Phonemic awareness is described as an insight about oral language and in particular about the segmentation of sounds, that are used in speech communication. Phonemic awareness is characterized in terms of the facility of the language learner to manipulate the sounds of oral speech. A child who possesses phonemic awareness can segment sounds in words (for example, pronounce just the first sound heard in the word top) and blend strings of isolated sounds together to form recognizable word forms.
The term phonemic awareness is used alongside with the term phonological awareness, which refers to an understanding about the smallest units of sound that make up the speech stream known as phonemes. Phonological awareness encompasses larger units of sound as well, such as syllables, onsets, and rimes.
Speech scientists have discovered that the human brain is specifically adapted for processing many different kinds of linguistic information, and one part of our biological endowment allows us to process the complex phonological information in speech without actually being aware of the individual phonemes themselves. This is one of the human abilities that make acquiring speech a natural process, so that almost everyone in the world learns to speak a language with very little direct instruction.
Since phonemes are represented by letters in print, learning to read requires children to become consciously aware of phonemes as individual segments in words. In fact, phonological awareness is most commonly defined as one’s sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of words in one’s language. In short, it involves the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate the individual sounds in words.
One of the early signs of emerging sensitivity to the phonological structure of words is the ability to play rhyming games. In order to tell whether two words rhyme, the child must attend to the sounds in the words rather than to the meaning of the words. In addition, the child must focus attention on only one part of a word rather than on the way it sounds as a whole. As children grow in awareness of the phonemes in words, they become able to judge whether words have the same first or last sounds; with further development, they become able to isolate and pronounce the first, last, or middle sounds in words. At its highest levels of development, awareness of individual phonemes in words is evidenced by the ability to separately pronounce the sounds in even multi-syllable words or to tell exactly how two words like task and tacks are different. (The order of the last two phonemes is reversed.)
In our language, the alphabetic principle presents two important learning challenges to children. First, individual phonemes are not readily apparent as individual segments in normal speech. When we say the word dog, for example, the phonemes overlap with one another (they are co-articulated), so that we hear a single burst of sound rather than three individual segments. Co-articulating the phonemes in words (e.g., starting to pronounce the second phoneme, /r/, in the word frost while we are still saying the first phoneme, /f/) makes speech fluent, but it also makes it hard for many children to become aware of phonemes as individual segments of sound within words. The second challenge presented by the alphabetic principle in our language is that there is not always a regular one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. For example, some phonemes are represented by more than one letter (e.g., ch, sh, wh, ai, oi). In addition, sometimes the phoneme represented by a letter changes, depending on other letters in the word (not vs. note, fit vs. fight, not vs. notion), or pronunciation of parts of some words may not follow any regular letter-phoneme correspondence...
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