Phonemic Awareness: A Predictor of Reading Failure

Phonemic Awareness: A Predictor of Reading Failure
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Predicting Reading Failure

Can reading failure be predicted? According to research done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH),

it can. How? By evaluating the strength of a student’s phonemic awareness skills. Researchers for NIH have concluded that, “The lack of phonemic awareness is the most powerful determinant of the likelihood of failure to learn to read." Mastery of phonemic awareness has been found to be more closely correlated to reading ability than tests of general intelligence, reading readiness, or listening comprehension.

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to distinguish the smallest individual phonemes, or sounds, in a word. Instruction involves teaching children that each syllable in a word is made up of sounds. For example, The five-letter word shock is comprised of only three phonemes /sh/ /o/ /ck/. Children need to understand how sounds work in words before they learn to read print.

How Is It Assessed?

There are a number of assessment tools from testing and assessment companies such as Pearson Learning which can be used to evaluate the strength of a child’s phonemic awareness. Because this skill is such an important predictor of reading failure, early intervention is essential. It is much easier to provide preventive instruction in phonemic awareness than it is to remediate a child once they’ve fallen below grade level in reading proficiency. Proper assessment will help identify which children need phonemic awareness instruction and to what degree it should be implemented.

Is It the Same as Phonics?

Phonemic awareness is not the same as phonics though the two are frequently confused. Phonemic awareness pertains only to the sounds in individual words. Phonics involves understanding the relationship between sounds and the letters that represent those sounds in written language. Children need phonemic awareness in order to fully benefit from phonics instruction.

How Can Skills be Improved?

Necessary skills are built by providing instruction in focusing on and manipulating phonemes in syllables of spoken words. Educators can utilize a variety of exercises to accomplish this.

Phoneme Isolation - Identify an isolated phoneme in a word.

Question: What’s the last sound in bag? Answer: /g/

Phoneme Segmentation - Break a word into separate sounds.

Question: How man sounds are in ship? Answer: /sh/ /i/ /p/. There are 3 sounds in ship

Phoneme Blending - Listen to isolated phonemes and then blend into a word.

Question: What word has the sounds /f/ /l/ /a/ /g/ Answer: flag

Phoneme Deletion - Identify the change in a word when one phoneme is deleted.

Question: What is spot without the /s/ sound Answer: pot

Phoneme Substitution – Substitute one phoneme for another to make a new word.

Question: The word is big. Change the /i/ to /a/. Answer: bag


Phonemic awareness is only one component of a successful reading program. In isolation it does not provide a guarantee of future reading success. However it lays an essential foundation for subsequent instruction in phonics, spelling, and reading fluency which combine to greatly increase the likelihood of a child becoming a life long skilled and fluent reader.