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Pre-reading Skills

Phonology, Phonological Awareness, Phonograms,
Phonemes, Phoneme Awareness, Phonics


Phonology is the study of how speech sounds are used in English and other languages. Speech sounds include sounds such as ah, humm, moo.

Phonological Awareness is a general term describing a person's awareness that spoken words are made up of sounds. These sounds can be rearranged to make other words. This might seem obvious to some children but many of them need to be taught this technique. It is essential for developing reading skills.

Phonograms are vowel-consonant combinations such as op as in top, mop, stop. These are called word families.

Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language. They are the sounds that form syllables and words. For example, there are three phonemes in mat. Phonemes include sounds represented by letter combinations such as th. Keep in mind that phonemes are sounds.

Phoneme Awareness is essential in order to comprehend phonics. Hearing the distinct sounds must be done before identifying which sounds belong to the letters which represent the sounds.

Phonics is the system of written letters and letter combinations which represent the sounds in spoken language, e. g. the written letter, p, represents the sound at the beginning of pony. The written combination, th, represents the sound at the beginning of three.

Return to books about Phonics Failures and Fun with Phonology.

Teaching Tips

Before venturing into phonics instruction, the previously mentioned aspects of phonology are necessary. Hearing the sounds distinctly precedes linking them to the letters. Take care in purchasing toys which teach phonics. Be sure the letters are pronounced clearly and accurately.

Sounds in some words are very similar and are easily confused: the beginning sounds in bake and make; the middle sounds in middle and little; the ending sounds in can and can't when followed closely by other words. Phonological difficulties are not only in the realm of early education. Many English speaking people have difficulty distinguishing between the French ouu and oue sounds. Many Japanese have difficulty distinguishing between the English r and l sounds. Other languages present their own challenges.

Some languages have more phonemes than English and some have less. There are about 40 to 45 phonemes in English. Phonemic awareness helps lay a solid foundation for spelling and word recognition skills. The goal is not phoneme mastery. The goal is phoneme awareness.

Sometimes we focus on teaching rhymes and alliteration without enough attention to assonance in the interior of words. All of these are used in most poetic writing. For example, the phoneme p in these positions: pony, nap, apple. You can make your own illustrations: "My horse, a dapple gray, eats an apple every day." Have children find the sound p. (We aren't talking about printed letters at this point.) One of the first steps in demonstrating phoneme awareness is blending. The teacher pauses between each phoneme (n-a-p) and asks the child to blend or say the sounds quickly making a word. A more advanced task is for the teacher to say the word and ask the child to identify the individual phonemes.

It is even more advanced to have the child move phonemes around or delete them. Many examples are in Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss: hop, pop, up, cup, and more. For books, see Phonics Failures and Fun with Phonology. Remember to have fun with phonemes and other aspects of phonological awareness. Some phonemes can be so difficult they result in feelings of frustration and inadequacy rather than in building a solid foundation for reading. Diphthongs and glides can confuse anyone. Consider the complication of dictionary pronunciations versus local dialects.

It is recommended to begin phonics about age 5 after a firm foundation has been built in phonological awareness. A better foundation in phonics is built if children learn a few letters at a time. Consonants are the easiest to master and are usually taught first (all letters sounds except the vowels a, e, i, o, u). Preferably after mastering the consonants, first graders and second graders learn the sounds of vowels and letter combinations including suffixes such as ing and ed. Hearing the differences comes more easily to some children than to others. See the books about Phonics Failures and Fun with Phonology.

Children need to practice spelling words using their knowledge of phonics. That is a good way to help children internalize the use of phonics in writing. There have been increasing doubts raised about values of the fad, invented spelling, as it relates to recognizing words in books and, indeed, the child’s ability to read his or her own writing.

Teaching letter-sounds is not enough. We need to teach phonograms (word families) which are vowel-consonant combinations such as op as in top, mop, stop, and ake as in make, bake, rake . We also need to work with blending when teaching children how to sound out words. An example is a child who slowly and correctly sounded out s-a-i-d several times before he blended the letters into a word he recognized. He exclaimed, “Said! That word is said!" In addition to phonics, important reading skills which lead to comprehension are fluency and vocabulary development. See the lesson for using music to expand vocabulary. Readers also need a foundation in Dolch sight words. See Dolch sight word activities which includes an explanation about their importance.

Good phonics’ skills help readers throughout life in approaching unknown words including ones in a foreign language. One of the first steps in reading a foreign language is to become familiar with their system of phonemes and phonics, i. e. the smallest units of spoken language and how the sounds are represented by written symbols.

Return to books about Phonics Failures and Fun with Phonology.