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What Is Phonological Awareness?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
  • Edited By: S. Pike
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2014
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Phonology is the study of the sounds that form spoken human language, and phonological awareness is believed to be one of the cognitive crucibles that enables a person to acquire or learn not only spoken language, but also, later, reading and writing ability. It is the measurable awareness or attention to distinguish and manipulate each different unit of sound. The actual mental representation of a sound’s structure is not addressed, in part because according to prevailing theory, is this is a purely physical or neurological function that develops very early in life. Awareness is a metalinguistic skill involving conscious effort to evaluate and restructure recognized sounds.

Research in phonological awareness is often approached from three structures of the sound of language. The first of these is the basic building block called a phoneme, the smallest segmental unit of sound, such as consonants and vowels. Words are formed with the sequential blending of two or more phonemes.

When multiple phonemes come together, there is a structure to their combined sound commonly described as its three sequential components: the onset, a nucleus, and ending coda. The nucleus and coda together constitutes a rhyme, also termed rime in linguistic studies. The ability to hear, recognize, generate and speak onset and rime sounds is a strong marker for healthy phonological awareness.

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The combined onset, nucleus and coda usually forms a syllable, a unit of speech sound that is not only the building block of words, but also that of a fully fledged language. Any language can be characterized by the rhythm and phonetic nature of its syllabic possibilities. All languages develop in complexity of expression in part through increasingly polysyllabic words. The ability to identify and segment syllables is considered critical to language development, a system of stringing words together to communicate a thought.

For most children, phonological awareness begins at 3 years of age and rapidly develops in the subsequent two years. The universal progression appears to be from larger to smaller sound units, from syllables to phonemes. Furthermore, there appears to be a natural developmental progression of complexity of processing, from identification of a sound to its manipulation. There is a reason children are exposed to nursery rhymes and rhythmic songs at an early age. Phonological awareness is relevant to educational psychology and therapies for speech disorders.

Dyslexia is a broad class of learning and literacy dysfunctions believed to commonly affect five to ten percent of the general population. It is characterized by a wide variety of symptoms and its underlying cause is theorized by an equally varied range of explanations. One of these is the phonological deficit hypothesis, which postulates that dyslexics have an impairment with sound recognition and manipulation. This affects auditory memory and recall for rapid processing of both speech and the decoding of graphic letter symbols into sounds.

Although its popularity as a teaching method for literacy has waxed and waned over many years, the curriculum for children, both normal and developmentally delayed, called “phonics” remains popular. Based on phonemic awareness only, it emphasizes the mastery of matching alphabetic letters and learning the rules of spelling to effectively read and write. In line with the general principles of phonological awareness, it is the learning of language as sound, separate from its meaning and comprehension.

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