Key to the process of learning to read is Mia's ability to identify the different sounds that make words and to associate these sounds with written words. In order to learn to read, Mia must be aware of phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest functional unit of sound. For example, the word cat contains three distinctly different sounds. There are 44 phonemes in the English language, including letter combinations such as /th/.
In addition to identifying these sounds, Mia must also be able to manipulate them. Word play involving segmenting words into their constituent sounds, rhyming words, and blending sounds to make words is also essential to the reading process. The ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language is called phonological awareness. Adams (1990) described five levels of phonological awareness ranging from an awareness of rhyme to being able to switch or substitute the components in a word. While phonological awareness affects early reading ability, the ability to read also increases phonological awareness (Smith, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995).
Many children with learning disabilities have deficiencies in their ability to process phonological information. Thus, they do not readily learn how to relate letters of the alphabet to the sounds of language (Lyon, 1995). For all students, the processes of phonological awareness, including phonemic awareness, must be explicitly taught.
Children from culturally diverse backgrounds may have particular difficulties with phonological awareness. Exposure to language at home, exposure to reading at an early age, and dialect all affect the ability of children to understand the phonological distinctions on which the English language is built. Teachers must apply sensitive effort and use a variety of techniques to help children learn these skills when standard English is not spoken at home (Lyon, 1994).