Children understanding the alphabetic principle education essay

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What is phonological awareness and why is it important to beginning reading success? The importance of phonological awareness to early literacy development has been documented by numerous researchers as a necessary prerequisite to oral language and reading development. A focus on the essential elements in reading suggests that specific competencies must be developed. (Rasinski and Padak, 2004). The National Reading Panel (2000) identified phonemic awareness, phonics or word recognition, reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as five elements of literacy instruction which must be emphasized if children are to develop this ability. These competencies: phonemic awareness, phonics/ word recognition and vocabulary are competencies that are elements of phonological awareness and which if acquired at an early age has proven to optimize children's reading abilities. But what is phonological awareness? How is this acquired and how does this facilitate reading success?

Acquisition of phonological awareness in children is recognized when a child becomes generally aware of the fact that spoken words are made up of sounds. Phonological awareness can take the form of: awareness of rhyme, awareness of syllables, awareness of the onsets of words, etc. Skills that represent children's phonological awareness lie on a continuum of complexity. These tasks move from simple activities such as rhyming, as well as segmentation that demonstrates an awareness that speech can be broken down into speech sounds and at the more complex end of the continuum is the more sophisticated level -phonemic awareness, which is the understanding that words are made up of individual phonemes and the ability to manipulate these phonemes. (Chard & Dickson, 1999)

The term phonological awareness falls under an umbrella term known as Phonological processing which refers to the ability for human beings to interpret, assimilate, synthesize and utilize sounds found within their language system. The ability to do this is reliant on a number of factors: a) their phonemic inventory; which is the list of possible sounds found within that language, b) their neurological development, primarily the functions of the brain which determines the physical capabilities of individuals to acquire knowledge and learn based on the diversity of experiences encountered by the individual; and the social environment which serves to provide those language experiences necessary to promote language development. These factors are all pertinent to the development of phonological awareness in individuals.

There are two components which fall under this term (phonological processing).The first is coding and this refers to the assembling of a pronunciation. Coding responses include: phonetic- re-coding which is translating sound into a string of phonemes (smallest unit of speech sound) and phonological re-coding which is translation of the visual images of letters into phonemes, matching these to word patterns stored in long term memory to select the pronunciation, and then using this information to select the lexical entry of the matching word from those stored in the mental lexicon within the brain. The second component - phonological awareness- is an awareness of the phonology of the language system to which the individual belongs. It is the awareness that speech sound is made up of sentences, words, syllables and phonemes. The latter is purely auditory, whilst coding involves print or written language. Of the two processes phonological awareness is less burdensome than coding as it requires less use of memory. However both components play a critical role in children's in reading abilities.

In this regard, Hoover (2002) contends that reading is dependent on two major cognitive competencies. The first is comprehension and the second is decoding-the ability to derive a word's phonological representation from the sequences of letter that represent it. Skill decoding allows the reader, through print, to retrieve meaning of words known and organized through the learning of spoken language. Therefore in order to decode, a conscious understanding of the phonological units underlying the word is critical. Subsequently children who are not able to recode letters (graphemes) quickly into phonemes (sounds) may read slowly or pronounce the wrong word. If these pronunciations are linked to the incorrect word then this will result in miscues (reading errors) and comprehension difficulty. In contrast studies have shown that children who are phonologically aware of the units of speech, and are able to articulate and manipulate these ultimately acquire reading competencies sooner than those who don't.

Research shows that phonological and phonemic awareness can be taught and learned. When these skills are developed, the result is that children have a much easier time learning to read (and write). Correlation studies conducted in this area has found that when students received instruction in phonemic awareness they possessed better reading abilities than those who didn't. (Hoover, 2002). Teachers must therefore be guided by theoretical principles that underpin phonological awareness development. They must possess a thorough understanding of the salient principles underlying instructional approaches in this area, if they are to be successful at addressing phonological awareness difficulties in children. Teachers must possess an understanding of how speech develops in children. This will enable them to recognize where there might be deficits and be able to provide the necessary guidance for children. In addition teachers should be able to ascertain where an individual child has reached on the phonological awareness continuum and are able to provide stage appropriate activities rather than age appropriate ones.

Scientific research has documented the effects of phonological awareness on reading acquisition and this has resulted in a shift in how teachers at the elementary and primary level of the education system here in Jamaica are now been asked to approach literacy instruction in these early grades, in an attempt to remediate the prevailing low rates of literacy performances in the primary schools. One of the initiatives implemented by the government of Jamaica was to assign literacy specialist to schools that were identified as having challenges with literacy performance. My work in this area allowed me the opportunity of being selected as one of these specialists. Hence, I was assigned to four schools with the responsibility of helping teachers and students to improve their literacy results.

Situational analysis was conducted on those schools to which I was assigned and conferencing held with teachers to determine the weaknesses of the children in literacy performance. Majority of teachers cited that the children had poor phonics skills. This they felt was the cause of the poor literacy performances, even though the teaching of phonics was a primary focus in all these school. Interaction with the students led me to realize that the students did not really have a problem with phonics but that the actual problem was phonemic awareness. A significant percentage of the students could not isolate specific sounds in word, rhyme, blend given sounds and complete other phonemic awareness tasks. As such, the focused instruction in phonics instruction was counterproductive. Phonics involves the ability to connect written letters within a language with the sounds of that language in order to decode words. Like phonemic awareness this is a sub-component of phonological awareness. However, documented studies have shown that children who have not acquired phonemic awareness, instruction in letter -sound associations (phonics) will not be effective in helping them decode words. (Rasinski & Padak, 2004; Miller, 2000) The prevailing view regarding instruction in these areas is that, they increase children's chances at decoding when they are taught simultaneously.

In order to assist teachers in developing the distinction in both and instructional methodologies pertinent to the development of these components, training was provided for teachers within these schools on these areas. Students were given pull out sessions in these areas and teachers received support through demonstration lessons and vetting of lesson plans. Schools were visited once per week and conferencing was held with teachers re the use of strategies and observations carried out within the classrooms. Of the four schools, it was evident that a particular teacher in one school had a consistent approach towards this suggestion and by the end of the first term children had begun to show significant improvements in their letter-sound correspondence and was well into acquiring sight words, had improved in their oral language skills and were able to read leveled readers.

At the end of the year, assessment was conducted at schools to determine the level that the shared strategies and monitoring of such had on the overall literacy performance of the students. This assessment was done using the Dolch sight word list and the Yopp-Singer phonemic awareness inventory. Students were also invited to participate in a literacy competition for all the schools I had supervision over and the students at grades one and two were engaged in a spelling competition. The results of these assessments as it relates to literacy performance were in fact in keeping with what scientific research has proven about exposure to phonemic awareness development and literacy performance. It was observed that the students who had a consistent approach to phonemic awareness instruction outperformed the other children in: rapid letter naming, decoding, sight word knowledge and automaticity and subsequently won all categories in the spelling competition.

In addition, I remember working with one teacher at grade four to improve the performances of the students and to have them prepared for the standardized Grade Four Literacy Examinations. As was common to most grades I was asked to work with, a significant percentage the children were performing below their expected levels of reading and only eighteen (18%) percent of them had mastered the standardized Grade Three Diagnostic Test. The observations made, were in keeping with what studies have shown about late readers. The view is that children who are often poor readers in fourth grade almost invariably had difficulties in kindergarten and first grade with critical phonological skills: their knowledge of letter names, their phonemic awareness (ability to hear, distinguish, and blend individual sounds), their ability to match sound to print, and their other skills in using the alphabetic principle are weak.

An approach at phonemic awareness acquisition coupled with word recognition activities was employed. Demonstration lessons conducted with teachers and students were geared towards the acquisition of these. Over a period of time the teacher started reporting signs of improvements in children's abilities to 'figure out'-(decode) words. Subsequently by the end of the year there was seventy three (73%) mastery in literacy performances for those students and one of my biggest success stories whilst working in such capacity. Additionally data collected and analyzed from other in-house tests conducted at the school level, results of performances on other standardized, observation of students in oral language activities and conferencing with teachers all indicated that where there was a targeted approach at phonemic awareness intervention, students had better or improved results in their literacy performances.

The only determining variable that could have caused the difference in results was that of a consistent approach at phonemic awareness instruction with those students in comparison to the students of the other three schools, and exposure to phonemic awareness instruction at grade four. These cases clearly reflects the impact that instruction in phonological /phonemic awareness can have on student s performance in literacy acquisition and served to support the scientific studies that has been undertaken in this area.

It must be emphasized that not all children's phonological awareness develop at the same pace and according to Williamson (2008) sometimes this will result in phonological disorders. These disorders can either be phonetic- the inability to articulate sounds or phonemic- the inability to manipulate the sounds of the language. If teachers do not know the difference they can easily associate such occurrences in children as failure to read. I myself in my early years as a teacher often thought this to be so until I was exposed to the concept of phonological awareness and more so phonemic awareness and began to utilize this knowledge as I planned and executed literacy instructions.

Teachers can determine if children's phonological development- that is their ability to recognize and use speech sounds- are in keeping with stated patterns. Children's oral mechanism, vocalization, mean length of utterance, intelligibility, phonemic inventory, consonant and consonant clusters confusion, and phonological processes are all indicators of a child's phonological development. Therefore teachers must be cognizant of the implications each of these has for phonological awareness development and thus tailor instruction/support accordingly. For e.g. the development of a child's oral mechanism is related to the speed of articulation. In additional it has been noted scientifically that the linguistic abilities of girls are more advanced than those of boys as early as age nine. Teachers must also be guided by this knowledge as they seek to foster phonological awareness development in children.

Also, in cases where more than one language system is operating together such as Creole and Standard English in the Caribbean, differences may exist in the phonology of these systems often causing interference in most cases in the acquisition of the formal language system. The implications for teachers operating in such context is the ability to help students articulate and identify these sounds that might not be a part of their first language in order to develop competency in a language that is the language of transaction, books and formal communication; suggesting a strong need for phonological development. (Warrican & Spencer-Ernandez, 2006)

As such, a targeted approach at phonological awareness acquisition must be employed in the early grades. This will be ensured through regular continuous assessment tasks requiring students to perform tasks at the various levels of the phonological awareness continuum. Close monitoring of students' oral language development, and periodic screening of phonological awareness development must be an ongoing and documented feature of every reading programmes especially at the lower grades in primary schools.

Phonological awareness development thrives in an atmosphere of creativity, and according to Chard & Dickson (1999) documented effective approaches to teaching phonological awareness generally includes activities that are age appropriate and highly engaging. Teachers must be prepared to assist students in developing phonological awareness skills. They must be equipped with the knowledge that enables them to know when a child is not at the expected level of their phonological awareness development.

When this is realized instruction should be planned so as to deliberately target and aid its development. Therefore teachers should not see lack of /inadequate phonological awareness skills in children as a deterrent to engaging students in literary tasks. One of the functions that language serves is that of a social function. Hence, if children are given opportunities to hear and speak language, this will serve as a stimulus in providing some of those experiences that are critical in building their phonological awareness skills. Teachers must also be exemplary role models in the use of language and the modeling of such. Unless this is established at the early grades then Phonological awareness development will most likely be retarded and the continued pervasiveness of poor literacy performances will continue to perpetuate.

Notwithstanding phonological awareness by itself cannot cure all the reading challenges that we face in the classroom. This must be coupled with other approaches that have proven success in promoting reading acquisition.

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