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, shouting:
“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 vibration.
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 phonemes.
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 wrote: “street.”
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 “fustation.”
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 read.
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.