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Implementing Phonemic Awareness with English Language Learners

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Modified on September 28, 2023

Phonemic awareness is a foundational cornerstone for students’ future fluency. For decades, phonemes and phones have been part of the conversation when it comes to foundational parts of literacy. In the 1990s, phonics was a growing subject in the realm of fluency, thanks to the Hooked on Phonics program. This program was created in 1987 by a father who wanted to help his son who was struggling to read. But the research around phonics and phonemic awareness goes back long before the 1990s, and phonics was more so a response to the research about phonemic and phonological awareness. In the 1940s, psychologists observed that children with reading disabilities struggled to break down individual words into their sounds as well as put them back together again. From there, the research continued throughout the years because studies quickly revealed a correlation between a student’s ability to learn how to read and their sound awareness—also known as phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is crucial for successful reading instruction for teachers and comprehension for students. According to Dr. Kay MacPhee in her article “The Critical Role of Phonemic Awareness in Reading Instruction,” she states: “Fluent reading relies on students developing their phonemic awareness to the point of automaticity, freeing up their brain energy to easily comprehend what they’re reading.” Therefore, explicit phonemic awareness instruction at an early age has long-term benefits for students that will one day impact their ability to read and comprehend what they are reading. Without this skill, learning in all subjects—not just reading—becomes increasingly more challenging. 

In this article, we’ll discuss what phonemic awareness is, from its basics to its challenges, and we’ll provide different strategies that can help when it comes to teaching phonemic awareness. While it is important and foundational for all students who are learning how to read, it is especially important for teaching English language learners.

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

In short, phonemic awareness is the ability to understand that words are made up of smaller individual sounds called phonemes. But phonemic awareness is more intricate than such a simple definition. Instead, research shows that phonemic awareness is one simple part of a larger umbrella or web of skills that must be taught more explicitly and intentionally to students early on in their reading and literacy development. 

There are three main concepts that are often brought up when teaching literacy and fluency: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics. There are distinct differences between these three things, even though they are closely related. While many people may be familiar with the concepts of phonics thanks to its popularity in the 1990s, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness must be incorporated into explicit instruction as well. Phonics instruction involves more of the printed letters themselves and the sounds they make, while phonological and phonemic awareness involve the oral and auditory sounds and syllables. If students are not aware of the sounds, they will not be able to attach them to the letters. 

This awareness of certain sounds will be new to students who are learning in their native language, but there is a whole separate level of newness that English language learners will experience. Therefore, a teacher must be explicit and intentional with their instruction to best meet the needs of all their students. Teachers must know the levels and basics of phonemic awareness to lay the foundation for reading comprehension of more complex texts in the future. 

Phonemic awareness is just one part of “The Big 5 of Reading.” These include phonemic awareness, phonics/advanced word study, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each of these components can be broken down into their own subcategories. Within phonemic awareness, there are several layers or levels.  According to Marilyn Jager Adams in her book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, there are five levels of phonemic awareness:

  1. “Basic ability to hear the sounds of words as measured by nursery rhymes

  2. Ability to compare and contrast the sounds of words for rhyme or alliteration

  3. Comfortable familiarity with the idea that words can be split into small sounds and awareness of blending and syllable-splitting

  4. Thorough understanding that words can be analyzed into a series of phonemes

  5. Ability to add, delete, or move any phoneme and generate a word or nonword as a result”

Knowing the different levels of phonemic awareness can help when it comes to distinguishing the difference between phonological and phonemic awareness. It can also help when it comes to choosing different strategies to address different challenges. Students may struggle with only one or two parts of the phonemic awareness process, and therefore being able to hone in on certain areas of weakness can be beneficial in planning instruction.

Distinguish the Difference Between Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness

While phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are often interchangeable in people’s minds, there is a difference between the two. Phonological awareness is the larger umbrella under which phonemic awareness resides. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds in a spoken language. This involves larger chunks of the language and is a more ongoing process of learning. The phonological awareness continuum includes phonemic, onset-rime, syllable, and word awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the smallest units of sound within a spoken word. Phonemic awareness is often the first step of phonological awareness and sets up the basics before moving on to more complex concepts.

With good phonological and phonemic awareness, students will be able to participate in activities that involve blending, segmenting, adding, deleting, and substituting. The development of these skills largely takes place during kindergarten and first grade, and students who are phonologically aware at an early age gain the benefit of future success in literacy skills. 

Basics of Phonemic Awareness

There are several basic components to phonemic awareness and a child’s ability to differentiate sounds when spoken. First is rhyming. Students are often more aware of words that rhyme than they are of individual sounds. This is in large part due to the songlike nursery rhymes children are raised on. Next is blending and segmenting. Students begin to break words down into their sounds and then put them back together, even if they don’t have a complete understanding of the individual phonemes. This usually happens orally before it can happen on paper with written letters. After this comes the knowledge of the individual sounds. This includes isolating and identifying beginning, middle, and end sounds of a word. For example, with the word “cat,” students can correctly isolate and identify the three different sounds of “c,” then “a,” then “t.” Finally, with all the previous knowledge, students begin to be able to add, delete, and substitute letters to create new sounds and new words. 

Much of the direct instruction of these basics happens in kindergarten. With the successful progression of these basic steps, students are able to start elementary school as confident speakers. 

Challenges of Phonemic Awareness

Unfortunately, there is an institutional lack of thorough instruction of phonemic awareness. Some of this is due to a lack of teacher training, and some of it is due to learning difficulties. Issues with phonemic awareness may cause students to struggle to isolate, identify, or distinguish different phonemes. 

Research shows that phonological awareness difficulties can impact a child’s reading and speaking as well as other aspects of their lives. These difficulties can create barriers that could affect a child’s speech and overall ability to communicate, which can in turn negatively affect self-esteem, friendships, and work. Some of these difficulties may be overcome through more effective instruction, while others may need speech and language therapy to help with confidence and communication.

There are several main challenges to be aware of when teaching phonemic awareness. Some of these involve challenges with hearing sounds and how that affects the development of vowel sounds and acquisition of new words. Without the ability to create new words with new sounds, students then lose some vital literacy skills. 

The likelihood of these challenges may increase when teaching English language learners. When instruction is not in your native language, some of the sounds are new or unfamiliar and therefore harder to grasp. This is why it is important to be aware of these challenges so instruction can be made clearer. 

Unclear Speech

The challenge of unclear speech is a large factor when learning phonemic awareness. Some students may have trouble producing certain sounds, therefore causing their speech to become unclear. This is a challenge especially common for English language learners, as they may already be accustomed to different speech patterns and sounds from their native language. However, while some unclear speech is a product of difficulty speaking, some unclear speech is a product of difficulty hearing.  

Difficulty Hearing Correctly

Another challenge when it comes to phonemic awareness instruction involves hearing. Sound recognition is directly related to sound production. Therefore, if a student has trouble hearing correctly, they are then likely to have trouble verbalizing correct sounds. When it comes to English language learners, they may have trouble hearing sounds that are “common” to the English language.  

Difficulties with Literacy and Reading Skills

If a student struggles with hearing or speaking phonemes, then it is likely they will have trouble when it comes to connecting those oral and auditory sounds to visual written letters. Students usually learn to “read” with their ears and their mouths before they learn to read with their eyes.

Strategies of Phonemic Awareness for Teaching

The challenges of phonemics are a reality all teachers must face, but there are also a number of tips, activities, and strategies for teachers that will help with phonemic awareness instruction. Many may already know simple tips, like focusing on one sound or syllable at a time so as not to overwhelm students, but there are more-engaging strategies to incorporate as well. Some of these include fun games, creative songs and rhymes, or hands-on activities.

Some of these strategies are geared specifically for teaching phonemic awareness to English language learners. Including words from the student’s native language and comparing words and sounds can help build connections between someone’s first language and their second. 

Each teacher should try to incorporate a variety of strategies into their teaching to address all the learning styles of the different students. A more well-rounded approach in the classroom can be both explicit and engaging simultaneously, providing both content and connection for students.

Fun Games for Phonemic Awareness

One of the best practices for teaching English to foreign students is to make it fun. Children love to play, so finding games they can participate in and learn from can generate great success in the classroom. For example, drawing or illustrating a phonetic alphabet or using tongue twisters can incorporate fun moments into a sometimes routine subject. Games can be used to help teach students blending, segmenting, rhyming, and more.

Include Words from the Student’s Native Language

Including some words from a student’s native language can help for a number of reasons. First, it can help show students the process of sounding out words in their native language is the same process as it is in the English language. If students can see some similar patterns, processes, or sounds between the two languages, then they can gain more confidence within the lesson. Building this type of connection can help students get more out of their phonemic awareness lessons and ultimately improve their language skills. 

Compare and Distinguish Between Words with Related Sounds

Comparing words and sounds can assist English language learners who may be struggling with phonemic awareness. Comparisons can lead to connections, and comparisons can lead to a better understanding of differentiation as well. 

Hands-On Activities for Students

Hands-on activities can help teach English language learners letter and sound relationships. This can range from traditional activities such as writing, listening intently for identification, or quizzes, to more creative activities like using manipulatives or magnetic letters students can physically move. 

Importance of Teaching Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is of the utmost importance when it comes to speaking, reading, and writing. Without it, one fails to manipulate the phonemes, or letter sounds. The knowledge of how these sounds work within a language is foundational, especially when it comes to learning English as a second language. Studies have shown that “students who were native English speakers had stronger phonological awareness skills relative to English language learners.” Because of this, teachers must recognize the importance of their instruction and the impact it has on a student’s literacy skills. Methods that focus too heavily on phonics and writing letters may lose sight of the phonemes and sounds themselves. Then, students may be tempted to view reading as memorization rather than true understanding. 

Because of all this, it should come as no surprise teachers hold a vital role in student success—maybe even the most important role. That is why it is so crucial to have informed teachers who feel equipped with knowledge and strategies to handle the challenges of teaching concepts like phonemic awareness. Data shows that “while teachers are the MOST essential factor in student success, only 49 percent of teaching institutions effectively prepare teachers for literacy instruction.” This statistic is alarming and presents a challenge to educational institutions and businesses to do a better job of equipping teachers. Providing teachers with science, research, strategies, and programs can produce more effective teachers, which can subsequently enhance the success of student learning.

The Read Well® Research Foundation says it well: “To be successful and compete in a global economy in the 21st century, students must be not only literate, but also capable of analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, and drawing cogent conclusions about written material independently, which will lead them to become productive problem solvers.” A lot of this starts in the early years with a strong foundation in literacy. Because of the research, this is one of the main goals of Voyager Sopris Learning®. We aim to provide educators with the tools necessary—like phonological awareness instruction—to enhance childhood literacy and set children up for a lifetime of learning. 

Learning for Better Understanding

Something as seemingly simple as the awareness of sounds can have a long-term effect on a student’s learning. Phonemic awareness is a critical step that many move through too quickly, either interchanging it for phonics instruction or simply teaching it too briefly. The sounds students will understand through direct phonemic instruction will set them up for more successful reading and literacy development. Voyager Sopris Learning wants to help make this success a reality for all students and teachers. We have research-based reading programs that specifically target the five essential components of literacy, beginning with phonemic awareness.