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What Is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness refers to an individual's awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of language. It is a listening skill that includes the ability to distinguish units of speech, such as rhymes, syllables in words, and individual phonemes in syllables. The ability to segment and blend phonemes is critical for the development of reading skills, including decoding and fluency. Phonological awareness is an important and reliable predictor of later reading ability and has, therefore, been the focus of much research.

Phonological awareness is often confused with phonics, but it is different. Phonics requires students to know and match letters or letter patterns with sounds, learn the rules of spelling, and use this information to decode (read) and encode (write) words. Phonological awareness relates only to speech sounds, not to alphabet letters or sound-spellings, so it is not necessary for students to have alphabet knowledge in order to develop a basic phonological awareness of language.

Phonological awareness is an auditory skill that is developed through a variety of activities that expose students to the sound structure of the language and teach them to recognize, identify and manipulate it. Songs, nursery rhymes and games are used to help students to become alert to speech sounds and rhythms, rather than meanings, including rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and prosody. While exposure to different sound patterns in songs and rhymes is a start towards developing phonological awareness, the traditional actions that go along with songs and nursery rhymes typically focus on helping students to understand the meanings of words, so different strategies must be implemented to aid students in becoming alert to the sounds instead. Specific activities that involve students in attending to and demonstrating recognition of the sounds of language include waving hands when rhymes are heard, stomping feet along with alliterations, clapping the syllables in names, and slowly stretching out arms when segmenting words. Phonological awareness is technically only about sounds and students do not need to know the letters of the alphabet to be able to develop phonological awareness.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that focuses on recognizing and manipulating phonemes, the smallest units of sound. Phonemic awareness is demonstrated by awareness of sounds at three levels of sound structure: syllables, onsets and rimes, and phonemes. For example, the word football in the General American accent of English is a compound word that contains two syllables, /fʊt/ and /bɑl/.

The first syllable /fʊt/ has an onset, /f/ and a rime, /ʊt/. The individual phonemes in /fʊt/ are /f/, /ʊ/, and /t/. Phonemic awareness is demonstrated by manipulating such sounds, including segmenting and blending the syllables and phonemes in the word football. Students in primary education sometimes learn phonological awareness in the context of literacy activities, particularly phonemic awareness. Some research demonstrates that, at least for older children, there may be utility to extending the development of phonological awareness skills in the context of activities that involve letters and spelling. A number of scholars have been working on this approach.

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