At the third meeting, the speech pathologists discuss the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness skills.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in words. Phonics is the ability to recognize the relationship between individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language with the letters of written language.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of spoken language. A grapheme is the smallest part of written language that represents the phoneme in the spelling of a word. A grapheme may be just one letter such as b, g, or s or several letters such as ch, sh, igh.

Phonemic awareness is an auditory skill where students first learn to identify and manipulate individual sounds. Students are then taught to manipulate these phonemes by visually using the letters of the alphabet so they can see how it relates to reading.

Phonemic awareness skills become interwoven with phonics skills instruction. Phonemic awareness and phonics are not taught in isolation.

Phonemic awareness falls under the larger umbrella of phonological awareness. The stages of phonological awareness development are the recognition that:

  • Sentences are made up of words. For example, the sun is bright in the sky.
  • Words can rhyme. For example, the sun is fun.
  • Words can be broken down into syllables. For example, sun is one syllable, sun-shine is two syllables.
  • Words can be broken into onsets and rhymes. For example, s-un, s-unshine.
  • Words can begin with the same sound. For example, sun, sock and soap begin with /s/.
  • Words can end with the same sound. For example, bus, class and horse end with /s/.
  • Words can have the same medial sound. For example, baseball, messy and pencil have /s/ as a medial sound.

And finally,

  • Words can be broken into individual phonemes. For example, s-u-n, s-u-n-sh-i-ne or s-u-nn-y.

Many classroom teachers may not be aware of the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics. The teacher preparation program at their universities may have only emphasized phonics instruction, so these teachers may not provide direct instruction of phonemic awareness skills.

However, without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense. Phonemic awareness is a leading predictor of reading success in young children. Phonemic awareness skills have a direct impact on reading comprehension so these skills need to be explicitly taught.

Two areas of phonemic awareness instruction are segmenting and blending. Elkonin Boxes are often used to help students with the activities.

When students break words into individual phonemes, they are segmenting the words. The word "big" is segmented into /b/ /i/ /g/. Segmenting also occurs when students break words into syllables.

The word "baseball" is segmented into two syllables /base/ /ball/. Students also learn to break syllables or words into onset and rhymes. The word "sun" has the onset /s/ and /un/ is the rhyme.

Blending occurs when students combine individual phonemes to form words. They hear the sounds /b/ /a/ /t/ and blend it to form the word /bat/.

They see the letters /b/ /a/ /t/ on the Elkonin Boxes and blend it to read /bat/. Blending also occurs when students combine onset and rhymes to make syllables or when they combine syllables to make words.

The superintendent instructs the director of curriculum and instruction to survey the preschool and kindergarten teachers to determine who is properly trained in phonemic awareness skills instruction.

The speech pathologists open the fourth meeting with a discussion on active listening skills. All students arrive at school and enter their classrooms. They are in attendance but are they really attending?

Some students may be sitting at their desks, but they aren’t really there. It should not be assumed that students come to school with the ability to listen. It is not enough for teachers to say, "Boys and girls, please pay attention," or to say "1-2-3, all eyes on me." Listening skills must be explicitly taught.

The speech pathologists explain three common myths regarding listening:

  1. Hearing and listening are the same. This statement is false, so teachers should not assume that because a child can hear that he is also listening.
  2. Listening is automatic from birth. This statement is also false, so teachers should not assume that children enter school with intact listening skills.
  3. Listening is a passive activity. This is not true. Active listening needs to be an integral part of the daily lesson plan.

Research has shown that active listening is more exhausting than speaking. Active listening concentrates on what is being said rather than passively listening to the speaker’s message.

It requires focus and consciously uses all of the senses to understand what is being communicated by the sender. It is a language skill that is found in the Common Core State Standards and is vital to the 21st century skills of collaboration and communication.

Active listening is also a critical vehicle for metacognitive processes to become fully engaged during classroom instruction. Metacognition is "thinking about thinking."

It is a student’s ability to plan, monitor and assess his/her thoughts, understanding and performance. Metacognition leads to improved comprehension and higher order thinking skills that are central to the common core standards and crucial for 21st century job skills.

Asking questions, checking for understanding, having students follow one-, two- or three-level commands, eliciting ideas, provoking spirited discourse and providing opportunities for problem solving activities that involve critical and creating thinking are examples of how active listening skills are developed throughout the school day.

The superintendent informs the director of curriculum and instruction that active listening skills contained in the common core standards need to be examined at every grade level.

The superintendent’s conclusions:

1. Do not assume that all students enter school with the ability to understand and express themselves with adequate oral language skills. A student may speak in sentences but his/her vocabulary is weak which prevents him from learning to comprehend what he reads.

2. Do not assume that student centered classroom activities such as paired reading or word study are going to naturally increase vocabulary. Vocabulary needs to be taught in order for word power to expand. Words that are learned need to move from short term memory into long term memory files. They need to stick to something-to a category-so they don’t disappear.

3. Do not assume that all students enter school with the ability to listen. Active listening skills need to be taught.

4. Do not assume that all teachers know how to teach phonemic awareness. Some may confuse it with phonics.

The superintendent recommends:

1. Hire literacy coaches that include both reading teachers as well as speech and language pathologists who hold teaching certificates. The speech and language pathologists can provide early literacy support to preschool and elementary classroom teachers.

2. Design professional development workshops for classroom teachers so they can learn to provide direct instruction in active listening.

3. Design professional development workshops for classroom teachers so they can learn to provide direct instruction in phonemic awareness and then tie it together with phonics.

4. Design professional development workshops for classroom teachers so they can learn to develop lesson plans that incorporate vocabulary across all subject areas to facilitate long term memory.

5. Provide training to administrators on how to observe quality phonemic awareness, vocabulary and active listening instruction in the classroom.

6. Establish a committee to develop a series of early literacy workshops for parents as well as day care providers in the community.

7. Develop an early literacy informational brochure highlighting the school district’s efforts to be sent to local pediatricians’ offices.

The superintendent realizes that all the skills described by the speech and language pathologists need to be established early.

This will prove beneficial to all students as they reach upper elementary grades where learning to read switches to reading to learn, where math computation leads to math problem solving, and finally where success in STEAM projects becomes dependent on the four Cs. Therefore, her final recommendation is:

8. Select an early literacy screening tool for all preschool students and provide training to staff members of the various preschool programs in the district.

The superintendent begins to implement these recommendations as part of the district’s universal design for learning instructional framework. It is her hope that all children from across all departments will benefit.

These include preschool students, English language learners, at risk students, special education students as well as regular education students. After all, language development is essential to educational success for everyone. It is a priority.