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Phoneme Awareness

One of the most basic building blocks of speech is the phoneme, and to gain knowledge of the alphabetic principle, a child must be consciously aware that spoken words are comprised of phonemes. Further, that child must be consciously aware of the fact that phonemes can be substituted and rearranged to create different words (e.g. SIGN and NICE both contain the same three phonemes).

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Terminology can get very confusing when talking about speech sounds, but teachers should become familiar with these "phon" terms, and they should know how they differ from each other. We have already discussed phonology (the ability to discriminate between similar speech sounds in different words, such as HERE and HAIR). Now we will discuss two more terms -- phonological awareness and phoneme awareness.

Phonological awareness is a general term, and phoneme awareness is a specific term which is covered by the phonological awareness umbrella. As such, there are many tests that can be described as phonological awareness tests, but only a few of those tests are specific enough to also be called phoneme awareness tests.

Phonological awareness tests measure the child's knowledge that words are made up of sounds (linguists call this a "metalinguistic" skill), while phoneme awareness tests are tests which examine the child's specific knowledge that words are made up of phonemes.

So, to test phonological awareness, one could ask the child to rhyme words (expressive) or to pick words that rhyme out of a set (receptive). The child's ability to rhyme reflects an appreciation of the sounds within words, and an implicit understanding that words are made up of sounds.

Similarly, the child's appreciation of alliteration (words that start with the same sound) can be tested. The child's ability to produce words that start with the same sound (e.g. what word starts with the same sound as the word MILK?), or the child's ability to match words based on alliteration (e.g. which words start with the same sound - MAN, MORE, FISH) also reflect the child's understanding that words are made up of sounds.

Children's awareness of the fact that words are made up of sounds can also be assessed through word length comparisons - a child is (orally) presented with two words, and is asked to determine which word is longer. This assessment is especially effective for young children if the phonemes of one word are contained within the second word (e.g. KING and KINGDOM or PIE and SPY - note that PIE and SPY have the same number of letters and are therefore equal length when written, but SPY has more phonemes and is therefore longer when spoken).

Another test of phonological awareness involves the child's ability to break spoken words up into parts - the child would say the word out loud, but would pause after saying each part. This type of task is called a "segmentation" task, and it can be used in a variety of ways. First, a child could be asked to segment compound words into their parts (as in "BASE (*pause*) BALL").

Similarly, a child can be asked to segment words into syllables (e.g. "PEN (*pause*) CIL"). Also, a child can segment the onset of the word (the sound or sounds before the vowel) and the rest of the word (sometimes called the "rime" - not to be confused with "rhyme"). In an onset-rime segmentation task, the words are almost always monosyllabic, and the child would say each word with a pause after the onset (e.g. "M (*pause*) OON")

The opposite of segmentation is blending, and every test of phonological awareness that involves segmentation can be reversed and used as a blending test. In a blending test, the teacher would say each word with pauses in the appropriate places, and the child would try to figure out what word the teacher is saying. Blending is usually much easier for children than segmentation.

Segmentation and blending techniques can also be used when testing phoneme awareness, but in a phoneme awareness task, the pauses would be inserted after each phoneme (either when the teacher segments the word or when the student segments the word). So in a phoneme segmentation task, a pause is inserted after each phoneme (/sat/ Þ /s/ /a/ /t/), and in a phoneme blending task, a segmented word is blended together to make a whole word (/s/ /a/ /t/ Þ /sat/).

In addition to phoneme segmentation or blending tasks, there are several other phoneme awareness tasks that can be used to show that the child is aware of all of the phonemes in spoken words. For example, a child can be asked to count the number of phonemes in a word (e.g. how many phonemes are in the word PIN?), or a child may be asked to delete a phoneme from a word (e.g. What would PIN be if you took out the /p/ sound?), or add a phoneme (Add an /s/ sound to the beginning of PIN), or substitute a phoneme (replace the /i/ in PIN with an /a/ sound). Also, children can be asked to rearrange the sounds in a word (move the first sound of SIT to the end - Note, children who have been taught "Pig Latin" are particularly good at this task.).

Finally, children clearly have phoneme awareness if they are able to identify a phoneme in different words. Children should know that the words SAT and TOP both contain the /t/ sound, and that GAME and PLAY both contain the long /a/ sound.

Some of these phoneme and phonological awareness tasks are harder than others. Blending is easiest, but can be made more difficult if the word, when blended together, does not form a word that the child is familiar with (e.g. SAZ or VIKE). Segmentation is more difficult than blending, and becomes considerably more difficult if the word to be segmented contains consonant clusters (sometimes called digraphs -- e.g. MASK, SPIN or SLIP). Phoneme addition, deletion and manipulation -- the most difficult tasks -- are also made more difficult by creating words the child is unfamiliar with, and by adding consonant clusters.