Teaching phonics - the basics

Phonological awareness

Let’s move now to ‘phonological awareness’ – usefully interpreted as a lifelong development centred on the ability to ‘chuck’ for sound. How do children develop phonological awareness and what does this involve. Suffice to say that phonological awareness is an umbrella term covering a range of increasingly finely-tuned developments, underpinned by the ever-more conscious awareness of, and ability to manipulate, the sounds of language. A high level of phonological awareness is the ability to engage in spoonerisms: turning ‘car park’ into ‘par cark’ and ‘cat-nap’ into ‘nat-cap’, for example.

So what, then, is the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness? It is useful here to consider phonemic awareness as a vital stage in the overall development of phonological awareness. Within the term ‘phonemic’ is the notion of a phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in language that changes meaning. Take the word ‘cat’ – change the initial sound from ‘c’ to ‘th’ or ‘f’ and the meaning of the original word is changed; change the middle sound to ‘u’ or ‘o’ and ‘cat’ becomes ‘cut’ or ‘cot’; change the final sound to ‘p’ or ‘ch’ and ‘cat’ becomes ‘cap’ or ‘catch’. Phonemic awareness, therefore, is the conscious understanding that words are made up of individual sounds (phonemes) and that these sounds are represented through the alphabet. Activities that require phonemic awareness include alliteration, ‘spot the odd one out’ tasks, phoneme segmentation, phoneme blending and phoneme manipulation.

Phonetics concerns the articulation and acoustic features of speech sounds. Articulatory phonetics explains the distinction between consonants and vowels and can help listeners identify the phonemic pattern of words.

Parallel distinctions exist for talking about knowledge of the written letters. Thus, a grapheme is the smallest unit of written language that changes the meaning of a word and graphemic awareness, the awareness, sensitivity to and ability to manipulate graphemes to change the meaning of a word.