In order to become a reader at the initial stage, a child needs to develop phonemic awareness. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that differentiates words in a given language. There are 44 phonemes in the English language, represented by the 26 letters of our alphabet. Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and isolate the individual phonemes in a word.
For example, the word sent has four phonemes — the sounds represented by each of its letters. An individual with good phonemic awareness is able to differentiate among and manipulate the four sounds. Phonemes are not the same as letters: the word toad has only three phonemes, though it has four letters; the “oa” is a digraph that represents a single sound, the long vowel ō.
Children do not develop phonemic awareness naturally, as it is not inherent in the process of listening to sounds of words. It is not necessary to break up words into separate sounds to hear or to speak them; to the ear, a single-syllable word seems like one continuous bundle of sound. Children gain phonemic awareness through exposure to print and the concept that letters represent sounds.
Most children will start to pick this up as preschoolers as their parents, older siblings, and other caregivers point out the relationship between sounds and letters. Once they begin to learn to read, their early attempts at decoding reinforces their rudimentary skills, and the level of phonemic awareness increases. Thus, phonemic awareness is a learned skill.
You can help your young child develop phonemic awareness skills at home drawing his attention to letters and their sounds, and playing games involving manipulation of sounds, such as pig-latin, and teaching rhyming games and songs, such as the “Name Game.”
Most children with dyslexia will score poorly on tests designed to measure phonemic awareness, and they will have corresponding difficulty using phonetic strategies to decode words. Because of their reading delays, they will not be able to build skills through reading experience, and they will tend to fall farther behind their peers as time goes on. For this reason, programs to help children with reading difficulties often include specific training in phonemic awareness. These programs may be helpful to very young readers to help them with beginning reading skills.