Phonemic  Awareness: Research Adapted from National  Reading Panel Report, 2000 

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear individual sounds in words.  It is the ability to hear the individual sounds of /c/, /a/, and /t/ in the word cat, and /sh/, /i/, and /p/ in the word ship.  One of the most robust findings of research over the last 20 years is the critical importance of phonemic awareness in beginning reading(Adams, 1990; Blachman, 1984; Bond & Dykstra, 1967; Ehri, 1992; Ehri & Wilce, 1985; Read, 1971; Stanovich, 1986).  Phonemic awareness appears to be a critically important prerequisite for young children in order to benefit from knowledge of the sound/symbol relationship.

Phonemes are different from graphemes; this is a critical point about phonemic awareness.  Graphemes are the written units of language that represent the phonemes(Venezky, 1970; 1999).  For example, graphemes include the letters “s” and “h” that make up the phoneme – a single sound - /sh/.  Graphemes are the written representations of sounds.  Graphemes can include a single letter, like the letter “m” that makes the sound /m/.  Graphemes can also include multiple letters such as the “igh” that can make the sound of long i,  and the “ph” letters that make the found /f/. 

Phonemic awareness is part of a larger set of skills that children acquire as they learn about print(Adams,1990).  For example, before children become phonemically aware, they usually learn how the oral speech system can be broken up into individual words, and how words can be further broken into individual syllables.  Important prerequisite skills for learning phonemic awareness, then, are skills such as being able to identify and point to individual words in sentences and to be able to clap individual syllables in words.  Identifying onsets and rhymes is also a skill that is often prerequisite to identifying individual sounds in words.  All of these tasks are less difficult for beginners(Liberman, Shankweiler, Fishcer, & Carter, 1974). 

Phonemic awareness occurs at several different levels.  Schatschneider, Frances, Foorman, Fletcher, and Mehta in 1999 broke the skill into the following subcomponents from easiest to most difficult:

  • Beginning sounds - /s/ in sun and /m/ in man
  • Blending onsets and rhymes - /s/ and /un/ become sun
  • Blending phonemes into real words /sh/ /i/ and /p/ become ship
  • Deleting a phoneme and saying the word that remains – sun without the /n/ is /su/
  • Segmenting words into phonemes – sun becomes /s/ /u/ /n/
  • Blending phonemes into nonwords - /f/ /o/ /p/ becomes fop

  Of particular relevance to this discussion is the question:  Can phonemic awareness be taught, and if it can, does it lead to reading acquisition?  Once again, research is robust in demonstrating that phonemic awareness can be taught, and that when it is taught effectively, improved reading achievement occurs.  In the National Reading Panel’s (NRP, 2000) analysis of instructional studies on phonemic awareness, the Panel found that phonemic awareness training had significant and long-term positive effects on reading.  Many different types of instruction have been shown to be effective – from Blachman, Ball, Black & Tangel’s (1994) program of “say it and move it” using Elkonin boxes to Williams (1980) segmentation and blending ABDs program to Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley’s (1991) sound Foundations for preschoolers.  Results demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that phonemic awareness training has both positive and lasting effects on reading achievement.

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Office of Special Programs
Building 6, Rm 304
1900 Kanawha Blvd
Charleston, WV 25305
Phone: 304-558-2696
Fax: 304-558-3741