TRT Podcast#32: Answers to common questions about phonological and phonemic awareness
I conducted a survey to find out the questions teachers have about phonological and phonemic awareness … and over 3000 educators responded!
In this episode we’ll tackle these questions:
- Is there a chart or guide that shows us which skills to teach (and in what order)?
- At what age should we start … and how old should kids be when we stop teaching these skills?
- What should we do when we have older learners still struggling with phonemic awareness?
- How do we know what to do with the whole class versus what to do with small groups?
Listen to the episode here
- Quick guide for teaching phonological awareness
- Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Curriculum
- Equipped for Reading Success, by David A. Kilpatrick
- Reading Done Right – free phonemic awareness program
Full episode transcript
A few weeks ago, I gave a survey to my newsletter audience, and over 3000 people filled it out. The survey was all about questions they had which related to phonological and phonemic awareness. That's why this, our third episode in a series about those topics, is going to answer some of those questions that people asked. I had a lot of fun looking through the survey results and my team member, Regina, went through it and helped me find seven questions that we're going to answer today on the podcast.
Now, the last couple of weeks, if you've watched the videos, there were a lot of slides. It was more of a presentation style. This week is going to be more conversational. It's going to be you and me, back and forth, and I'll put the questions up before I answer them. So with that, we'll get into Episode 32: Answers to Common Questions About Phonological and Phonemic Awareness.
Here's our first question, "What is the difference between phonics, phonological awareness, and phonemic awareness?"
If you've been with us for the past couple of weeks, you're probably saying, "I know. We've heard this enough times already," but I find it's always really important to start with definitions so that we're all on the same page and everyone knows what we're talking about. Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are not the same as phonics. It's unfortunate that they all kind of sound the same, but they're actually all quite different from each other!
Phonics is what most of us are used to. It's connecting letter sounds to letters on the page. So if you're having a child look at the word, "cat," and you're telling them to sound it out, that's phonics.
Phonological awareness actually comes before that and it's helping kids hear and manipulate sounds in words. Those can be big parts of words, like parts of a compound word, or they can be smaller parts, like the onset and the rime. For example, in the word, "bike," the onset is /b/ and the rime is /ike/.
Then we can get really, really specific when we're into phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is working on those individual sounds in words called phonemes. So the word, "fish," for example, it may have four letters, but it has three phonemes, /f/, /i/, /sh/.
You might be saying, "Okay. Why does this even matter? Why can't we just go straight to phonics so kids can learn to read?"
Well, what scientists are telling us right now is that there's something that's happening in the brains of good readers. It's called orthographic mapping. It's a mental process in which they connect those phonemes, so the sounds of each letter or group of letters, to the letters on the page, the graphemes. Kids can't do orthographic mapping if they don't have a solid foundation in phonemic awareness. The point of orthographic mapping is that it helps us remember words in the future. So as an adult, if you see a new word, most likely it only takes one or two times of reading it before next time, it's automatic. We want that for our children as well, but they need to be able to do this process of orthographic mapping. They can't do it unless they first develop phonological and then phonemic awareness. So that's why we're spending so much time on it and why I'm going to answer some more questions about this topic.
Question number two, "Is there a chart or guide that gives an order in which to teach the skills?"
Yes, there is. I have shared it in the past two weeks, and I will share it again now. Here is the chart for you. As you can see, we start with simple to more complex: rhyming, alliteration (those are really early skills), then we move up to word awareness, syllables, onsets and rimes, and then the most complex, phonemic awareness. I'll be giving you a chance to get your own copy of this chart at the end of the presentation, so stay tuned for that.
Let's go back to question number three now, which is, "At what age should you start working on phonological awareness?" That is going to go right into question four, which is, "How long should you keep teaching phonological and phonemic awareness?"
If you're on my email newsletter (which I recommend if you're not because you get a lot of freebies when you're connected to it), I recently sent out an email in which I said that as a teacher, primarily in first and second grade, I did not know the importance of this going past preschool and kindergarten! In fact, it's just kind of a new thing that more people are becoming aware of. Certainly, we start teaching phonological and phonemic awareness when kids are very young. If you have a baby who listens to you read books, you can start building phonological awareness by reading rhyming books. It's as simple as that to start to help them develop an ear for rhyme.
If you're a classroom teacher, you can start doing specific lessons on phonological awareness in pre-K or kindergarten. These would be oral exercises. You would be saying things and kids would be responding back and forth. Last week, I gave you a lot of specific examples about what that would look like.
Now, how long does this go on for? Well, like I said a few minutes ago, as a teacher, I thought that this was just for pre-K and kindergarten and once they were in first grade, I had to get into the business of teaching them to read and we didn't have time to spend on phonemic awareness. Oops! That was a mistake because now, as I told you, scientists are telling us this can be the missing key, the missing link, to helping some kids who really struggle as readers.
While some children will develop it naturally through lots of exposure to rhymes and things like that, others will not. Many will not! So it's up to educators to make sure this is a part of our days all the way through second grade and sometimes even early third.
So let's go back and look at that chart. These age levels here are for typically developing children and these grade levels here are from David Kilpatrick's book, "Equipped for Reading Success". I've talked about that previously, but I want to make sure you know that these are not from my head. These are from a reading researcher. He's telling us that by the time kids get to the advanced level of phonemic awareness, they may still be developing this in third grade. This is for normally developing kids. If you have kids who struggle with reading, they may not even have this in place by fifth grade or sixth grade. However, in regular classrooms, this is what we would expect to see. We would want to see these early levels being taught in pre-K and kindergarten and the more advanced levels from first through third grade.
Let's move on to our next question. Let's go to question five, "For a fifth grader reading at a first grade level, should we invest the time to teach phonological awareness?"
I'll bet you know the answer to that, and the answer is absolutely yes! If it's the missing link, they're not going to be successful in reading until they get it down. If you're wondering, "What can I use?" there are some really good resources out there.
I want to show you one that's my favorite and that's this one, "Bridge the Gap". These are phonemic awareness intervention levels from Heggerty and you can just find them by Googling them online. It's H-E-G-G-E-R-T-Y. They have a shop with these resources that will help you teach phonological and phonemic awareness. They have them for pre-K, kindergarten, primary, and then this intervention book. What I love about it is it's all laid out so nicely and cleanly. At the beginning, they tell you how to do it. They give you teacher tips, and then they've got specific lessons with exactly what to do. I highly recommend it! I think it's under $60, at least right now, which personally, I think is a really good price when you can use this over and over and over and over. Students don't need a copy, it's just for you.
Another option for you is to check the back of David Kilpatrick's book if you own it. It's certainly worth getting, "Equipped for Reading Success". In the back, he has one minute exercises, which are really good. I think it's maybe a little bit harder to know what to do with this, although he does have an assessment online, which can help you. The Heggerty is a little easier to follow, but this is really good as well.
There's also a free program, which I just recently discovered online, for teaching phonemic awareness. It's written by some people I really like and respect, David and Meredith Liben. I've read this whole book and marked it up sooooo much. They talk about teaching the important foundations for helping kids learn to read. It's kind of looking at the science of reading and balanced literacy and how we need to make some changes in how we've been teaching reading. They actually created this free phonemic awareness printable curriculum for you and it's on their website, readingdoneright.org. If you go to their menu on the top, it says, "Phonemic Awareness Program". It's definitely worth checking out and will give you lessons for kids up through second grade. As far as I can tell, they don't have something specifically for kids who are struggling, but I'm sure you'll find something there for older kids if you need it. It's all printable oral lessons, and it's all free, if money is an issue for you. If money's not an issue, I would recommend the Heggerty program. All right, so that was the answer for you for fifth graders that are struggling. Definitely do phonemic awareness activities and use some of those materials!
Number six, "How can I support phonemic awareness once kids are already reading whole words? I feel like they need it, but it feels too remedial or simple for them."
That is a really good question and I want to connect it to our final question, which is, "How do I know what to teach in whole group versus what to teach in small group or literacy centers?"
Here's the thing. Anytime you teach the whole class the same thing, which you're going to be doing if you're using these structured phonological phonemic awareness curricula, you're not going to be hitting everybody. You're going to have kids who can't keep up, and kids that it's way too easy for them and it's going to be boring. It's just a fact of life. The good news is, though, that Heggerty has some really good hand signals that can help keep kids engaged and the lessons are short. We're only talking 10 or 15 minutes per day.
I would not tell you to do something whole class that's going to take an hour. Absolutely not! To me, 30 minutes is pushing it for a whole class lesson when you have all different levels. I can get behind 10 minutes though, and that's why it's really good to have this systematic sequential program so you aren't missing anything. Everybody's getting what is important to know, but, of course, they're not all going to be learning it at the same pace. Some kids are going to need review. Some kids are going to need you to give them something more advanced because they've already got this down. That's where the small groups come in. I would use the whole class time to go through your program - 10 minutes, maybe 15, but I'd really try to keep it to 10. Then I'd make sure I've assessed all my students so that I know exactly what to work on with them in small groups.
If you're doing small reading groups by level, which I prefer to do, then I would make sure that at the beginning of your lesson, you are pulling out some two or three minute phonological or phonemic awareness practice activities. These are oral activities that you do with your students as a way to meet them where they are, whether that's to remediate or to challenge. That's how I would recommend breaking it up. So back to the question about third graders where people said, "It feels a little boring and it feels too easy, but I know they need it." If you're only doing it for 10 minutes, it's going to be fine. It really is. The nice thing about these oral activities is that you change the way you deliver them to make them more appropriate for older kids. It's up to you how you handle it, but it's certainly possible not to make it feel babyish, as long as you're not doing things like puppets or something like that.
I hope that answered the question about when to do what, but you're certainly welcome to reach out to me for more questions about that. In terms of how you know what to do in those small groups, how will you know exactly what skills to do to practice, then I would recommend checking out my free assessment, themeasuredmom.com/assessment, and that will help you find out exactly where your learners are for all levels of phonological awareness. It tests rhyming, alliteration, onset rime, all the way up to advanced phonemic awareness. You wouldn't give that whole assessment to one child most likely, because you'll stop when it's clear that they're struggling or not ready to advance. Then you could give other parts of the assessment at a future date, but that will help you pin down what they need to know.
I also want to let you know about a guide that I'm sharing today. This is free and this will help you keep in one place the things I've been talking about in the last few weeks. It's got the definitions all in one place. You can see here, we've got the chart so you'll be able to see the specific skills in order and what grade levels you should be teaching them. It also contains some specific examples of oral activities. It gives you places or links or names of all the curricula that I recommend. It also talks about book lists, and tells you where to find printable activities that can mix up and enhance your phonological and phonemic awareness instruction.
While I do think that these oral activities are really helpful and useful, I also know that I would go a little crazy if that's all I did. I personally think that as a teacher and as a student, we all benefit from variety. I've created a bunch of printable games and centers that you can use to improve phonological and phonemic awareness, which I talk about in the handout.
This is just a three page document, super helpful and quick, that you can get. The link for that is themeasuredmom.com/guide. So head to that link and you can download this quick guide, including the charts I shared today. I think that's about it! If you would like to check the show notes, or if you're listening on the podcast and you want all these links and everything else, you can find those at themeasuredmom.com/episode32.
I hope you enjoyed today's episode. It was a little more fly by the seat of my pants than I like to do, but some weeks are like that. The good thing is that we had all this beautiful sunshine today. It has been so dreary the past few weeks, so this has been really nice to do a training in the sun. Next week, I have something very special for you. I'm going to share some tips for teaching phonological and phonemic awareness virtually because if you're watching this in 2020, many of you are in that position. Schools are closed because of the virus, and you need a way to teach over the computer, so I'm going to help you with that next week. Thanks again so much for watching and I will talk to you again soon!
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Link to original Facebook Live presentation