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Reading is an essential skill we teach our students in school. For students to do well in math, they need to read story problems. In STEM, students read informational text and directions. Reading affects so much of our lives and is a critical component of being a productive citizen! That’s why teaching phonological awareness for early readers is a fundamental skill.

What’s the Difference?

When you look at phonological and phonemic awareness, you might think they are the same. However, each focuses on a very different skill set in reading. So what’s the difference?

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness focuses on specific sounds, otherwise known as phonemes. For example, when you are teaching students a word, you break it up sound by sound. Therefore, if you’re learning the word “mat,” you would focus on three different phonemes. Phonemic awareness also looks at combination sounds like /th/ and /ch/. While many people feel this is where we need to start, it is only part of the equation. 

Phonological Awareness

While phonemic awareness focuses on individual sounds, phonological awareness is a broader skillset students use when reading. For example, when students have phonological awareness skills, they will recognize rhyme and alliteration. With phonological awareness being a focal point for early readers, students can hear and manipulate sound structures. For example, if you’re looking at rhyme, students can see that rat, bat, and cat all rhyme and have a similar pattern.

Phonological skills include:

Benefits of Teaching Phonological Awareness to Early Readers

If you are working with struggling readers, chances are they have not developed the skills they need concerning phonological and phonemic awareness. Teaching phonological awareness and phonemic awareness can help early readers make connections faster. 

In reading, children need to distinguish the sounds in three different locations: at the beginning of words, at the end of terms; and in the middle of words. All are three different skill sets. Once children master these skills, they need to learn how to blend sounds to make a full word. As words become more complex, students use more complex phonemic awareness skills to build upon one another.

Benefit 1: Recognizing Patterns

Students who have an idea of the sounds specific patterns of words make, like a cat, bat, and rat, recognize these patterns in other words. We all know there is no way to teach every single word in the English language. Because of this, we know students are going to encounter unfamiliar words. If we teach phonological awareness to early readers, they will recognize these patterns in more difficult words and sound them out accordingly.

Benefit 2: Teaches Sound to Early Readers

One aspect of phonological awareness in early readers is the use of alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of a sound. When students see this repetition of sound, they start to learn phonemes while they are reading. Completing these oral language activities ultimately makes teaching phonemic awareness that much easier down the road. You can help with phonological awareness by teaching sounds with fun activities in your classroom.

Benefit 3: Understanding How Words Work

Research has shown the importance of NOT teaching students to “sound out” words but rather guide them to understand the pattern of words and manipulate them to decipher more difficult words. Teachers who focus on phonological awareness help students understand such skills as syllable recognition and rhyme to help them once they move to examine the written word.

Benefit 4: Differentiating Meaning with Phonological Awareness for Early Readers

Phonological awareness teaches rhyme, alliteration, syllables, and more. Because of this, students can decipher words at a higher level. Teaching students how to produce sounds and words is just the first step. Once they understand sounds, they need to learn how to use the letters to build and read words. Then, of course, use words to create sentences, paragraphs, and, eventually, stories.

Phonemic and phonological awareness are both critical in early readers. However, studies have shown that students who struggle with reading are missing phonological and phonemic awareness skills. Therefore, teaching phonological awareness for early readers in your classroom is a skill that can save them in the long run. 

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