What Teachers Need to Know About Phonemic Awareness
In all honesty, the life lessons I remember most deeply originate with mistakes.
Try to watch a fun movie? I turn the movie on by 10 p.m. and promptly fall asleep.
Try to eat healthy? I inevitably leave the house forgetting my packed lunch, accidently ending up at The Cheesecake Factory.
Plan to be on time for an important event? Neglect to switch my favorite outfit out of the washer and into the dryer.
Although these may not sound like life-shattering mistakes, here’s one that was:
On a particularly difficult school day, one my favorite students (all
my students were my favorites, by the way), ran into the classroom,
“Mrs. Tolman, I am so fustated!”
To which I calmly replied: “Chris, the word is frustrated.”
“That’s what I SAID: FUSTATED!” Chris shrieked.
Oops! So much for my stellar teaching skills. It was obvious I was adding to his “fustation.”
Teacher knowledge is key: We can’t teach what we don’t know.
To better help Chris, and get him “unfustated,” I needed the
invaluable information gleaned from years of scientific research. For
example, how do our brains store individual speech sounds (phonemes)?
Why do some students mispronounce, misread, and/or misspell words? What
could I do instructionally to improve Chris’ skills? Here’s what I’ve
come to understand:
Listening to a student’s speech is a window into their understanding of phonemes.
We store speech sounds by place and manner of articulation. This means that “how” we physically make sounds matters. The word “place”
refers to whether a sound is made toward the front, middle, or back of
our mouth, considering where we put our tongue when we say a sound. The “manner”
refers to what happens with your air flow and voicing; some sounds are
produced with a lengthy breath of air (/sh/, /m/). (When you see these
slash marks, or virgules, I am referring to sounds, not letters.)
In comparison, some phonemes are produced with a quick burst of air
(/b/ /k/); linguists refer to these as “stop” sounds. The term “voicing”
refers to what’s happening in our throat when we make a sound. As you
say /sh/, put your hand flat on your throat. You should feel no
In comparison, say /m/ while feeling your throat. That’s a very
different feeling! It was not that Chris could not “see” the letter ‘r’
in the word frustration as he spoke; rather, he could not accurately hear nor feel the way his mouth was supposed to move to represent that particular sound.
Asking Chris to look at how my mouth puckered when I said the /r/ in
isolation, and then in the blends ‘fr’ and ‘tr,’ talking about what my
lips look like, asking him to make his mouth look like mine, and using a
mirror would have helped bring this sound to his conscious awareness.
The current push for classroom sound walls instead of word walls,
replete with mouth pictures, is an example of how to reinforce and
deepen students’ awareness of creating and manipulating the 44 English
If you cannot say a word, you likely will struggle to read and write it.
When writing a word, strong spellers automatically reference numerous connections to what they already know about that word: how it sounds; what letters are used to represent each sound; what morphemes, or smallest meaningful units, are embedded within the word; what that word means; what part of speech it takes in a sentence; and, how that word is used in speech and writing.
Weak spellers may have difficulty in one or more of these layers of
language. In Chris’ case, I don’t believe he ever used the word
“frustration” in his writing, choosing a simpler word to spell, such as
“mad” or “upset.” Weak spellers, especially those with underlying
phonological confusions, often write shorter sentences with simpler
words, avoiding words they struggle to spell.
I remember Chris trying to write his address for me one day. He
struggled writing “avenue,” “avnoo,” “avin’…then crossed it all out and
If Chris were to come upon the word “frustration” in his reading,
he’d typically look at its beginning letters, identify the first sound,
and guess the rest based on pictures or meanings of nearby words. His
reading, overall, was slow, labored, and inaccurate, leading to his
That same process of using sounds to anchor spellings is used, in
reverse, when we read. Good readers process every letter, space, and
punctuation mark, automatically activate the corresponding sounds
represented by these letters and letter patterns and use their knowledge
of sound-spelling patterns to decode unfamiliar words.
Phonemic awareness is an essential foundational skill for unlocking
the alphabetic principle to read words. It follows that weak phonemic
awareness negatively impacts a student’s ability to readily blend words,
leading to weak comprehension; we cannot understand what we cannot
Join me in an EDVIEW 360 webinar in May, when I will examine what
teachers need to know about phonemic awareness through the lens of
speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Keep your eye on the EDVIEW 360 page for the exact date and registration link.
Until then, I’ll likely turn on a chick flick, enjoy a piece of
cheesecake, and promptly fall asleep while my clothes gather mildew in
the washer. And you know that “fustation” experience with Chris? Perhaps
I should have started by asking him why he was so “fustated.” I never
did find out.
Carol A. Tolman, Ed.D., has a doctorate in educational psychology and has been a consultant at the state, district, and school levels for more than 15 years. Dr. Tolman also has more than 25 years of experience in public schools and the juvenile justice system, spending 12 years designing and implementing an innovative reading clinic for academically challenged high school students.