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Building Blocks for Learning How to Read

What are the skills a child needs in order to learn how to read?


Many people would answer that children need to know phonics. That is certainly true. When you see the word “bat” you do need to know that the letter B makes the /b/ sound in order to read the word. However, there are skills that come before letter recognition and letter sound correspondence. These skills build on each other and are building blocks for learning how to read. After all, the main components of reading instruction are:

  • Phonemic awareness

  • Phonics

  • Fluency

  • Vocabulary

  • Comprehension

So, what is phonemic awareness?

It is the ability to hear and manipulate the smallest sounds in the speech stream. Keep in mind that while there are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are approximately 40 phonemes. It is important for children to be able to hear the smallest sounds so they can begin to understand that these small sounds make up words. Phonemic awareness begins with phonological awareness, which are related to the larger sounds we hear.

Early Phonological Awareness

  • Rhyming

  • Alliteration

  • Segmenting words into syllables and onsets and rimes

Basic Phonemic Awareness

  • Phoneme blending and segmentationBlending: Put the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ together

  • Segmenting: what are the sounds you hear in the word “cat”?

Advanced Phonemic Awareness

Deleting

Say stop without the /t/

Manipulating

Say slap. Now say it again but reverse the /s/ and the /p/.

Phonemic awareness skills are related to the the speech stream, but we need these skills to help us determine how to spell words. David Kilpatrick (2015) has illustrated the link between advanced phoneme manipulation skills and sight word recognition. Being able to manipulate phonemes is tied to our ability to pull words apart and store and retrieve them effortlessly.


For many students, the skills above develop naturally and in concert with reading acquisition. However, if a student struggles in this area intervention is necessary. Many reading programs now incorporate phonemic awareness instruction and there are also plenty of activities teachers and parents can do to bolster phonemic awareness skills.


What can you do at home?

  • Play games like “I Spy” but with rhyming words or beginning letters. For example, when you’re in the grocery aisle you can say, “I see a vegetable that begins with the /c/ sound. Can you guess what it is?”

  • At dinner, you can play “Make a Change.” If a child wants more pasta, tell him to ask again but change the /p/ to a /m/ sound or have him come up with the change himself.

Above all, read as much as possible to and with your child. Rhyming books such as those by Dr. Seuss or nursery rhymes provide ample opportunity to point out rhymes and build your child’s love of reading.


Lynn Carpenter

Director of Instructional Support

The Churchill School and Center

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