Phonemic Awareness for Young Learners

Written by: Tsvetelina Harakchiyska
University of Rousse, tharakchiyska@ecs.ru.acad.bg

Because this writing is long and uses advanced formatting, it’s also available for download in MS Word .DOC format

Introduction

Foreign language education in the recent years in Europe and across the world is orientated towards the new requirements and methods of language teaching and learning which focus on the development of students’ communicative language competence. This means that the aim of foreign language education is the development of speakers of a language who no longer possess “mastery” of one or two or even three languages but who are linguistically and socio-culturally competent. This new dimension of language learning finds expression in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (2001) which presents the general and communicative competences a learner should possess, the different levels of learner achievement and the criteria for evaluation and assessment of language learners.

Still in order to become interculturally and linguistically competent foreign language learners should acquire the linguistic, sociolinguistic and pragmatic competences which would allow them to organize, systematize, use and assimilate the new language items and deal with the social dimensions of language. This, however, could be achieved only if language learners are able to auditory discriminate and produce the phonemes of the target language, to correctly associate a foreign language phoneme with its grapheme and to resolve a continuous stream of sounds into a meaningful structured string of phonemes. All these skills, which are part of phonemic awareness, would allow a learner to read and write correctly in the target language, to understand other speakers of the language and to be able to interact with them using coherent and well-structured statements. Therefore, the aim of the current paper is to explore the opportunities for phonemic awareness training in grade three and four English language curricula in Bulgaria and to give some practical ideas on how to make phonemic awareness easy and fun in the foreign language classroom.

Phonemic awareness

Before we immerse ourselves in the exploration of the above mentioned English language school curricula, it is worth turning our attention to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (2001) which provides a common basis for foreign language curricula development and which states the strategic components directly related to phonemic awareness, i.e. the phonetic competence and the phonological knowledge and skills to be acquired by a language learner (Table 1).

Table 1 General phonetic awareness and skills and phonological competence[1]

GENERAL PHONETIC AWARENESS AND SKILLS PHONOLOGICAL COMPETENCE
  • an ability to distinguish and produce unfamiliar sounds and prosodic patterns;
  • an ability to perceive and catenate unfamiliar sound sequences;
  • an ability, as a listener, to resolve (i.e. divide into distinct and significant parts) a continuous stream of sound into a meaningful structured string of phonological elements;
  • an understanding / mastery of the process of sound perception and production applicable to the new language learning
Involves the knowledge of, and skills in the perception and production of:

  • the sound units (phonemes) of the language and their realization in particular contexts (allophones)
    • the phonetic features which distinguish phonemes (distinctive features, e.g. voicing, rounding, nasality, plosion);
    • the phonetic composition of words (syllable structure, the sequence of phonemes, word stress, word tones);
    • sentence phonetics (prosody) – sentence stress and rhythm, intonation

As seen from the contents of Table 1 language learners should possess not only knowledge of the phonological system of the target language, but also the ability to segment and manipulate the sounds of speech – skills that are included in phonemic awareness instruction which “is more complex than auditory discrimination [i.e. hearing a difference]… [and which] entails a level of analysis of the constituent sounds of a word” (Hempenstall 2003). Or in other words, students are expected to be able to auditory discriminate the phonemes within syllables and words in English and recognize and identify single phonemes and their allophones in a word or sentence. Therefore, it can be said that phonemic awareness builds links between auditory sounds and the letters by which they are represented and is related to the structure of words rather than to their meaning. In fact, phonemic awareness provides learners with the abilities to compare and contrast phonemes, to “play” with the sounds of English, to correctly articulate them and increases their “ability of decoding and spelling words and … [of] comprehend[ing] text” (National Reading Panel 2001:12). That is why, phonemic awareness training accounts for the development of the four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Figure 1: Phonemic awareness and the four skills

Phonemic awareness and school curricula

Having explained what phonemic awareness is I would like to draw attention to grade 3 and grade 4 English language school curricula approved by the Ministry of Education and Science in Bulgaria. The reason for focusing on these two curricula is motivated by the fact that in grade 1 and 2 Bulgarian learners of English receive the initial knowledge in their native language and in English while in grade 3 and 4 the acquisition of English involves the complex development of the four skills.

The first thing that should be mentioned is that the curricula in question correspond to the requirements of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (2001) – “the focus of English language instruction is not so much on the acquisition of the language but on the increase of learners’ knowledge of other cultures, on the development of their skills for intercultural communication, intellectual and linguistic abilities” (Information about the degree of readiness for the introduction of foreign language teaching in the primary (grade 2) during the 2002 – 2003 school year: 1). Still it can be said that phonemic awareness and phonological instruction are not largely included in the curriculum. What is more, there is a very sharp contrast between the Aims of the curricula and the “Specific methods and forms of assessment” stated there (Table 3).

Table 2: Aims and Specific methods and forms of assessment

Aims

The learning of English would allow pupils to:

Specific methods and forms of assessment
Grade 3 be able to understand texts while reading or listening emphasis is placed on the clarity and correctness of pupils’ speech as this is the period when correct pronunciation skills are developed – skills of articulation and speech production
Grade 4 develop basic strategies for interaction in English

It is difficult to explain how pupils would acquire knowledge and skills for successful communication in English when only Nucleus “Listening” of the two curricula contains phonetic and phonological knowledge and skills, which in turn are related to the acquisition of  “basic rules for pronunciation”, “basic intonation patterns”, “word stress” (see English language curricula for grade 3 and 4, Nucleus “Speaking”) which suggests that the only focus of attention in phonemic awareness instruction are pronunciation and the acquisition of rhythm and the specific models of intonation of the English sentence.

Such orientation of English language teaching, in which auditory discrimination and sound identification activities are omitted, is a prerequisite for problems in the process of auditory perception and articulation of the foreign sounds. A key factor for these problems will be the absence of correctly formed auditory images of the new phonemes, of new sound model zones in the mind of the learners that correlate to the phonemes of the target language. This would prevent learners from identifying the auditory perceived phonemes which in turn would lead to incorrect pronunciation of English language sounds due to the fact that only those “qualities of sounds which can be transformed in articulation are encoded” (Tsoneva 2002:13).

Another disturbing point is the stated in Nucleus “Speaking” expected result according to which pupils should use “simple language and simple sentences when speaking and also pronunciation and intonation that do not interrupt communication”[2]. Still it is difficult to explain how pupils would be able to build and develop correct pronunciation skills in English when they have not developed good listening skills so that they could properly perceive the new phonemes. Furthermore, the underestimation of sound recognition activities could lead to pupils’ problems in reading in English and thus the results stated in the Nucleus “Reading” would be difficult to achieve because students who fail to relate sounds to graphemes would have difficulties in reading.  Therefore, statements in the curricula like “the learner could read aloud and has pronunciation and intonation that do not prevent the understanding of short, elementary level texts that are written for the purposes of language instruction and that cover the studied topics”[3] are a desired rather than an achievable result when these curricula are applied.

As it comes clear from the analysis of the English language curricula for grades 3 and 4 phonemic awareness instruction and phonological training do not receive an appropriate treatment in the educational documentation explored. This could lead to incorrect pronunciation, low level of reading, writing, speaking and listening in the target language. The new trends of development of language education in Europe impose new objectives and methods of language instruction and the inclusion of phonological competences and phonemic knowledge and skills. Therefore, in order to increase the quality of English language teaching and learning in Bulgaria, primary school curricula of English should include and recognize the importance of phonological and phonemic awareness.

How to develop phonemic awareness?

The basic question that this paper aims to answer is “How to develop phonemic awareness skills in young learners of English?”. Some authors (Fox and Routh, Ehri, Lieberman, Fisher and Carter) claim that the development of these skills should happen in the following order: rhyming, alliteration, segmenting sentences into words, followed by segmenting words into syllables, followed by segmenting words into phonemes. Others like Terry Starko (Starko 2000) state that the process of phonemic awareness skills development should begin with rhyming, alliteration, phoneme blending, sound segmentation and phoneme manipulation. But no matter which principles of phonemic awareness development teachers of English choose to follow, they should take into consideration the following guidelines for planning phonemic awareness activities (after Edelen-Smith 1998:104):

  1. Identify the phoneme awareness task you want to use and select appropriate activities for engaging students in the task. Choose activities that are fun and involve playing rather than drilling.
  2. Focus the attention of learners on the sounds not on the letters. Explain to students that in English one sound may be represented by two or more letters. You may first want to target on the auditory perception of a specific sound and then on its production.
  3. Bear in mind that continuant sounds like /i: / or /a:/ are easier to manipulate and hear than stop consonants like /p/ or /b/ for example. “When you introduce continuants, exaggerate by holding on them: rrrrrring; for stop consonants, use iteration (rapid repetition):/k/-/k/-/k/-/k/-/k/-atie” (Edelen-Smith 2000:104)
  4. “When identifying or combining sound sequences, a CV pattern should be used before a VC pattern, followed by a CVC pattern (e.g. pie, egg, red)” (Edelen-Smith 1998:104)

Some of the tasks that I would like to offer correspond to the above mentioned principles and involve more direct instruction in the building of skills in students for phoneme identity and phoneme manipulation.

Task 1 –Rhymes – repetition of the same word endings. This could be used in songs or in poems or silly rhymes. You may also encourage children to create their own new rhymes.

Examples
Rhyming of words coat – goat; cat  – bat

Have you seen a goat sitting in a boat?

Silly rhymes Zuk in my book;

There is a Wocket in My Pocket (Edelen-Smith 1998:104)

Task 2Alliteration – repetition of an initial consonant sound in several words.

e.g. Six snails sell sodas and snails

Task 3Assonance – repetition of vowel sounds within words, often combined with rhyme

e.g. The leaf, the bean and the peach are all on the beach.

Task 4Sound blending / synthesis:

  • blending an initial sound onto a remainder of a word – /l/ + /ait/ = /lait/
  • blending syllables of a word together – e.g. Listen to the sounds. What is the word they make?
  • blending isolated phonemes to a word (phoneme counting) – e.g. Listen to this word – sat. How many sounds do you hear?

Task 5 – Segmentation – isolation of the sounds in a spoken word by separately pronouncing each one in order. This is one of the most difficult tasks for young learners.

  • Syllable – e.g.Listen to this word: table. Say it syllable by syllable. (ta…ble)
  • Onset / rime – e.g. Listen to this word: pan.  Say the first sound in the word and then the rest of the word. (/p/…an)
  • Phoneme by phoneme – e.g. Listen to this word: sat.  Say the word sound by sound. How many sounds do you hear?

Task 6 – Phonemic manipulation

  • Initial sound substitution – mat -> sat
  • Final sound substitution – mat -> map
  • Vowel substitution – top  -> tap
  • Syllable deletion – Say “baker” without “ba”
  • Initial sound deletion – Say “sun” without “s”
  • Final sound deletion – Say “best” without “t”

Some of these tasks may be incorporated into the following activities:

Activity 1 – Minimal pairs

Listen to the pairs of words. If they sound the same, write [+]. If they are different, write [-].


  1. bag – beg
  2. cat – cut
  3. sheep – sheep
  4. fill – feel
  5. ice – eyes
  6. tenth – tenth
  7. down – town
  8. ski – ski
  9. either – either
  10. game – came
  11. pat – pat
  12. heat – sheet
  13. sad – sad
  14. they – day
  15. hair – air
  16. weak – week
  17. star – starve
  18. tongue – tank
  19. Smith – Smith
  20. tongue – tongue


  1. young – young
  2. boot – but
  3. Jim – gym
  4. big – big
  5. thing – sing
  6. thin – tin
  7. both – both
  8. hat – hat
  9. now – new
  10. shave – save
  11. than – van
  12. this – this
  13. horse – force
  14. white – ride
  15. anger – anger
  16. Kim – king
  17. double – double
  18. breathe – breathe
  19. laugh – love
  20. full – pull


  1. sin – seen
  2. fan – fan
  3. four – fair
  4. snow – snow
  5. through – through
  6. bit – bet
  7. short – shut
  8. missed – mixed
  9. short – short
  10. cub – cup
  11. card – guard
  12. water – quarter
  13. breathe – breeze
  14. thumb – thumb
  15. worm – worm
  16. west – vest
  17. her – here
  18. torch – torch
  19. hard – head
  20. flies – fries


Answer handout

  1. _____
  2. _____
  3. _____
  4. _____
  5. _____
  6. _____
  7. _____
  8. _____
  9. _____
  10. _____
  11. _____
  12. _____
  13. _____
  14. _____
  15. _____
  16. _____
  17. _____
  18. _____
  19. _____
  20. _____

Note: The teacher gives out to each learner the “Answer handout”. Learners only listen to the pairs of words pronounced by the teacher. They do not see the pairs written. Students only write [+] or [-] depending on whether they hear the same or different pairs of words.

This activity allows the teacher to see which are the problem phonemes for his / her students and decide on remedial work.

G In order to make the activity more useful, you may use recordings of the pairs of words so that students could not judge whether the pairs are the same or different by reading your lips.

Activity 2 – Three word combinations

& Listen to the words and say which of them are the same:

  1. year                             hear                             hair
  2. thin                              tin                                thin
  3. that                              that                              that
  4. send                             sand                             sand
  5. three                            tree                              tree
  6. tank                             tank                             tongue
  7. look                             luck                             lack

Note: Learners only listen to the pairs of words pronounced by the teacher. They do not see the pairs written. The teacher can either give students the Answer handout presented in activity 1 or ask learners to clap their hands if the words are the same or stump their feet if they are different.

G In order to make the useful, you may use recordings of the pairs of words so that students could not judge whether the pairs are the same or different by reading your lips.

Activity 3 – Word combinations

& Mark the sequence of the words in the groups that you hear.

I                       II                     III                    IV                    V                     VI

sit                    bed                  mat                  share                month              post
seat                  bad                  mad                 where              south               cost
sat                    bid                   met                  fair                   both                 lost
seed                 bit                    meet                care                  with                 rose

VII                  VIII                 IX                    X                     XI                    XII

both                 all                    sink                  save                 jeep                  bag
cloth                hall                  think                shave               sheep               pack
clothes             wall                 sing                  wave                cheap               pig
road                 ball                  thick                brave               ship                  pick

Note: Learners see all the words written in the three columns. They task is to write the numbers in each column of the word they hear first, second and third. This activity allows the teacher to receive feedback on whether his / her learners auditory discriminate the different words and whether they know the relations between the sounds and their letter representation.

Activity 4 – Count the sounds

& Listen to the sentence. How many times do you hear the sound /θ/ in the sentence?

e.g.      My father and mother live together with my brother.

Martha Smith is an author and an athlete.

There are three trees in the tram.

Note: This activity focuses the attention of learners on one particular sound that they should identify in the words within the sentence (in the example sentences it is the phoneme /θ /). You can allow students to have the sentences written when they hear them pronounced.

Activity 4 – Labyrinth

START
cap apple men Ben at
bed hat bad tram can
head set fat catch pen
Fred black sad plan bag
mad map pet let glad
FINISH


This is a very funny an pleasant way of involving learners in finding words that contain the same sound, i.e. in this case /æ/. Students work alone. Their task is to find the way out of the labyrinth by “stepping” on those words that contain the target sound. The winner is the learner who first manages to find the way out of the labyrinth.

Activity 5 – Rhymes

& Write as many words that rhyme with the word:

  • grow -> blow, snow, show, throw
  • pan -> man, van, ran, plan, can
  • cry -> fly, try, die, buy
  • beat -> meat, meet, sweet
  • come -> some, drum, plum,

Note: Give students only the initial word to which they should write rhymes. You can also add a competitive element and ask students to work in groups. Think of an “award” to the winners!

Activity 6 – Different vowel sound

& Read the words and circle the one with the different vowel sound.

1. what                        hot                   lost                  salt

2. snow                        low                  cow                 show

3. tea                           see                   bee                   be

4. shoe                         love                 true                  book

5. cheap                       sheep               jeep                  chips

Note: Students are given a handout with the words written. Each student in class receives the same handout. Students work alone. They are given time to read the groups of words and decide which is the “odd-one-out”. If the task is not clear to students, you may give an example to illustrate what you expect them to do.

You may include more groups of words depending on the level of your students and on the time you would like to devote to this activity. It will give you feedback on whether your learners make the difference between long and short vowels in English one hand and among vowels on the other hand.

Activity 7 – Bingo

Student 1 Student 2
1

2

3

1

2

3

4

5

6

4

5

6

7

8

9

7

8

9

10 11 12 10

11

12

13

14

15

13 14 15

Notes:

  1. Give to each student two grids – one for his / her own words and one for the words of his / her partner.
  2. Dictate 10 words. The words can be from group phonics (e.g. coat-goat-boat etc.) or they can contain some problem sounds to your students. The learners write the words in squares of their choice. They should not let the other students see which squares they are filling in.
  3. Put the children into pairs. One child in each pair calls out a number between 1-16. If the other learner has a word in this square, he / she says the word. The first learner then writes the word in his / her bottom grid and calls out another number. If the child has no word in the square, he / she says “No!” and it is then his / her turn to call out numbers.
  4. The winner of the game is the first learner who finds the location of the other learner’s 10 words.

It would be best if you dictate some minimal pair words so that you check whether your students can feel the difference, spell the words and read them correctly. You can also have minimal pair words not only containing problem phonemes but also containing silent letters – e.g air – hair.

Activity 8 – Story writing

& Write a story with your class using the sound you are learning. (Ask pupils to fill in the gaps with words that have the sound you are learning.

Our Story

My best friend is an apple. Her name is Ann. She lives in a black hat. She is a happy girl. She has a cat. The cat likes to eat ham. It is a very bad cat.

Note: You can also use pictures to help students visualize the story they are writing.

Activity 9 – Word-picture matching

& Listen to the word the teacher tells. Tick the picture representing the word you hear.

Note: If you are good at drawing you can draw pictures of pairs of words that differ in only sound, e.g. cat – bat, sun – son, bag – back. Glue them together on a piece of paper. Each student in the class has the same handout with the pairs of pictures. Say the word representing only one of the objects in each picture pair. Ask students to tick the picture that represents the word they hear.

Conclusion

The above presented ideas on activities only highlight some ideas you might use in your English language classroom. One of the basic things that you must remember is to use your imagination and creativity in designing new activities or in remodelling the ones offered. Your essential and valuable role as activity designers would not only help in developing and improving the phonemic awareness skills of your learners but it will also contribute to strengthening the position of phonemic awareness training in primary school teaching and learning of English. In fact this will be the first move towards teacher initiated change in school curricula and foreign language teaching and learning in the country.

References

  • Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment, Council for Cultural Co-operation, Educational Committee, Modern Languages Division, Strasbourg, Council of Europe 2001, Cambridge University Press, 1st edn., 2001
  • Hempenstall, K. Phonemic Awareness: What Does it Mean? A 2003 update, 2003
    www.educationnew.org
  • Edelen-Smith, P. How Now Brown Cow: Phoneme Awareness Activities for Collaborative Classrooms, Intervention in School and Clinic magazine, Volume 33, Number 2, 1998, pp. 103-111
  • English language curriculum for grade 3: Учебна програма за III-ти клас по английски език (първи чужд език), в-к “Азбуки, бр. 32, 2003, с.7
  • English language curriculum for grade 4: Учебна програма по английски език за IV-ти клас, в-к “Азбуки, бр. 16, 2002, с. 4
  • Information about the degree of readiness for the introduction of foreign language teaching in the primary (grade 2) during the 2002 – 2003 school year: Справка за готовността за въвеждане на чуждоезиково обучение в началния етап на основната образователна степен (2. Клас) през учебната 2002-2003 година – разработена от МОН и Националния институт по образование
    – www.see-educop.net/education_in/pdf/gotovnost_rhco-bul-blg-t05.pdf
  • National Reading Panel: National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction, Washington DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001
    www.nationalreadingpanel.org
  • Starko T. Literature for Literacy Telecollaborative Project (Phonemic Awareness), 2000
    www.literatureforliterature.ecsd.net/phonemic_awareness.htm
  • Tsoneva 2002: Д. Цонева. Развитие на речевия слух. Русенски университет, 2002

[1] Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 107, pp. 106-117

[2] See Nucleus “Speaking” in English language curricula for grade 3 and  4

[3] See Nucleus “Reading” in English language curricula for grade 3 and 4

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