Phonemic Awareness What Does it Mean?

Phonemic Awareness What Does it Mean?

by Dr Kerry Hempenstall

Over the past two decades, but particularly in the last 10 years, there has been a burgeoning consensus about the critical importance of phonemic awareness to beginning reading success, and about its role in specific reading disability or dyslexia (Hatcher et al., 1994; Share, 1995; Stanovich, 1986). Phonemic awareness has also been described as phonological awareness, acoustic awareness, phonetic awareness, auditory analysis, sound categorisation, phonemic segmentation, phonological sensitivity, and phonemic analysis. Some authors such as Goswami and Bryant (1990) reserve the term phonemic awareness to imply awareness of individual phonemes, and phonological awareness to be a global term to include the earlier stages - such as rhyme and syllable awareness.

Stages of Phonological Awareness Development

Recognition that sentences are made up of words.
Recognition that words can rhyme - then production thereof
Recognition that words can begin with the same sound - then production thereof
Recognition that words can end with the same sound -then production thereof
Recognition that words can have the same medial sound(s) -then production
Recognition that words can be broken down into syllables - then production
Recognition that words can be broken down into onsets and rimes - then
production thereof
Recognition that words can be broken down into individual phonemes - then
production thereof
Recognition that sounds can be deleted from words to make new words - then
production thereof
Ability to blend sounds to make words
Ability to segment words into constituent sounds

There has been much discussion about how best to define phonemic awareness. Ball and Blachman (1991) refer to the ability to recognise that a spoken word consists of a sequence of individual sounds. Stanovich (1986) defines it as the "conscious access to the phonemic level of the speech stream and some ability to cognitively manipulate representations at this level" (p. 362). Later, he suggested (1992, 1993) that the terms "conscious" and "awareness" themselves have no acceptable definitions, and recommended phonological sensitivity as a generic term to cover a continuum from shallow to deep sensitivity. This term acknowledges the wide range of tasks used to assess levels of sensitivity. Read (1991) too was concerned about the term awareness, but because it implies a dichotomy rather than a continuum. He preferred the term access to phonological structure. As these alternatives have not yet gained currency, phonemic awareness will continue to be used here, accepting that the definition has limitations.

What is clear is that phonemic awareness concerns the structure of words rather than their meaning. To understand the construction of our written code, readers need to be able to reflect on the spelling-to-sound correspondences. To understand that the written word is composed of graphemes that correspond to phonemes (the alphabetic principle), beginning readers must first understand that words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) rather than their conceiving of each word as a single indivisible sound stream. This awareness appears not to be a discrete state, but rather a sequence of development ranging from simple to complex, or as Stanovich (1992, 1993b) would prefer - from shallow to deep.

Phonemic awareness is more complex than auditory discrimination, which is the ability to perceive that cat and mat are different speech productions, or words. To be able to describe how they are similar but different, however, implies some level of phonemic awareness. The first entails hearing a difference, the second entails a level of analysis of the constituent sounds. Young children are not normally called upon to consider words at a level beyond their meaning, although experience with rhymes may be the first indication for children that they can play with the structure of words. For young children, the realisation that spoken sentences (a rather continuous stream of sound without clear pauses) are separable into discrete words is a pre-requisite for the recognition that words can be decomposed into segments (Liberman & Liberman, 1990).

Adams (1990), and Blachman (1984) warn that word consciousness (the awareness that spoken language is composed of words) should not be assumed even in children with several years schooling, though they report evidence that it may be readily taught even at a pre-school level. That school age children can lack such fundamental knowledge may be difficult for adults to accept, but it highlights the need in education to assume little, and assess pre-requisite skills carefully. Their warning also challenges the view, held by some Whole Language advocates (Goodman, 1979, 1986; Smith, 1975, 1992), that speaking and reading involve equivalent "natural" processes for all children. The implications of the Whole Language view are that the same environmental conditions that occur during the development of speech are those best provided for children learning to read. Liberman and Liberman (1990) have provided a forceful rebuttal of this position.

Having discovered that sentences are composed of words, the next logical unit of analysis is at the syllable level. However, syllables can be represented by any number of letters from one to eight. The word understand has three syllables, each of a different number of letters. Un has two, der has three. and stand has five letters. This variability makes the syllable unit of limited value in analysing the reading task (Bradley, 1990).

Rhyme and Alliteration
The recognition of rhyme may be the entry point to phonemic awareness development for many children (Bryant, 1990). To be aware that words can have a similar end-sound implies a critical step in metalinguistic understanding - that of ignoring the meaning of a word in order to attend to its internal structure. This leads to a new classification system, one in which words are classified according to end-sound rather than meaning. Bryant (1990) points to the considerable amount of evidence indicating that children as young as three or four years can make judgments such as - when words rhyme, and when they begin with the same sound (alliteration). He argues that sensitivity to rhyme makes both a direct and indirect contribution to reading. Directly, it helps students appreciate that words that share common sounds usually also share common letter sequences. The child's subsequent sensitivity to common letter sequences then makes a significant contribution to reading strategy development. Indirectly, the recognition of rhyme promotes the refining of word analysis from intra-word segments (such as rhyme) to analysis at the level of the phoneme (the critical requirement for reading).

Studies by Bryant, Bradley, McLean, and Crossland (1989) showed a very strong relationship between rhyming ability at age three years and performance at reading and spelling three years later. A number of such studies have reinforced the value of such early exposure to rhyming games (e.g., Kirtley, Bryant, Maclean, & Bradley, 1989). That rhyming and phoneme awareness are related (through their common characteristic of requiring listening for sound similarities and differences) was supported by an interesting finding of a study by Lamb and Gregory (1993). They showed that children who were capable of good discrimination of musical pitch also scored highly on tests of phonemic awareness. Since pitch change is an important source of information in the speech signal (Liberman, Cooper, Shankweiler, & Studdert-Kennedy, 1967), it may be that sensitivity to small frequency changes involved in phoneme recognition is an important aspect of successful reading. Lamb and Gregory (1993) raise the interesting possibility that musical training may represent one of those pre-reading, home-based experiences that contribute to the marked individual differences in phonemic awareness with which children commence school.

Onsets & Rimes

Treiman (1991) has described a further stage in the development of phoneme awareness the intra-syllabic units - onset and rime. The onset of a syllable is its initial consonant(s), and the rime is its vowel and any subsequent consonants in the syllable. Thus, in the syllables sip-slip, the onsets are s and sl, and the common rime is ip. Treiman's research has indicated a stage between syllable awareness and phoneme awareness when children are much more sensitive to the onset-rime distinction than the phoneme distinction. It has been argued that this research holds promise for programs of educational intervention in reading disability because of the greater regularity of onset-rimes over individual letters (Felton, 1993). Thus, rime phonograms such as ing, ight, ain have much more regularity than the letters that form them. Knowing that strain, and drain rhyme, allows for reading main and brain by analogy. This has led some researchers (Bowey, Cain, & Ryan, 1992; Hulme & Snowling, 1992) to suggest that an emphasis on onset-rime may be an especially valuable approach to teaching dyslexics who tend to have relatively weak phonological skills. Bowey and Francis (1991) also consider onset and rime the most effective focus for phonological activities intended to promote beginning reading and spelling for all children. They note that since most onsets in English are single consonants, the use of the intra-syllabic onset/rime distinction as the major unit in the early study of word structure is likely to hasten the development of awareness at the more difficult phoneme level. Treiman (1991) has argued convincingly that the onset/rime division is a natural one. Bradley (1990) too agrees, and considers that it is because rhymes correspond to rimes that most children develop such facility with them at a relatively early age. The awareness of these larger sublexical skills are viewed by Bruck (1992), Goswami and Bryant (1990) Tunmer and Hoover (1993) as prerequisites to initial reading acquisition, their difficulty level lying between that of syllable awareness and phoneme awareness (Bowey et al., 1992; Bowey & Francis, 1991; Bruck & Treiman, 1990; Kirtley et al., 1989). Spector (1995) perceives onset/rime as a potentially useful stage in the development of oral segmentation skills. She recommends, for children who have difficulty in segmenting complex syllables, the strategy of breaking such words into onset/rime as an intermediate step towards phonemic segmentation.

There may be a developmental sequence of phonological awareness. It begins with awareness of words as a unit of analysis, then proceeds to the awareness that words can share certain ending properties that we call rhyme; to an awareness that words can be decomposed into syllables, then (possibly though not definitely) more finely into sub-syllabic units called onsets and rimes, and then (and most importantly for reading) into awareness of individual phonemes, the smallest unit of sound analysis. A further developmental sequence involves the movement from a recognition of such properties to a capacity to produce examples of them. Thus, at one level one can nominate which pairs of words rhyme when presented orally; at a higher level one can produce examples.

If this is the developmental sequence, then the approach to effective teaching should take account of this sequence. The empirical question that arises is whether an emphasis on teaching such an onset-rime distinction (rather than at the phoneme level) is more productive in initial (and, perhaps, remedial) reading instruction. The computer program developed by Wise, Olson and Treiman (1990) has focussed on onset-rimes in teaching beginning reading skills to normally-developing and dyslexic children. In the Wise et al. (1990) and the Olson and Wise (1992) studies, the authors noted an advantage for the children taught in this manner over an approach that segmented words after the vowel. The effect however was ephemeral, and least pronounced in the more disabled students. Ehri and Robbins (1992)findings were similar in that the poorer readers did not use sub-syllabic units larger than the grapheme. This led them to suggest that the onset-rime distinction is really the province of the more skilled reader. Goswami's research (Goswami & Bryant, 1990) had suggested that, for young children, words that share rimes are more readily decoded by analogy than are words that share onsets or vowels. Bruck and Treiman (1992) provided some support for that view, but as in the Wise et al. (1990) study, the measured advantage was lost within a day. In fact, a day later the rime group demonstrated poorer performance than the group taught onsets, and poorer than the group for which vowel analogy was emphasised. Nation and Hulme (1997) question the value of an early emphasis on onset-rime as skill at such tasks is not predictive of reading and spelling success.

These findings do not imply that struggling readers cannot be taught to make use of the strategy, nor does it mean that reading words by analogy is an unproductive strategy. However, the results of research presented above suggest caution regarding calls for introducing an initial emphasis on onset-rime distinctions for beginning readers. It would be judicious to ensure that beginners (and disabled readers) have or develop a grounding in grapheme-phoneme relationships, either before (or simultaneous with), such onset-rime emphasis (Munro, 1995). It is still unclear whether the generally accepted developmental sequence necessarily provides the optimum guidance for instruction. The instruction question should be answered empirically, and a number of researchers are attempting more fine-grained analysis to assist in providing clearer instructional direction. Olson (in press, cited in Snowling, 1996) reported a study indicating that adequate phonemic awareness skill was necessary if children were to benefit from onset-rime instruction. When dyslexic readers were provided with phonemic awareness training through Auditory Discrimination in Depth (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1969), simultaneously with onset-rime computer-based training, reading results were markedly improved. The ADD program emphasises phonemic awareness through a variety of oral/aural tasks, and by teaching students awareness of kinaesthetic cues (mouth, tongue, lip position, breath usage). Nation and Hulme (1997) argue that it is likely to be more profitable to emphasise phoneme awareness even from the beginning reading stages. As is often the case, when several options are available and the evidence is not adequate to clearly support one or the other, the emphasis is most judiciously placed on the alternative that is most closely related to the reading process.

Thus, studies to now have raised more questions than answers about the   instructional usefulness of onset-rime as a means of gently approaching the difficult phoneme concept.

Phoneme Awareness

Awareness at the level of the phoneme has particular significance for the acquisition of reading because of its role in the development of the alphabetic principle - that the written word is simply a means of codifying the sound properties of the spoken word. In order to decode the written word, one needs to appreciate the logic of the writing system, and as a prerequisite, the logic of oral word production.

There are two requirements of beginning reading for which phonemic awareness becomes immediately relevant phonemic analysis and phonemic synthesis. For most children, the ability to produce the finer discrimination of phonemes begins in about Year I of their schooling (Ball, 1993). Individual phonemes are more difficult to specify because their acoustic values vary with the phonemes that precede and follow them in a word (a phenomenon called co-articulation), whereas syllables have relatively constant values in a word and hence are more readily recognised. The fact that consonants are "folded" into vowels can be understood by noting the different tongue positions for the beginning /d/ sound when it is followed by /oo/ and by /i/.

In most children the ability to synthesise (blend) sounds into words occurs earlier than analytic (segmentation) skills (Bryen & Gerber, 1987; Caravolas & Bruck, 1993; Solomons, 1992; Torgesen et al., 1992; Yopp, 1992). Thus, it is easier to respond with the word "cat" when presented with the sounds c - at or c-a-t, than it is to supply c-a-t when asked to tell what sounds you hear in "cat".

Tasks used to assess beginning (or shallow) phonemic awareness tend to emphasise sensitivity to rhyme and alliteration; for example, finding a word that begins or ends with the same sound as the stimulus word. A more complex task would involve the manipulation, or separation of sounds in a word, for example, What is the first sound you hear in "cat"? What word is left if you remove the /t/ from "stand"? (Torgesen et al., 1994). The shallow level of awareness typically develops during the pre-school years, the degree dependent on language experiences, and perhaps, a genetic component (Olson, Wise, Connors, Rack & Fulker, 1989; Rack, Hulme, & Snowling, 1993). Other tasks used for assessment may include counting the sounds in words, adding, deleting or manipulating sounds, and categorising sounds at the beginning, middle, or end of words. Most of the tests available thus far are informal and without norms, but see Torgesen and Bryant (1994a) for a normed test for young children. Whereas the research findings are very impressive, there is inevitably a delay before comprehensive, valid, and reliable tests are constructed and promulgated.

There are, as yet, no recognised tests that are able to delineate clearly the developmental stages, the skill levels of sensitivity and manipulation, and the at-risk from the normally progressing student.

As indicated above, deeper levels of awareness (i.e., at the phoneme level) tend to develop during Year (or Grade) 1 upon exposure to reading instruction. This raises the possibility that phonemic awareness may be a consequence of learning to read rather than a causal factor (Morais et al., 1987; Morais, 1991). The issue is not completely resolved; however, there is increasing consensus that the data are best explained by considering the relationship between phonemic awareness and reading development as a reciprocal one (Stanovich, 1992). A threshold level is necessary though not sufficient for beginning reading development, but as reading develops increasingly the student becomes more sensitive and better able to manipulate sounds at the phoneme level.

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Dr Kerry Hempenstall
Department of Psychology and Intellectual Disability Studies,
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT),
Plenty Rd., Bundoora,
Victoria, Australia. 3083.

Ph (61) 9925 7522 Fax (63) 9925 7303 Mobile 0418 357 041
Web Page - http//


August 14th, 1998

Dr. Kerry Hempenstall

Columnist - Senior Researcher

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