
"write." In writing, children are faced with the challenge of
hearing a word and trying to think of the sounds in the word. They often
may depict sounds by using just one or two letters, such as
"J" for Julia or "DS" for dinosaur. Invented
spelling helps children focus on the sounds that they hear in words. As
they begin to understand the relationship between writing and speech,
make sure to praise whatever the children produce.
Creating opportunities in the classroom to facilitate
children's expression in writing is an important step in making
them aware of sounds in words. A good start is by having children write
their names on their artwork. This initial writing will take many forms,
depending on the experiences of the child. If the child puts the letter
"S" for Sally on her picture of a seed, the teacher can ask if
the words "Sally" and "seed" have any sounds in
common. Ask questions that direct the children's attention to
sounds in words.
Beginning With What Is Familiar to the Child. The classroom offers
many opportunities for children to hear their names and those of their
classmates. They can learn the beginning sound of the names, and also
learn to manipulate those initial sounds. Children can play a game in
which they pretend that all their names begin with the /b/ sound (i.e.,
Tommy would be "bommy" and Joe would be "boe"). Have
the children play with the sounds in their names and manipulate the
initial sounds. As children gain experience playing with the initial
sound of their names, this activity can be extended to include other
familiar words such as the days of the week, words from frequently read
books, and names of classroom pets.
Making Connections Across the Curriculum. Virtually any activity
focusing on phonemic awareness can be fun and help children learn about
sounds in words, but they will only be meaningful if they are integrated
into the context of the classroom. Storybooks, rhymes, jingles, and
poems that are being used to emphasize phonemic awareness need to be
connected with themes or topics presented in class. When opportunities
present themselves, identify words with the same beginning sound. For
example, when a child says that he was playing with a snake in the sand,
the teacher can ask questions to direct the child's attention to
the same sound that begins "snake" and "sand."
If the children are working on a theme about animals, books on
animals that emphasize ending rhymes and alliteration could be
incorporated. The same is true for selecting poems and nursery rhymes.
Selecting materials that are tied to the larger topic of the class will
help the children make connections between different activities. Also,
as children learn new vocabulary words related to a topic, the teacher
should help them focus on the beginning and ending sounds in the words.
If the word has many syllables (such as "rhinoceros"), the
children can clap out the number of syllables in this new word. The goal
is to create opportunities for children to attend to sounds in words and
relate what they already know to new words and sounds they are learning.
Using natural opportunities in the classroom to compare words with
similar beginning sounds can facilitate this process.
Phonemic awareness activities can be woven into an early childhood
classroom curriculum to create a seamless connection between regular
classroom activities and those that emphasize sounds in words. Research
suggests that children who have advanced phonemic awareness are more
ready to learn to read and are more successful at it. Learning to read
is a complex process that begins long before 1st grade. The foundation
is laid when the child begins to learn language and understand speech
(Wells, 1986). Teachers of young children can facilitate the reading
readiness process in a developmentally appropriate fashion by providing
opportunities for children to comprehend the relationship between sounds
and words, as opposed to presenting concepts in isolation. In achieving
phonemic awareness, young children can develop a foundation for
understanding sounds in words in an appropriate context and through
appropriate methods. Children need to learn phonemic awareness by
engaging in fun and motivating activities that promote the recognition
and manipulation of sounds in words.
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Author's Note: This paper was written under funding from the
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of
Education (Grant No. R-117D-40005). The opinions expressed are those of
the author, however, and do not necessarily represent the positions or
policies of the U.S. Department of Education.
Barbara A, Wasik is a principal research scientist at the Center
for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore,