Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dear Phonemic Awareness

Dear Phonemic Awareness,

You are the process through which a beginning reader learns to thread phonemes (the smallest unit of sounds in words) together to make words.  This usually begins in early childhood, and is a practice that continues through later years in literacy development.

My timeline for this process was a bit different as an immigrant to this country.  I came here at the age of nine, just finishing third grade in my native country.  Over that summer, I attended a summer school class that taught me the alphabets, the days of the week, the months of the year, colors, shapes, and your run-of-the-mill preschool curriculum for English learners.  Then I entered fourth grade, barely speaking any English whatsoever.  Believe me, you don't get anywhere only knowing what day and month it is.

My fourth grade school had a pull-out program for English learners, and it was called Phonics Class.  Seriously, for the longest time, I thought it was called 'Funny Class'.  In my defense, having had no training in the English language or any phonemic awareness, for that matter, it was hard to distinguish the difference between the two.  But it was in this class where I learned the sounds of the alphabet.  With that knowledge, I began to read early readers such as Frog and Toad and Amelia Bedelia.  Even now, when I come across these books, I get the Warm Fuzzies because I remember how proud I was to be able to read a book all on my own.  I didn't necessarily understand all the words in the book--but enough to get the gist of the story--and besides, that was not the point.  The point was: I could read!  But how much context was lost through not understanding some words?

The next time I really thought about phonics again was in graduate school, where in a Reading Education class I learned all about the backlash against phonics instruction.  The argument is that learning to read through only phonics results in learners who do not necessarily understand the words they read, and reading would just be 'going through the motions' of saying aloud the words.  The newer model, called Whole Language instruction, teaches reading via context with emphasis on the meaning of words.  As it turns out, educators began to believe that teaching reading through both Phonics and Whole Language models more effectively provides students with a variety of reading skills to become proficient in word identification, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. 

My experience learning to read English was much different than that of my kiddos, since for all practical purposes, their first language is English.  There's no extra hurdle of learning an entire new language on top of reading and comprehension.  Dear Daughter began exploring phonemic sounds in preschool, and began reading in kindergarten.  On the same track as his big sister, Dear Son is just on the verge of being able to read simple words by himself.  One day, we were walking in a parking structure, and DS announced, plain as day, "That word is 'park', and that's 'level'."  I was pretty shocked to hear him read those words.  So there really has been some phonemic activity going on in that noggin of his!

Immediately after that, we bought a set of magnetic letters for him to make words and help with this new endeavor.  We would make some rhyming words that focused on the differences of beginning sounds and same ending sounds.  Or we would make words simply by exploring each phoneme in them.  Soon, I started leaving messages on the board to see if DS can sound out the words.  To my surprise, he could read many easy words, and even some harder ones with help.  I've written phrases such as 'Happy Friday', 'Cat in the Hat', and 'Hop of Pop', which he could read pretty well.  Some longer ones, such as 'It is almost summer' and 'Mouse visits Bear', he needed some phonemic cues to read entirely.  Of course, I grinned from ear to ear when he read to me what I wrote in the picture above!

To further illustrate the positive effects of phonemic awareness, here is an account of siblings having fun with each other to pass time in the car.  As with many other hilarious backseat convos, this one had me doing my best to keep my mouth shut.

If you are familiar with the show The Wonder Pets, then you know the catchy tune that goes, "Linny, Tuck, and Ming Ming, too, we're Wonder Pets and we'll help you..."  Well, for whatever reason, the kiddos were singing that song one day, and somehow they decided to sing in alliteration: replace the first sound of each word with the same sound.  So this is how it went...

They started with consonants: "Let's do T, so it's 'Tinny, Tuck, and Ting Ting, too'; let's do B: 'Binny, Buck, and Bing, Bing, too'; how about Z? 'Zinny, Zuck, and Zing Zing, too'."  Then they moved on to blends (voiced combinations of consonants) such as pl-: 'Plinny, Pluck, and Pling Pling, too' and gr-: 'Grinny, Gruck, and Gring Gring, too', followed by diagraphs (voiceless combinations of consonants) such as sh-: 'Shinny, Shuck, and Shing Shing, too' and ch-: 'Chinny, Chuck, and Ching Ching, too'.  (Of course they don't know the difference between blends and diagraphs, but the fact they used many of them showed that they do have a grasp in phonemic awareness, and DD obviously helped out with choosing many of the sounds.)

So they went on and on, singing and giggling after each one.  Over and over.  They were practically going through the entire alphabet and sets of consonant blends and diagraphs for the beginning sound.  And all  I could think of was: please don't do the letter F, please, please, please!  I did not want to go into why not, right then and right there!

And magically, they didn't.  Even at later times when they'd sing the song again--thank goodness.  Sometimes a car ride is just not the right place or time for a vocabulary lesson!

Ironically, the kiddos are now learning a new language: my native language.  They've completed a year of weekly lessons at our local Chinese School.  DD has mastered the 37 sounds that blend together to make words in Chinese (in Zhuyin form), and DS has learned many songs and knows how to write simple words in Chinese.  And as the Chinese language is a completely different language in phonemes, syntax, and semantics from English, it requires a whole different set of skills to learn it.  How interesting life presents itself: even though times and circumstances are different, our kiddos are going through what Dear Husband and I went through when we first came to this country: learning a brand new language (albeit slowly and not 'for survival').

I keep hoping that one day I will see a very nice message written back to me on the board from the kiddos.  But all I've gotten back from DD is 'Happy Monday' or 'Happy Tuesday'; um, a little imagination would be nice.  And all I've gotten from DS are Pokemon character names.  Um, yeah.  But I give him props for trying to spell, and Mama can always keep hoping, right? (Bonus: check out the cool snowman on a sled they built out of letters in the bottom right corner; Imagination: check.) 

So, Phonemic Awareness, I believe that you are an important step in mastering the skills of reading and comprehension.  It is also nice that the kiddos can find entertainment just by using you in a sing-song they created in the car.  So cheers to you and your process in my kiddos' journey in reading and writing.  But I get to sing The Wonder Pets song to myself with the F sound and giggle because, unlike the kiddos, I reap the rewards of both Phonics and Whole Language instruction on that one, baby!



  1. Wow. Just, WOW... This post is simply filled with observations and info on the intricacies of the English language, and I am Impressed!
    It also made me stop and think about how hard some people have had to work to get where they are today, how for you, there have been mountains you've had to climb that I didn't really see as I camped out somewhere in the middle.
    And now?
    You've reached the Summit and are over there being Awesome...

    1. You are too kind, Kim! I think I can be forever climbing a mountain and never reach the top... All those English language things? I learned that stuff in grad school. It's been so long ago that I had to look up the words 'diagraph' and 'phoneme'. They were buried somewhere in my brain and deep inside those gray hairs... And LOTS of help from wikipedia, of course!

      I guess growing up here learning a new language was not the hardest part. The worst was being bullied because I was different, but that's a subject for another whole post (or a dozen) all on its own! Thanks for your sweet comments!

  2. Awesome post. I feel about whole language much the way I feel about Everyday Math. ;) It has its place, but ummm you're missing many of the basic strategies that we need to use on a daily basis - simplified. We love reading here, and I hope we always do. We don't leave messages, but I think we might need to start that. It sounds like fun.

    And for DS? Head to the library and check out the Bob Books. It's AMAZING what those books can do. Love love love them.

    1. Michelle, I think I'm getting your gist about Everyday Math now that you compare it to Whole Language! Having learned English heavily through Phonics myself, I don't know how it could be done otherwise. In conjunction, yes, but instead of? Not quite sure how that'd work. (DH attended the second session of Math University, and now I know why you'd support it over Everyday Math. In my defense of my previous post, however, I was just comparing the way I learned math -- traditional and very rote -- to how kids learn it in a much more engaging way now, and Everyday Math was the one curriculum I knew from grad school.)

      We will do exactly that -- go to the library to find us some BOB books. DD never got into them, but DS showed some interest last time at the bookstore. Also, I'm gonna find my set of refrigerator word magnets. Think it's time DD can start making some magnet poetry?! Try the messages if you'd like; it IS fun!

  3. How amazing is it to be fluent in two of the most challenging languages on the planet?(or so I've heard). In undergrad teaching classes, they ONLY taught us whole language instruction. Even back in college, it sounded hokey. I taught kids to read the way I was taught in school--with both phonics AND meaning-building activities. It wasn't until I finished grad school with a Masters in reading, that I felt competent to teach kids to read. Phonics, along with fluency and comprehension, are all vital elements--leave out any, and you're missing one of the legs of your "reading stool." Bob Books are pretty cool. So is the Website Reading A-Z.

    1. Hi, Jennifer! (I'd call you a fellow teacher except I haven't taught since my kids came along.) I couldn't agree with you more about the 'reading stool' being vital in reading instruction, especially as a English-as-a-second-language learner. I needed 'sound tools' to decipher words, as well as contextual clues to understand what I was reading. It's been ages since my M.Ed. degree, but it seems as though that is still the belief, as my kids' school is using both and the kids are doing really well in reading! My son (5) is beginning to have interest in Bob Books, and my daughter (9) uses Reading A-Z at school and home! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. I love it when you talk teacher!!
    Okay now I've decided where my children will go if Chris and I kick the bucket, your home sounds like the perfect place to grow up in :)

    1. You are so funny, Helen! I do talk teacher every now and then, don't I? I guess all that educator training did a number on me. I'm always thinking about what I can do to help the kiddos along in their learning. Your home is the most perfect place for your kids, and no other one can match it, girl!