Impact of Phonological Skills on Literacy Development

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

What skills must be developed for a child to learn to read? This lesson focuses on the impact of phonological awareness on literacy development and why even seemingly simple activities are so important.

Learning to Read

Do you remember how exactly you learned to read? For most of us, it was so long ago, we simply don't recall the effort and skills that were involved. This lesson will review the basics of core phonological skills and discuss why they are so crucial to literacy development.

Phonological Awareness

Let's try to imagine a time before you could read the words on this page as easily as you do now. How do you think you began to differentiate the sounds of speech? One of the most basic ways is to notice how certain words rhyme, like the words ''sat,'' ''pat,'' and ''cat''.

Phonological awareness is the term used to describe a wide range of abilities connected to the sounds of speech. Phonological awareness is not focused on understanding what a word means. It's about the ability to work with the sounds of speech, such as when a child starts to realize that certain words rhyme or how sets of words have the same beginning sounds.

Phonemic Awareness

Within the broader category of phonological awareness is a very important subset of skills known as phonemic awareness. What's a phoneme, anyway? And how can you become aware of it? Before you learned to read, you may not have been fully aware that each word actually is a combination of smaller sounds. By breaking down into its tiniest elements, and by isolating each of these smaller sounds, you will determine that word's phonemes, such as the sound /p/ at the end of the word ''cap''.

A child learning to develop phonemic awareness might be asked to isolate the first, last, or middle sounds of a word, for example. As a child, someone could have asked you what sound starts the word, ''silly'', and if you could guess it's the /s/ sound, you would be right.

You might have been given a drawn out form of a word, like ''ssssssuuuuuunnnnn'', and then have been asked to state this in its normal word form. In this case, the word is ''sun.'' Later, you might have been asked what sounds make up a whole word like ''cap.'' You would have learned that three sounds (/c/, /a/, and /p/) actually make up the word we hear together as the word ''cap''.

Linguistic Skills for Literacy

These example activities don't require a student to read or write, even though ultimately they help improve literacy. You might be wondering how these oral, linguistic skills can help a student read and write later. Notice that the focus of phonological skills is on sounds, rather than letters. Students will ultimately learn the connection to letters, however, the groundwork for understanding written words in English starts with understanding spoken sounds.

Imagine, for example, that you can't distinguish the sounds of the word ''cap.'' To you, the sound for the word ''cap'' is only the word itself, in full. You haven't learned that three sounds are involved: /c/, /a/, and /p/. When it comes time to look at the word in writing, each of those letters means very little to you. In your mind, you would probably expect there to be one symbol for the whole word ''cap'' since you haven't learned to distinguish between each sound.

Beyond just knowing the phonemes in a word, a child must also be able to skillfully work with these sounds. For example, when a student has mastered more basic phonemic skills, they can try a new challenge in which sounds are manipulated to form entirely new words. An activity might involve adding the sound /b/ to the word ''rain'' to make a new word: ''brain''.

While this may seem easy to us today, at some point this was actually a relatively complicated activity. It requires the student to remember information about the sounds and determine what happens when they are combined, a critical step in our development and an important ability that contributes to reading previously unseen words. When students are easier able to decode novel words in text, they are more comfortable taking on higher level reading material which, in turn, increases their ability levels rapidly.

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