Explicit Intervention in Phonemic Awareness

Intervention Overview

Many children struggling to learn to read have a core deficit in phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness interventions start by assessing students' current skill levels using an informal phonological awareness evaluation. The interventions then offer instruction and practice, along with feedback, to help students develop more advanced skills. This progression moves from fundamental skills like segmenting and blending phonemes within words to more sophisticated abilities such as substituting medial vowel sounds. It can be helpful to use visual scaffolds to anchor the sounds students are working with during interventions. Hand motions, Elkonin boxes, and manipulatives, such as tokens or letter tiles, are popular supports.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is “the ability to be aware of and consciously think about individual speech sounds (phonemes) in spoken words” (International Dyslexia Association, 2022, p. 1). Phonemic awareness is taught without the use of letters or visuals because each phonemic awareness skill is auditory. In fact, people will tell you that phonemic awareness skills can be done in the dark, because it can be. When a learner has phonemic awareness, the learner can isolate, blend, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. This understanding builds the foundation for phonics, improves students’ word reading, and helps them learn to spell.

Blending Sounds

Blending involves putting sounds together. Beginning readers use sound-letter skills to say each sound in a word ("/m/, /a/, /p/), and then blend the sounds together to read the word (map).

Segmenting Words into Sounds

Segmenting involves pulling sounds apart in spoken words (e.g., "fish – /f/, /i/, /sh/"). To spell a word, students must break the word down into its individual sounds and select letters or letter combinations that represent the sounds.

Manipulating Sounds

Manipulation involves changing individual phonemes (sounds) in a word. It is an advanced phonemic awareness skill that includes phoneme addition, deletion, and substitution. Manipulating sounds is the most difficult of all phonemic awareness tasks.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Young learners begin to learn letter-sound correspondences (e.g., m represents the sound /m/) while also developing phonological awareness and phonemic awareness skills. These skills culminate to provide the basis upon which students will learn to read and write. Phonemic awareness is important for a young learner because it allows the students to hear and identify the speech sounds in spoken words which will aid students in becoming proficient in reading and writing. Students need strong phonemic awareness skills to blend sounds together and read words. Furthermore, students need strong phonemic awareness to be able to hear the individual sounds in spoken words to encode (write) the words they hear. Explicit phonemic awareness instruction is essential for all learners especially those with dyslexia and those with speech or language disorders. Students with dyslexia typically have a phonological deficit, so explicit instruction in phonemic awareness is important for this student in aiding their literacy development. Additionally, students with speech and language disorders typically have difficulty deciphering individual sounds and pronouncing the sounds accurately. Students with speech or language difficulties could greatly benefit from phonemic awareness instruction. As you can see, phonemic awareness is important for the development of proficient readers and writers.

Explicit Intervention in Phonemic Awareness

If a student has difficulty with phonemic awareness skills, an explicit intervention in phonemic awareness may be prescribed. Phonemic awareness skills are essential for students to become skilled in reading and writing.

Preparing to Implement the Intervention

Administer a phonological awareness assessment to determine skill attainment and needs. Once focus skills have been identified, plan explicit instructional routines, such as those presented in the video, that model the task and allow for students’ meaningful practice with  target phonemic awareness skills using the “I do, we do, you do” model for instruction. Manipulatives, such as tokens, can serve as visual representations of the phonemes. Remember to connect phonemic awareness intervention with phonics instruction whenever possible to facilitate quicker progress in reading.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I focus on phonemic awareness?

The point of developing a student’s phonemic awareness skills is so they can more efficiently read and spell words. Phoneme-level skills contribute directly to the development of reading skills.

I work with a student who cannot rhyme or identify syllables. Should I intervene here?

Although there are some benefits to learning rhyme and syllables, acquiring these skills has no measurable impact on reading and does not facilitate growth in using phonemes. Mastery of rhyming and syllables is not necessary before moving on to teach basic phonemic awareness. 

Should students practice phonemic awareness with or without letters?

Teaching children to manipulate phonemes using letters is the most effective way to develop phonemic awareness and the method most likely to transfer to word reading. As soon as students know a small handful of letters, incorporating those letters into phonemic awareness instruction will build phoneme awareness and decoding skills better than instruction without letters.

Resources for Phonemic Awareness Interventions

Elkonin boxes are a great way to develop students' phonemic awareness. Students can count the individual sounds called phonemes in each word first, and then they move a chip into each box to represent each sound.

Before starting phonemic awareness intervention, ensure that you and the students are articulating sounds correctly. For example, the first sound in 'dog' is /d/ not /duh/.

Students benefit from watching your mouth position as you articulate and teach individual phonemes. You can describe how the sound is formed by the flow of air, lips, tongue, and teeth. Students can also watch their own mouths making the sounds with hand mirrors.

The University of Florida Literacy Institute's Virtual Teaching Resource Hub features activities to assist teachers to teach phonemic awareness skills using technology.

Use this lesson plan from the National Center on Intensive Intervention to help students practice blending phonemes into words.

Use this lesson plan from the National Center on Intensive Intervention to help students learn to segment words into individual phonemes.

This toolkit from the National Center on Improving Literacy includes many resources on how to support the development of phonemic awareness.

Understand the essential features of speech sounds through animations, videos, and audio samples. English Sounds of Speech is especially useful for English Learners.

Additional Learning Opportunities

Watch Shifting to Structured Literacy: Phonemic Awareness presented by Dr. Jan Hasbrouck.

Watch Understanding the Role of Phonemic Proficiency in Boosting Reading Skills in Struggling Readers  presented by Dr. David Kilpatrick.

Access Module #2 – Phonological Awareness developed by Student Achievement Partners. Guidelines for teaching phonological awareness and concrete recommendations for practice are explored in the course video and accompanying handouts.