Phonological Awareness Continuum

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    Phonological awareness develops as a spectrum of skills crucial for developing reading fluency. Here’s what it entails.

    The phonological awareness continuum seeks to offer a view of the spectrum of complex skills necessary for the proper and swift development of reading fluency and early literacy. Its chief concern is highlighting all the ways those skills develop and tie in with each other to aid both students and teachers in pinpointing each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, providing insight into what kind of instruction or reading intervention would be ideal.

    What is the continuum of phonological awareness?

    Our phonological awareness develops on a continuum of skills of varying degrees of complexity.

    At one end, we have less complex skills, such as those that enable us to hear and react to various types of rhythms in language. That includes our ability to rhyme and organize words in similar patterns (for example, to allow for alliteration, that is, stringing words with the same initial sound).

    More complex skills involve those that allow us to segment words into speech sounds and analyze them at a phonemic level. Decoding syllables is also crucial, as is the ability to manipulate individual phonemes to form new words.

    We should also be able to segment words and sentences and apply our phonological awareness skills when reading and writing. These activities demand more complex sentence segmentation and literacy skills, but they are built with good reading instruction that allows natural phoneme blending and oral language skills to translate into writing and reading.

    The four stages of the phonological and phonemic awareness continuum

    It is often difficult to demarcate clear divisions between various mutually dependent and complementing skills. However, we can divide the stages we go through when developing those skills into four groups. Naturally, their divisions are not clear-cut, and each stage blurs with the one that came before it.

    1. Being aware of sounds in our environment: We learn early on how to hear the difference between different sounds in our environment. That is, we can filter sounds according to broad categories, such as human voices, animal sounds, machine sounds, etc.
    2. Rhyme: Soon, we learn how to match words with the same final sounds (or word-beginning sounds in the case of front rime) and come up with rhyming parts such as mud-bud and wine-nine.
    3. Syllabification: In this stage, we move past the word level and become able to divide words into syllables and count them.
    4. Phonemic awareness and complex phonological processing: In the fourth stage, we move past even syllables and start analyzing consonants and vowel sounds as separate entities. That is, we develop phoneme segmentation skills that allow us to divide individual words and syllables into smaller units and manipulate them to alter meaning. For example, we realize that changing vine to wine by replacing just the first sound alters the meaning drastically.

    It is crucial to stress once more that even though we present these stages as chronological, they do not necessarily have to be so linear. Our environment and phonological awareness instruction play an essential role in our phonological development. 

    The difference between phonemic awareness and phonological awareness

    Phonemic and phonological awareness are related but still distinct notions.

    • Phonemic awareness skills refer to our ability to decode and manipulate individual sounds in the language and organize them into new words. By individual sounds, we mean phonemes, abstract sound categories that allow only for as much alteration as would not jeopardize meaning. For example, if we replace the initial sound in the word cat with a b, we get bat, a unique new word, meaning that the c-sound and the b-sound are different phonemes.
    • Phonological awareness skills, on the other hand, are on a much broader spectrum. They include phonemic awareness skills but also cover our ability to hear and use other aspects of language, such as rhyme.

    Phonological awareness activities and tools to help with early literacy and reading success

    There are many tools and activities you can rely on to allow learners to reach desirable levels of literacy. Some of them include the following:

    Listening to words and saying them out loud

    Some say that repetition is the mother of learning, and that’s undoubtedly true for phonics too. The best way to ingrain proper pronunciation in our ears is to hear something a bunch of times. Luckily, there are reading-assistive tools and apps that can help with that, usually in a very engaging and highly customizable way.

    You can use Speechify, a text to speech app developed for those suffering from dyslexia and other reading difficulties. The app can read texts of any format aloud as many times as necessary and in dozens of languages, allowing learners to hear and practice all the necessary sounds and rhythms of either their native or target foreign language.

    Phoneme deletion and manipulation

    We said changing a phoneme can change the meaning of the world completely, and removing phonemes has the same effect. Deleting word elements and asking the learner to analyze the results is a great phonological awareness task.

    Depending on their level, you can start manipulating compound word elements before moving on to sounds. For example, if you have first-grade students, you can turn the word sports car into sports and ask them for an explanation instead of starting with more complex tasks, such as removing n from an.

    Games and puzzles

    Early reading acquisition is important, so we need to do everything we can to facilitate it. Fortunately, that is easy to do with some games and puzzles.

    You don’t need board games. You can play rhyming words and challenge your learners to come up with as many rhymes as possible, for example. Depending on their level of phonological awareness, you can make it harder, too, for example, by limiting the number of syllables each word is allowed to have.

    It would be ideal if you focused on spoken words and sound blending activities, but you can try some written exercises as well. You can ask them to divide words into syllables and match sounds with letters, or you can try some classics like Scramble and Word Search.

    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman is a dyslexia advocate and the CEO and founder of Speechify, the #1 text-to-speech app in the world, totaling over 100,000 5-star reviews and ranking first place in the App Store for the News & Magazines category. In 2017, Weitzman was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for his work making the internet more accessible to people with learning disabilities. Cliff Weitzman has been featured in EdSurge, Inc., PC Mag, Entrepreneur, Mashable, among other leading outlets.

    Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify

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