In Equipped for Reading Success, Dr. David Kilpatrick emphasizes the far-reaching effects of reading on academics, behavior, self-confidence, and future opportunities.

For students who struggle with reading, he notes that “rarely do weak readers catch up.” Research consistently indicates that many reading challenges can be prevented and that struggling readers are capable of making more significant progress if educators recognize the critical skills that build a strong foundation from the start.

Phonemic awareness is one of these critical skills and a strong predictor of future reading success. It is an area of essential skill development that deserves our full attention. To better understand the importance of this skill, Kilpatrick looks to the overarching goal of reading: comprehension.

Skilled readers are fluent readers. They can focus on what they are reading because they have developed the ability to recognize words automatically. Unlike struggling readers, skilled readers are not faced with the laborious process of sounding out words or guessing. Regular and irregular words are distinguished effortlessly, known as “sight words.” How is this possible? Skilled readers store words through a process called orthographic mapping.

Orthographic mapping is an active and instant recognition process that allows us to see a word and instantly map the parts of the whole. The process does not occur in a left-to-right progression but rather as a string of letters in a unit.

When we map, we recognize, discriminate, and activate meaning all at once. Our brain retrieves this information from stored “files” that have developed over time and exposure and begin in early childhood with phonological awareness.


What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the awareness that words are composed of sounds, and those sounds have distinct articulatory features. People with dyslexia lack the basic phonemic awareness that most individuals have, and they may have a hard time with reading comprehension, spelling, writing, vocabulary, and fluency.

Consider phonemic awareness as an umbrella term that describes three essential skill levels that are the foundation for reading: syllable level, onset-rime level, and phoneme level.

Syllable Level Teaching students to hear the parts of the whole word and identify them as syllables will assist with syllable division and decoding multisyllabic words in reading.

Onset-Rime Level Activities can expose students to word families and practice the segmentation of the onset (initial phonological unit before the vowel) and the rime (a string of letters that follow). Examples are p-an, s-at, st-all.

Phoneme Level Children acquire phonemic awareness when they can identify beginning sounds in words, blend sounds to make a word, and count the individual sounds within a word.

Students who do not develop phonemic awareness skills are at risk of struggling with reading in their future years. Phonemic awareness is an area that all teachers should become familiar with and consider a critical skill for developing readers.

Be sure to check out the rest of our blog series on How to Teach Phonemic Awareness:


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