Thursday, August 5, 2010

Can you say, "Phonological Awareness"?

To understand phonological awareness, we must first know what a phoneme is. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in our language that makes a difference in a word’s meaning. For example, the word cat has three phonemes, /k/ /a/ /t/. By changing the first phoneme, we can produce the word rat. Changing the second phoneme creates the word cut, and we can create the word cab by altering the final phoneme. Words in the English language are composed of strings of phonemes. This is fortunate because it allows us to create all the words we will ever need by using various combinations of just 44 different speech sounds.

Speech scientists have discovered that the human brain is specifically adapted for processing many different kinds of linguistic information, and one part of our biological endowment allows us to process the complex phonological information in speech without actually being aware of the individual phonemes themselves. This is one of the human abilities that makes acquiring speech a natural process, so that almost everyone in the world learns to speak a language with very little direct instruction. However, because phonemes are represented by letters in print, learning to read requires that children become consciously aware of phonemes as individual segments in words. In fact, phonological awareness is most commonly defined as one’s sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of words in one’s language. In short, it involves the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate the individual sounds in words.

One of the early signs of emerging sensitivity to the phonological structure of words is the ability to play rhyming games. In order to tell whether two words rhyme, the child must attend to the sounds in the words rather than to the meaning of the words. In addition, the child must focus attention on only one part of a word rather than on the way it sounds as a whole. As children grow in awareness of the phonemes in words, they become better able to judge whether words have the same first or last sounds; with further development, they become able to isolate and pronounce the first, last, or middle sounds in words. At its highest levels of development, awareness of individual phonemes in words is evidenced by the ability to separately pronounce the sounds in even multi-syllable words or to tell exactly how two words like task and tacks are different.

Acquiring phonological awareness involves two things: learning that words can be divided into segments of sound smaller than a syllable, and learning about individual phonemes themselves. As children acquire more and more conscious knowledge of the distinctive features of phonemes (how they sound when they occur in words, or how they feel when they are pronounced), they become more adept at noticing their identity and order when they occur in words. For example, while children in the first semester of first grade might be able to isolate and identify the first or last sound of a word like man, by the end of first grade, most children can easily, and relatively automatically, segment all the sounds in a more complex word like clap.