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Phone-a-What?

Updated: Mar 1

There are many terms and acronyms in education. It can be intimidating. There is one term I want you to learn and tell every parent you know- Phonemic Awareness. I want you to Google it, write down, memorize it, breath it.


Phonemic Awareness does not get the rock-star status it deserves. It quietly sits behind the more famous Phonics, when it really should be front and center, because Phonemic Awareness made Phonics. There would be no success in Phonics without Phonemic Awareness.


Are you still asking yourself, What is it? (No, admit, you already Googled it!) Phonemic Awareness is easy to understand if you break it down using word knowledge- a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. For example, the word 'chat' has three sounds /ch/ /a/ /t/. Phonemic Awareness is having awareness of the units of sound that make a language. Phonemic Awareness falls under the umbrella term Phonological Awareness where Rhyme also lives. A learner must have Phonemic Awareness to make sense out of reading and spelling.


Phonemic Awareness is actually really easy to develop in a little one, in fact they all start doing it at birth. It’s really tuning their ears to the sounds of our language. But, that's just the basic awareness. To really make a difference on their future reading and spelling skills you can play some simple games to help them focus on sounds and bring this awareness front and center. (Look for them on the Activity pages by age here on our site.)


Let me give you an example on how Phonemic Awareness can make you a super speller. Let’s say you are in the 2nd grade and you want to write about your favorite athlete. Athlete is a tough word for a 7 year old. But, if you built your Phonemic Awareness skills at a young age, you could spell this no problem.


The first question you ask yourself- How many sounds are in the word ‘athlete’? (I ask this question to my six year old every time she asks me how to spell something.) The answer is five: /a/ /th/ /l/ /ē/ /t/. Say each sound out loud to yourself. Being aware of each of these sounds means you have Phonemic Awareness.


Now, if you’re in 2nd grade you’ve also hopefully been through a systematic, explicit phonics program and can successfully attach a spelling to each one of these sounds. I ask you now, ‘How do you spell the sound /a/?’ A; ‘How do you spell the sound /th/? T-H; ’ ‘How do you spell the sound /l/?’ L; ‘How do you spell the sound /ē/?’ E_E; How do you spell the sound /t/?’ T. We have spelled ATHLETE.


Taking that sound-by-sound, spelling-by-spelling approach is so helpful to train littles to think through words. It teaches them to apply their sound awareness (Phonemic Awareness) to the word they are trying to spell (or read). Yes, some have to be memorized and that will happen with practice. The more fluent of a speller (and reader) your little becomes, the process will become automatic and just flow. But first they need this foundational skill. They will rely on Phonemic Awareness many times in their lives. I know I do.


I don’t think I really developed a true Phonemic Awareness mind until I was a teacher. Unfortunately I was not taught to read through a phonics method, and it still hurts me to this day, especially in my spelling skills. If I had only developed this skill at a young age I may have been able to enter those Spelling Bees!


I can’t emphasize this enough- make Phonemic Awareness a known term in your family. Play with sounds daily with your little one, it will pay off immensely!




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Kristie Shelley, mom & founder

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