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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Phonemic awareness and phonics

In order to become readers and writers, children need to develop a knowledge of the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet and of letter-sound relationships. Many children come to school already knowing the sounds commonly associated with some letters (especially the first letter of their name). As children learn to read and write, they develop much fuller understandings of how sounds relate to letters, letter clusters, and words. Teachers have a crucial role in teaching children how to draw on phonological knowledge, which is essential for decoding and encoding.

Children do not have to be able to name every letter of the alphabet before they begin formal instruction in reading and writing. They do, however, need to have developed phonemic awareness and to understand that there is a relationship between spoken sounds and the letters that represent them.

Phonemic awareness starts with distinguishing between words in a stream of speech. It then extends to being able to hear the phonemes, or individual sounds, in the words, that is, to recognise the difference between “thing” and “think”; “hint” and “hunt”; “bat” and “pat”. Young children typically develop phonemic awareness through many experiences with oral language, especially with poems, jingles, rhymes, songs, and word games. Their phonemic awareness is also developed through writing.

Phonemic awareness is fundamental to early success in reading and writing. It enables children to develop the understanding of letter-sound relationships that is essential to decoding and encoding. Children have to be able to distinguish sounds before they can match them with the letters that represent them.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to hear, differentiate, and attend to the individual sounds within words. Phonological awareness is a more inclusive term and refers to a general appreciation of the sounds of language or the general ability to attend to the sounds of language as distinct from its meaning.

If children appear to have difficulty hearing and identifying sounds, they may have impaired hearing, and so a hearing check should be arranged.

An understanding of phonics also underpins children’s literacy learning. Children need to learn, through deliberate, focused instruction, which letters represent which sounds. They learn a great deal about letter-sound relationships through writing. Beginning writers constantly engage with the problem of which letters represent the sounds in the words they want to use. In doing so, they lay a sound basis of knowledge about relationships between letters and sounds. Effective teaching helps students to transfer this knowledge to their reading and also to transfer back to their writing the understandings they gain during reading and oral language activities. (See the section on relating sounds to print, on pages 35–36.)

Through reading and writing activities, teachers help students to apply their growing understanding of phonics. As students gain more confidence and skill, they develop their knowledge and understanding further. They investigate more complex lettersound relationships, for example, by discovering that one sound in English can be represented by different spellings: “character”, “kitten”, and “castle”; “phone”, “cough”, and “fair”; “who”, “threw”, and “through”. (See also the sections on grapho-phonic information, on page 30, and spelling, on pages 144–148.)

Refer also to the Ministry of Education’s Ready to Read Teacher Support Material: Sound Sense: Phonics and Phonological Awareness.

Published on: 08 Apr 2016