I have a long personal and professional history with early childhood and education issues. Even so, I find that our work here sometimes produces delightful ah-ha moments, when something I’ve long known takes on a different light.
My latest example of this relates to phonemic awareness, one of the critical building blocks to literacy. A “phoneme” is a speech sound, the smallest unit of spoken language. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds. For example, “mat” has three phonemes: /m/ /a/ /t/.
Here at Best Beginnings, we put a lot of emphasis on singing, talking, rhyming, and reading with children beginning at birth. Those interactions are important for a lot of reasons, but all those ways of playing with words lay the groundwork for the wonderful world of reading.
If you love to read, you don’t pay attention to sounds or letters or how they come together. You don’t notice, for example, that words in English may end with “ks” or “rf,” but they never begin with those letter combinations. Reading is a complex series of connections that involve multiple skills, integrating in a way that creates meaning off the page. Reading doesn’t just happen. It’s a skill that must be taught.
Try this little exercise working backward from your own reading. From a sentence (a combination of words), we derive meaning. Before that, we process each word. Before that, we see and process combinations of letters. But how did we learn letters? For most of us (people with hearing disabilities learn it through another route), the critical connection to the written word is through sound. We learned sounds first, then learned to ascribe meaning to combinations of sounds. Then we learned that sounds we heard and spoke have corresponding marks on a page.
Early literacy is not about teaching children to read earlier. Rather, it’s about providing young children with the foundation that must be in place to prepare for reading. And that foundation is what we call phonemic awareness. It is a necessary ingredient in learning to read, and it starts early – in whatever language you may speak in your home. Which is why singing, vocalizing with baby, chattering, and Mother Goose are all so important.