It is in reading and writing that we learn to think. I love helping kids enter the world of readers and writers. This is a place for me to share tricks for multisensory learning of reading, spelling and writing. I'll share thoughts and strategies and recommend books for emerging readers.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What is Phonemic Awareness?

     Back in the days when homeschooling was a little less common, I would be carting my four  kids around the supermarket or a museum or a nature trail or whatever and someone would invariably ask, "why aren't you kids in school?"  The kids would say "we're homeschooled" and then the person would say, "Wow, I could never do that."  Their next question would usually be, "Are you a teacher?"  When I said that yes, I had taught high school English, they would say, "Well, that must make it a lot easier."

     I never really thought it did all that much, except for one thing.  Having been to graduate school in education, I could not be intimidated by educational jargon.

      The jargon that goes along with teaching reading can be especially intimidating to a homeschooling parent.  Of all the things we don't want to screw up, reading would surely come at the top of the list.  In  the preschool  and kindergarten  years you can start  to hear the terms phonemic awareness and phonological awareness.  It sounds like it must be as difficult as calculus and that you must have to be an expert to impart it to children.  What is this stuff?  Why is it so important and how can I make sure my kids are on track with it?

     You don't have to have an extensive background in teaching to understand and foster phonemic awareness.  You just need to pay attention to your child's language development and know a little bit about it.

     Phonemes are the individual sounds that make up words.  Phonemic awareness is simply the ability to notice, think about and manipulate the individual sounds in  spoken words. This is something that you can notice long before you are thinking about teaching reading. Can the child play with language, substitute one sound for another, make words families, rhyme?  If you leave the rhyming end off a Dr. Seuss line, can the child fill it in?  I remember my kindergarten age daughter rhyming luck, buck, truck, duck, muck (and yes, the inevitable f---) while swinging  away on the swing set.  I didn't know it then, but the pieces were all in place for her to learn to read.  If you notice that these things are not falling into place, it is probably time to schedule a few minutes a day to work with words and sounds.

     A friend told me a story the other day. Erica was sitting in her booster seat at the kitchen table and she was looking over at her brother in his booster seat on the other side of the table when her mom handed each of them a drink of milk.  Erica's was in a bigger cup than her brother's and she seized the opportunity to tease..."Ha, ha I got the big gl---."  My friend was in no mood for teasing and stopped her mid word with a stern,"just don't!"

     Erica then bemoaned, "All I said was gl-- I never even got to say ass!"  After I got through laughing, the first thing I said was, "Is she reading?"  Erica is reading, surprising her mother every day with how much and how fast she is learning.  Being able to break a word into parts and put it back together again is a sure sign of well developed phonemic awareness and the single best predictor of early reading acquisition.

    I'm going to repeat that.  It is the single best predictor of early reading acquisition. Better than eating a good breakfast or having two parents or socioeconomic status or IQ.   A single mother in the projects who sings, plays and talks and reads to her child can do a better job than a two college educated parents who let their kids spend all day in front of the computer and the TV. 

     The really good news, then,  is that phonemic awareness can be developed and improved.  You don't need to buy some special curriculum  or computer program or a bunch of worksheets to do this.  A lot of the things we traditionally do with babies and children are the very best things to develop phonemic awareness.  Songs, nursery rhymes, finger plays (Itsy-bitsy spider, 3 little pigs---that kind of thing.)  If you have forgotten, or never knew these things, get a book from the library.  Jump rope rhymes and those clapping games like "Miss Mary Mack" that we used to play in the  schoolyard are great too. This stuff is all just fun to do with kids, too. There are many books of phonemic awareness activities, but use them sparingly.  A few minutes a day can make a big difference.  Keep it a happy time. It comes naturally if we are talking, playing around with language, paying attention, limiting screen time and spending time with our kids.

    My next door neighbor is a first grade teacher who retired recently and she had noticed a real decline in that last 10 years of kids having been exposed to nursery rhymes.  I guess if you have political objections to Mother Goose, you could choose other rhyming poetry.  Music that is especially recorded for kids tends to have lyrics that are enunciated more clearly and contains more rhyme than music you might otherwise listen to. (Actually country music is good this way, too-- if you like it)   We had quite a few CD's from the line made by Music for Little People and the adults enjoyed them and sang along.  Look around and try to find music that you and your kids enjoy together and can listen to repeatedly.

     When my kids were early readers, we had a game called Up-Words.  I never really knew how to play the game--I had gotten it at a yard sale, but they still make it.  It is just a square board and letter tiles that stack on the board and on one another.   We used to just sit on the couch and fool around with it for 15 minutes or so each day.  I'd put down the word CAT and then we would change the initial sound and the ending sound to make new words or nonsense words.  Changing the middle sound is the hardest and can wait until the kid is solid on beginnings and endings.  I didn't even know the term phonemic awareness at that time, but we were building it.

     Orton-Gillingham lessons contain  phonemic awareness activites in each session, but a kid doesn't necessarily need that level of intervention to benefit from activities that build phonemic awareness. The  reading and spelling of all kids will be stronger with stronger phonemic awareness.