Phonemic awareness is essentially the recognition that our language is made up of unique sounds. A phoneme is the smallest phonetic unit in a language capable of conveying distinction in meaning. For example /s/ and /m/ are different phonemes because they cannot be used interchangeably, ie., sat and mat are two different words. However the sounds “th” makes in “thin” versus “the” are not two separate phonemes. They are allophones because the two variants do not signify different words. Depending on the speaker, there are approximately 40 to 45 phonemes in English which is above average for world languages. Phonemic awareness is a critical pre-reading skill because without knowledge that the language is made up of unique sounds that are put together to form words, the introduction of letters as representative of those sounds will be meaningless.
Phonemic awareness is not phonics and does not involve the introduction of letters. Phonemic awareness activities are purely oral.
Rhyming games are excellent means of improving this skill. Read a familiar rhyming poem and emphasize the rhyming words…once you may shout them and another time whisper them. Read the rhyme, stopping at the rhyming word for your child to shout it out. This only takes a few moments but children quickly begin listening for rhymes in their favorite poems. Also try extending the rhymes with your own:
Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
Jill, hill, what rhymes with hill?
Spill, mill, fill, Bill, will….
Made up words count, too!
Onset rime refers to beginning sounds. You can try to think of as many words as you can that begin with the same sound: hil, hat, horse, hug…
End rime refers to ending sounds. This is usually a little trickier for children learning, but once they understand rhyme and are doing well with onset rime, you can try this as well. What do “bat,” “kit” and “sought” have in commong? They all end in /t/. (Remember the sound /t/ not the letter “t.”
I used to have a puppet with a bit of a speech problem my pre-K kids loved. On different days there were different sounds he had difficulty pronouncing. I would read a story deleting all of one sound (say /l/). The chidren would isten carefuy and te me what etter he couldn’t say. Then we would practice the /l/ sound. The children would make the sound, describe whether or not they used their voice to make it (yes), explain where their tongue was while they said it (top of the mouth, behind the teeth) and tell me whether the mouth was open or closed (open). When practicing a phoneme like this, it is also helpful to have a child feel their nose and their throat to detect vocalization and nasalization. Looking in a mirror helps them “see” the differences as well.
For anyone interested, here are some links describing my basic outlook on reading. They are sort of my “literacy framework,” I guess. Here I define reading and here I set the foundations for reading. This is really the context in which I teach literacy skills.