Phonemic awareness and phonics are two components of a balanced literacy program in K -- 3 classrooms. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made of sounds. Phonics builds on this awareness by teaching the relationships between sounds and letter-symbols. Research supports direct instruction of these components as a precursor to reading success. Commercially-published programs and books, software and apps, and numerous Internet sources can provide teachers with materials needed for a strong program of direct, explicit instruction. Kindergarten programs level attempt to level the playing field, as students begin school at various stages of reading readiness. Phonics builds on early phonemic awareness activities. By the time students are in third grade, they are starting to "read to learn" instead of "learning to read."
Balanced Literacy Program for K --
Phonemic awareness and phonics are two components of a balanced literacy program in K -- 3 classrooms. They are the foundations on which the teaching of reading is built. A student's skill in these areas is a good predictor of future reading success.
Phonemic awareness is the first step in getting students ready to read. Words are comprised of sounds, or phonemes. Before children can learn to read print, they must be able to hear and identify the phonemes in spoken words. Phonics builds on phonemic awareness as it teaches "the relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language" ("Reading Recovery: Phonics," 2012).
Students come to kindergarten in various stages of readiness to read. Some children spend their pre-school years in the home, where the caregiver -- usually a parent, nanny or grandparent -- may provide some academic structure. Similarly, some children who are placed in day care may have a learning component within the day. Some children may attend a program such as Head Start or other school-readiness program developed in a community or by a school district. However, other children come to kindergarten without having had a structured pre-reading program. Many preschools use a play-based curriculum where child-initiated learning fosters important developmental, rather than academic, skills (Callaghan and Madelaine, 2012, p. 13). Other children have caregivers (typically parents) who believe there will be plenty of time for academics in the child's life, and the pre-school years are meant for play.
Calleghan and Madelaine (2012) point out there is "overwhelming evidence" that kindergarten-entry literacy skills are significant predictors of first grade reading scores. Numerous studies also show there is a widening gap in reading between students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and their more affluent peers. Clearly, what takes place in the pre-school years matters very much to reading success. The kindergarten teacher has no control over what happened prior to a student's arrival in her classroom; because the playing field is not level, the kindergarten program must meet the needs of all students in preparing them to become readers.
Phonemic awareness is developed with various activities in the kindergarten classroom; these activities typically continue through first and second grades. Activities are oral activities, since they deal with the sounds in spoken words. Children demonstrate phonemic awareness in several ways, including:
Recognizing which words in a set of words begin with the same sound (e.g., mat, mop, and mud all have / m / at the beginning)
Isolating and saying the first or last sound in a word (e.g., the beginning sound of dog is / d/. The ending sound of sit is / t/)
Combining, or blending the separate sounds in a word to say the word (e.g., / m/, / a/, / p / -- map)
Segmenting a word into its separate sounds (e.g., dog -- / d/, / o/, / g/)
(Partnership for Reading, 2012).
Phonemic awareness activities typically make use of variations on listening and response games. Adams, Foorman, Lundberg and Beeler (2012) even suggest beginning with a game in which children are challenged to identify single non-language-based sounds (e.g., clapping, tongue clicks, crumpling paper) and then remembering sequences of these sounds. Children usually find listen-and-response games engaging, which is exactly what needs to happen for learning to take place. These activities often include rhythm (e.g., clapping, chants), music, question-and-answer, and listen-and-repeat. The activities are designed to be playful and quick-paced without a great deal of instruction. Teachers should not expect mastery of all skills; because these are pre-school/kindergarten activities, some children will need many opportunities with various tasks in order to become successful ("Explicit Systematic Phonics,.," n.d.).
One commercial program with demonstrated success in developing phonemic awareness is Wilson's Fundations, based on the Wilson Reading System principles. The program offers editions for the general education classroom leveled for each of the grades between kindergarten and third. It is not intended to replace core curriculum, but uses research-based strategies that complement any program already being used in the classroom. Sequenced skills are taught daily in a thirty-minute block and target not only phonemic awareness, but also decoding, vocabulary, fluency, and spelling. Storytime activities, another component of the program, allow students to practice critical thinking, speaking and listening skills. Targeted small group intervention is available for students in the lowest 30th percentile (Fundations, 2011). A commercial program such as Fundations is expensive because of the required training and the kits that need to be purchased for each classroom, or, at the very least, for each grade level. However, they offer an advantage in that they are comprehensive and complete, saving teachers the time and effort that would be expended in creating a program by compiling materials from various resources. The Fundations program also has drill and practice exercises and unit tests that teachers can use for formative and summative assessments.
McGee and Ukrainetz (2009, p. 599) found in a review of the literature that published phonemic awareness activities, though engaging, generally did not provide teachers with techniques for providing feedback to children who failed to perform a task. Experienced teachers, it is hoped, both understand the importance of such feedback and have developed some strategies to provide it. Because phonemic awareness activities are oral, assessments must be conducted individually with students, although the teacher may make some anecdotal observations during small group and whole-class activities. Comprehensive assessment requires the teacher to listen to one child at a time. Typically, there are lists of words with which students perform various activities under the teacher's direction (e.g., listening to a word such as "mat" and breaking it apart into its three component sounds). The tests are timed and a child's score is calculated with consideration to accuracy and speed. Tests such as these are often administered three times a year -- fall, winter, and spring -- and can be used to make decisions such as a child's placement in Reading Recovery, Tier II intervention, or Title I. As stated earlier, the commercial programs are not meant to replace current phonological programs used in the regular education classes, but to augment them. Teachers who need help with feedback and assessment strategies could benefit from peer observation, a mentoring program, or additional coursework.
By the time students enter first grade in the general education classroom, they have experienced instruction and practice opportunities in writing letters. Instruction and practice continue in first and second grades, and to a lesser extent in third grade, as children work towards mastery. They are learning that letters correspond to sounds and that groups of letters make other sounds as well as words. Phonics can be thought of as learning to decode the symbols that stand for language, and it can also be thought of as a strategy that is used to recognize words. To read, one must recognize words, then understand the individual and collective meanings of those words, ultimately to get to the meaning of the text (Messmer and Griffith, 2005. P. 367).
The legislation known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB, Title I, Part B., 2002) requires that any federally funded school have in place "explicit, systematic phonics instruction." With the mandate has come a plethora of software programs -- and now apps, too -- in addition to basal readers, teacher resource books, supplements, and manipulatives (Mesmer and Griffith, 2005, p. 366). For a time, direct instruction in phonics fell out of favor, or at the very least, fell by the wayside as educators exposed children to books, often as read-alouds, and assumed that an understanding of phonics would come with the development of other skills such as comprehension (Groff, 1998). Current literature supports the benefits of direct phonics instruction as preparation for reading.
There are numerous commercially published books with games and activities that teachers can use in phonics instruction. Reading specialists Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell have developed a comprehensive phonics program that is available for different grade levels. The World Wide Web is also a resource for many teacher-tested ideas. According to the National Reading Panel Reports, effective programs do the following: teach children how to relate letters and sounds; break spoken words into sounds, and blend sounds…