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Excerpted from chapter 1 of Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum, by Marilyn Jager Adams, Ph.D., Barbara R. Foorman, Ph.D., Ingvar Lundberg, Ph.D., & Terri Beeler, Ed.D.
Copyright © 1998 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Nature and Importance of Phonemic Awareness
Before children can make any sense of the alphabetic principle, they must understand that those sounds that are paired with the letters are one and the same as the sounds of speech. For those of us who already know how to read and write, this realization seems very basic, almost transparent. Nevertheless, research shows that the very notion that spoken language is made up of sequences of these little sounds does not come naturally or easily to human beings.
The small units of speech that correspond to letters of an alphabetic writing system are called phonemes. Thus, the awareness that language is composed of these small sounds is termed phonemic awareness. Research indicates that, without direct instructional support, phonemic awareness eludes roughly 25% of middle-class first graders and substantially more of those who come from less literacy-rich backgrounds. Furthermore, these children evidence serious difficulty in learning to read and write (see Adams, 1990, for a review).
Why is awareness of phonemes so difficult? The problem, in large measure, is that people do not attend to the sounds of phonemes as they produce or listen to speech. Instead, they process the phonemes automatically, directing their active attention to the meaning and force of the utterance as a whole. The challenge, therefore, is to find ways to get children to notice the phonemes, to discover their existence and separability. Fortunately, many of the activities involving rhyme, rhytmn, listening, and sounds that have long been enjoyed with preschool-age children are ideally suited for this purpose. In fact, with this goal in mind, all such activities can be used effectively toward helping children to develop phonemic awareness.
The purpose of this book is to provide concrete activities that stimulate the development of phonemic awareness in the preschool or elementary classroom. It is based on a program orginally developed and validated by Lundberg, Frost, and Petersen (1988) in Sweden and Denmark. After translating and adapting it for U.S. classrooms, we field-tested it with kindergarten students and teachers in two schools receiving Title I funds. We, too, found that kindergartners developed the ability to analyze words into sounds significantly more quickly than kindergartners who did not have this program (Foorman, Francis, Beeler, & Fletcher, 1997). This ability to analyze words into sounds is exactly the skill that promotes sucessful reading in first grade (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994).
About the Structure of Language
In order to build phonemic awareness in all children, classroom teachers should know a little about the structure of language, especially phonology. Phonology is the study of the unconscious rules governing speech-sound production. In contrast, phonetics is the study of the way in which speech sounds are articulated, and phonics is the system by which symbols represent sounds in an alphabetic writing system.
Phonological rules constrain speech-sound production for biological and environmental reasons. Biological constraints are due to the limitations of human articulatory-motor production. For example, humans are not able to produce the high-frequency vocalizations of whales. Other constraints on our ability to produce speech have to do with the way our brains classify and perceive the minimal units of sound that make a difference to meaning -- t