What is poor phonemic awareness?

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Many, perhaps most, struggling readers and spellers have problems discerning the identity, order and/or number of sounds in spoken words.

Assessment reports often call this poor phonemic awareness, or sometimes poor phonological awareness.

"Phonemic" is talking about individual sounds. "Phonological" is a more general term including syllables and rhyme.

Pedestrians use other footbath

Sound identity

The mouth is a small, mushy, fast-moving place, and a lot of the sounds it makes are very similar.

The sounds "k" and "t" are easily confused because they're both made by stopping airflow with the tongue on the roof of the mouth, then letting it go with a little airburst.

The main difference between these two sounds is that one is produced at the front of the mouth, and one at the back. The difference isn't usually visible, unless you're speaking in an exaggerated way. Preschoolers often confuse these sounds. My little neighbour Natalie used to sit on the bench in my titchen and help me with the tooting, and put the straps in the tompost, so adorable.

Try swapping the sounds "k" and "t" in a sentence, and see if your listener notices. For example, ask someone from the next room whether they've curned off their tomputer. You'll probably need to practice the spoonerism a bit first, to override your well-practised motor patterns for the words "turned" and "computer". If you say it at the usual rate and don't exaggerate the spoonerism, it's unlikely it will be even noticed. The error will just be a bit of static of the sort that we have to iron out all the time to understand other people, like background noise, hiccoughs and different accents.

Reverend Spooner's memorable quotes substitute quite different sounds, so they're easier to notice – telling students off for fighting liars in the back quadrangle and having tasted the whole worm, etc. The sounds "f" and "l" are very different in the way they're produced (fricative v/s liquid sound), their location (teeth on lip v/s tongue tip behind teeth) and voicing (voiceless v/s voiced). Ditto for "t" and "w". There's no point making a joke if people can't hear it.

Some English speech sounds that are easily confused include:

  • d and g (differ only in location), which is why preschoolers call canines "dods", and det drubby in the darden.
  • p and b, t and d, k and g (differ only in voicing), and in some languages there is no difference between these sounds. The Somali-speaking teenagers I work with are forever asking for a sharper bencil, and going to the canteen for bizza.
  • m and n, n and ng (differ only in location), which is why my niece gave her mother some lovely bath stuff for Christmas with a little note saying that it would make her "spick and spam" for the New Year.
  • th and f or v (differ only in place). In fact if you listen closely, there are a lot of adults who say they fink vis and vat.
  • f and v (differ only in voicing), which helps explain the f in of and the v in Chekhov and Rachmaninov.
  • s and z (differ only in voicing), which helps explain the s in is, as, has, does and was, and the z in pretzel, Fitzroy and blintz.
  • s and sh (differ only in location), so that little kids go sopping and wiss they didn't have to go to bed.
  • sh and ch, and zh (as in vision) and j, because there's actually a sh sound in ch and a zh sound in j (ch = t + sh, and j = d + zh).
  • a as in cat and u as in cut. This confusion is cemented by the way children are taught to pronounce the word "a" when memorising Golden Words (I wish I could throw the Golden Words in the sea, frankly).
  • e as in hem and i as in him. Try saying these sounds one after another and feel how subtle the difference is between them.
  • Lots of other vowels e.g. we used to have a Mayor who would routinely welcome everyone to the City Cancel meeting.

So, for instance, I've been working with a little chap who had all his friction sounds mixed up, neither discriminating nor producing the differences between:

  • "s/z" and "f/v" e.g. he said he was size years old, and had taken the cat in the zan to the zet.
  • "s/z" and "sh/zh", and "ts/dz" and "ch/j" e.g. he would sow me the pirate's trezure, cats the football and dzump over puddles.
  • "f/v" and "th" e.g. he fought he might go wif his mum to vuh featre. This is fairly standard for size-year-olds and even tsildren as old as six or sezen.

It's important for school-aged children to learn to discriminate and produce speech sounds correctly in their first few years of school, because the longer you practise an articulation error, the harder it is to dislodge, and the more difficult associated sound-letter relationships are to learn. We know that children with speech difficulties are more likely to struggle with literacy than their classmates.

fowlers flowers

Sound order

Anyone who's taught English as a second language knows that learners often mix up "kitchen" and "chicken" because these two words contain identical sounds, but in a different order. To complicate matters, the spelling "ch" can represent both the sound "k" as in "school" and the sound "ch" in "chicken".

There are lost, oops I mean lots, of words in English composed of identical sounds in a different order. The most confusable ones swap sounds around in hard-to-discriminate parts of the word:

  • Tap-pan-apt and top-pot-opt are easy to discriminate because each word has a different first sound, and first sounds in words are the easiest to discriminate.
  • Cusp-cups, best-bets and west-wets are a bit harder because the sounds swapped are at the end, which is not as easy to hear as the beginning. Also, the sounds "s" and "t" are very similar. Try saying "t" for a long time, and you'll find it blurs into "s", as both sounds are made with tongue tip behind teeth, but "t" stops the air and then releases it, whereas the "s" squeezes air through a narrow space.
  • Blot-bolt, cold-clod, bulb-blub have sounds swapped inside the word, not at the easier-to-hear beginning or end. However, the sound "l" after a vowel changes the pronunciation of the vowel somewhat, because "l" is a vowel-like consonant sound (lots of air coming out the sides of the tongue, so it's a fairly open sound, like a vowel). This makes these word pairs a bit easier to differentiate.
  • Split-spilt and silts-slits are trickier again, because these word pairs contain the same five sounds, and the same first and last sounds. The only difference is that two of the three sounds inside the words are swapped.

Because adults tend to focus on and understand letters more than speech sounds, spelling errors based on not discriminating the order of sounds in a word are often misinterpreted as visual errors.

viennese franfurts

Sound number

Most people know that young children often simplify hard-to-say words by dropping a sound or two out. They say "tain" for "train", "han" for "hand", "sop" for "stop" and "ting" for "string".

Putting two consonant sounds together is quite difficult because they're fast, precisely-articulated sounds, just ask any Japanese speaker trying to learn English. In Japanese, consonant sounds are always separated by vowels, which is why Japanese visitors say Australians are fuhrienuhduhly, and ask after the health of your guhranuhduhma.

Likewise, the individual sounds in consonant combinations are relatively hard to discriminate, yet when a child writes "back" for "black", this is often treated as a visual or vocabulary error, not a hearing-all-the-sounds one.

The other problem is that little kids, and older ones with weaker working memory, can't keep many sounds in their heads at once. If you ask them to break up a word that contains five sounds like "stamp", chances are that one of the sounds will drop out. Alternatively, they might suggest clumps of sounds like "st" or "amp", and not be able to drill right down to single sounds and hold them all in working memory at the same time.

Learning clumps like consonant blends and rimes seems like a solution to this problem, till you realise how many possible consonant blends and rimes there are in English. There's just no way our brains can memorise them all, even if we had time to do it.

My hobby mispronouncing words

Graphic: http://btezcan.edublogs.org

Mispronunciations – a red flag for spelling/reading problems

Some mispronunciations are just slips of the tongue, like calling peas and carrots "keys and parrots" (OK that's probably a deliberate Spoonerism) but others can indicate problems discriminating sounds, and thus learning and differentiating words.

Think of teenagers and adults who say "aks" instead of "ask", and regularly use NQR words like "Antartic", "ecscape", "libary", "mischievious", "nucular", "ostensively", "perogative", "pronounciation", "sherbert" and "zooology", or say their grape grandfather had a prostrate problem. I have an red-and-black outfit with a slightly Spanish look to it, which the other day was called my "flamingo" outfit.

Frequent mispronunciations and misused words like these suggest that a person hasn't really nailed down the sounds-and-spelling thing very well. This tends to be paid little official attention, because they're still understood, and officially nobody really cares too much about spelling in the spellcheck age.

However, mispronunciations and misspellings can be interpreted to mean that a person isn't very smart, careful or well-educated. There are plenty of articles on the internet with titles like "10 words you mispronounce that make people think you are an idiot". Job applications containing spelling errors typically end up in the round filing cabinet.

Skilled readers and spellers have the tools they need to effortlessly unpack a new word's structure – syllables, sounds and their spellings, affixes and stems – and then put it back together in their heads. Good phonemic awareness is one of the main tools, and it's closely related to and reinforced by spelling pattern knowledge.

When skilled readers and spellers hear a new word such as an unfamiliar name, they'll often ask how it's spelt, and do a mental mapping-sounds-onto-letters exercise, which helps them store a more detailed representation of the word's structure, both spoken and written.

Weaker readers and spellers tend not to be able to do this as well, so their mental representations of words are less precise and complete.

Children can be systematically taught how to discern the identity, number and order of sounds in words (my workbooks are just one way to do this), to build their phonemic awareness. Why this doesn't routinely happen in schools remains a mystery.


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