Trying to figure out what the different preschool and kindergarten reading curriculum are talking about? Aren’t phonics, phonology, and phonemics all the same thing? What if your child is struggling to just learn her alphabet?

Let’s discuss the differences between phonics, phonology, phonemic awareness and emergent literacy, and then see how to help your child in these areas.

Verbal language skills and reading skills are connected

Many of the kids I’ve worked with in speech and language therapy also have difficulties with spelling, reading, and writing. And it makes sense that there’s a connection between a child’s verbal speech and language skills and their reading and writing abilities. Children need to have a solid foundation of spoken language (sounds, vocabulary, sentence structure) before they can successfully transfer those skills into written language. In other words, if a child can’t use a prepositional phrase or subject-verb agreement when he is talking, he won’t have the skills to use it in writing either. Another example would be if a child has never seen or heard about a camel, she doesn’t have the background knowledge to know what a camel is, and therefore she won’t be able to make a lasting connection in her memory after sounding out the word while reading. Also, for children with multiple articulation errors, they aren’t going to be able to “sound out” a word to spell it correctly. For example, if a child substitutes w for r and l and t for sh, they might spell marshmallow as motmowow.

Phonics, phonemics and phonology, oh my!

So, if speech and language delays are directly tied to delays in reading and writing, how can you help your child who is struggling? Let’s look at some of the different areas to focus upon. When checking out beginning reading and writing curriculum, you have probably seen and heard these four phrases thrown around: phonological skills, phonemic awareness, emergent literacy and phonics. Unless you have done a lot of research (seriously, who has time for THAT!) they probably all kind of seem to mean the same thing. Granted these skills are all related, but they are different.

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Phonics

Many beginning reading programs either focus on “whole langauge” (very popular twenty years ago, however, is not as wonderful as it sounds; I don’t recommend those types of programs) or “phonics.” Phonics is simply learning that certain letter or letters stand for or symbolize sounds (the technical term for sounds is phonemes).

Phonology

Phonological skills are technically a subset of language skills even though it seems more like a speech skill. Check out this article from the American Speech Language Hearing Association for an explanation of the difference between phonology and articulation errors. Phonological skills fall mainly into these four areas.

  • Phonemic awareness: phoneme means sound, so being aware that words are made up of separate sounds or phonemes.
  • Rhyming/alliteration is enjoying listening to, matching and producing words that rhyme or all start with the same sound (alliteration).
  • Syllables: being able to clap out and distinguish how many syllables are in a word (and along with that, separating compound words into two words).
  • Words in sentences: understanding that language is made up of separate words

Phonemic awareness

Listening skills become really important when introducing phonemic awareness tasks. There are four main components of phonemic awareness. First, being able to add, delete or substitute a different phoneme in place of another. For example, many beginning words are “word families” like -at: bat, cat, hat and so on. The ability to take the first sound off and substitute a new sound is really necessary for learning the words in the word family.

Second, being able to sequence or distinguish and remember specific phonemes or sounds (not the letters) in the word, for example, d-ah-g for dog. Third, blending two or more phonemes or sounds together to make a word. The fourth main skill is isolating phonemes, such as finding all the words that start with the same sound or that have the same vowel sound. Phonemic awareness will naturally turn into phonics instruction as the child learns that certain alphabetic letters stand for the sounds in words.

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Emergent literacy

Emergent literacy simply means beginning (or emerging) reading and writing; these are sometimes called “pre-reading” activities. An example of this would be your three year old, yelling “McDonalds!” everytime you drive past a McDonald’s He’s learned to associate the golden arches with eating happy meals. Understanding that brand shapes or symbols represent a place or thing is an emerging literacy skill, hence the name “emergent literacy.”

There are hundreds of free or nearly free games and activities to play with your preschooler to boost their blossoming skills in this area—just do a Google search or look on Pinterest. One of my favorite games to play with preschoolers who can’t yet identify individual letters is to make a matching game out of the fronts of food boxes (like two each of crispy rice cereal, brownie mix, jello, mashed potatoes). They can “read” the box fronts by matching the pictures/words and if you teach them what each box front stands for, they will soon be able to fetch items from the pantry for you while you’re cooking!

A Speech language pathologist can help

If your child is struggling with reading and writing as well as speech and language delays, talk to your speech-language pathologist (SLP) about working on your child’s literacy skills at the same time as their speech and language. If you don’t know if your child’s speech or language is delayed, check out these articles: speech and language. Some of the areas that SLPs can target include:

  • Phonological (and phonemic) Skills
  • Spelling
  • Reading and writing efficiently and fluently
  • Knowing what to write about/organizing thoughts
  • Dsylexia
child holding letters in hand
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phonics phonology phonemic awareness

What you can do to help your child

Regardless of whether or not you seek professional intervention for your child’s language and literacy skills, remember that the earlier you help your child with these skills, the more successful they will be with their reading and writing. Here are some specific steps to take at home that may help your child’s reading, spelling, and writing.

  • Make sure your child understands that symbols can represent nouns through emergent literacy activities.
  • Work on the four main skill areas of phonological awareness, then move onto the four areas of phonemic awareness.
  • Use a good phonics based program such as Explode the Code.
  • Discuss what they’ve read (or had read to them) and have them re-tell you (or a family member) the story. Act out the story in play. Fairy tales work fabulously for this!
  • Read a book jointly three or four times a week.
  • Have them create a story: use a wordless picture book or let them make up their own. A story should have a character, a setting, a problem, an emotional response, and a solution to the problem.
  • Balance the amount of time you spend on reading with an equal amount of time spelling and writing.

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