The National Reading Panel defines phonemes as, “the smallest units constituting spoken language.” Phonemes combine to form syllables and words. Phonemic awareness and letter knowledge have been shown in many studies over the years to be the best predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first two years in school.
Phonological awareness refers to awareness of and access to the sound structure of language. Spoken words are comprised of strings or sequences of phonemes that signal different meanings. Awareness that changes in these sequences result in changes in meaning is crucial in literacy skills development. If a student cannot conceptualize the order of sounds and syllables in words, he cannot associate the sound units with written symbols.
The skills we address in phonological awareness instruction generally include identification and discrimination of initial, final, and medical sounds in words; manipulation of those sounds (changing those sounds to make new words); understanding and producing rhyme and alliteration; ability to count syllables in words; sound and syllable blending; and sound and syllable segmentation.
Manipulating sounds in words can be a very difficult task for students who just can’t figure out how the individual sounds go together to make words, and how they can come apart.
We start this task early on in a simple way when we teach word families, and making new words by simply changing the onset sound: cat -> mat -> hat -> bat -> rat -> pat -> sat -> fat. It becomes more difficult when the sounds are in the middle or end of the word; particularly when we change vowels.