“Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters yields larger effects than teaching students without letters, …. PA [phonemic awareness] training is more effective when children are taught to use letters to manipulate phonemes. This is because knowledge of letters is essential for transfer to reading and spelling” (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Phonemic awareness enables students to hear and recognize letter sounds, to match letter-sound relationships, and to decode and encode phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can be identified.
Neuroimaging research shows that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changes the “brain and the way it functions.” This change through phonemic awareness training allows even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
The word cat is a common example for teaching phonemic awareness. Neuroimaging research shows that it is much better to teach students to sound out the word cat (one letter sound at a time) than to teach students to memorize or simply recognize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015). The word cat has three distinct phonemes or sounds. Students need to break words into letter sounds, even with simple one-syllable words like cat. It is better to teach students to sound out each letter sound, one letter at a time, even for multisyllabic or compound words. There are no rules to learn when learning phonemic awareness, and students are never asked to guess at a word or to memorize a word list. Students are taught to break all words down into individual letter sounds (decode) and then put those letter sounds back together and read or pronounce the word (encode).
“In order to read, a child must ‘enter the language system;’ this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible….” (pp. 59-68) (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003)
After studying over 100,000 programs, the National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that lack of phonemic awareness was a major cause of reading failure. The NICHD identified lack of phonemic awareness as the primary cause of reading failure (Lyon, 1998). Several of the field’s leading researchers have declared that it is absolutely necessary to teach phonemic awareness if we are to correct reading failure (Chessman et al., 2009; de Graaf et al., 2009; Foorman et al., 2015; Foorman, Breier, and Fletcher, 2003; Kuppen et al., 2011; Lyon, 1998; Oakhill and Cain, 2012; Rayner et al., 2001; Torgesen et al., 2001) and numerous neuroimaging studies (Keller & Just, 2009, Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015) have each shown that teaching phonemic awareness is the way to correct reading failure.