Phonological awareness refers to knowledge of the sound units (phonemes) used in a language, including the ability to hear and produce separate phonemes. Following initial work by Mattingly (1972), Wagner and Torgesen (1987) define phonological awareness as "awareness of and access to the phonology of one's language" (p. 192). Similarly, Blachman (2000, p. 483) defines phonological awareness as "awareness of the phonological segments in speech," and Ehri et al. (2001) refer to the "ability to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken words" (p.2S3). Some researchers use the term phonemic awareness to refer to awareness of the smallest sound units (phonemes) and phonological awareness to refer to awareness of all sound units (including phonemes, syllables, and words), but for our purposes I use the terms interchangeably to refer to awareness of phonemes.
Phonological awareness involves knowing that words are composed of sound units and that sound units can be combined to form words. For example, the spoken word "hat" consists of three phonemes: /h/, /a/, and /t/.Phonological awareness refers to (1) the process of breaking a spoken word into its sound units-such as being able to discriminate the sounds /h/, /a/, and /t/ when the word "hat"' is spoken-and (2) the process of producing and blending sound units to form spoken words-such as being able to produce and blend these three sounds when one wants to say the word "hat."
If you looked at a spectrogram showing the speech stream for a sentence such as "The cat in the hat is back," you would not see a series of neatly separated sound units. Instead, you would see continuous waves representing acoustic energy Acoustic speech entering our ears comes as a continuous flow. The apparent segmentation that we hear is based on our cognitive processing, rather than on the acoustic properties of the utterance. The ability to segment a continuous flow into discrete sound units requires learning by the listener.
Standard American English contains approximately 42 basic sound units (i.e., "phonemes"), although regional differences in pronunciation and dialect can create more units. Interestingly, there are more than 26 phonemes in English because some letters can produce more than one sound. For example, "c" can be hard as in "cat" or soft as in "cent." Phonological awareness of English does not focus on awareness of the relation between letters and sounds, but rather consists of representing these sound units in long-term memory.
What are the sounds in the spoken word, "cat"? What word is made of the spoken sounds, /s/ /k/ /u/ /l/? What is the spoken word "smile" without the /s/ sound? All are examples of tests of phonological awareness (referred to respectively as phoneme segmentation, phoneme blending, and phoneme deletion). Students are classified as phonologically aware if they are able to break a spoken word such as "cat" into its three constituent sounds; to combine the /s/, /k/, /u/, and /l/ sounds to create the spoken word "school"; and to say "mile" when asked to delete the /s/ sound from the spoken word, "smile." An alternative test of phoneme segmentation is to ask students to tap out the number sounds in a spoken word (such as giving three taps for "hat"). Other common tests include phoneme isolation (e.g., "Tell me the first sound in 'paste' "), phoneme identity (e.g., "Tell me the sound that is the same in 'bike,' 'boy,' and 'bell' "), phoneme categorization (e.g., "Tell me which word does not belong: 'bus,' 'bun,' 'rug' "), and phoneme substitution (e.g., "For 'ball' change the /b/ to /k/"). As you can see, all tests of phonological awareness involve spoken words and sounds and never involve printed words or letters.
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