Read the following sentence taken from a 3rd grade module on the bullfrog and its habitat and observe how the meaning changes with different intonation and stress, as indicated by the punctuation and emphasis in italics:
The bullfrog eats the moth.
The bullfrog eats the moth?
The bullfrog eats the moth!
The bullfrog eats the moth.
The bullfrog eats the moth.
The reason you can read these sentences and understand the nuances in meaning is because as you are reading, your brain is making connections between the representations of letters or letter combinations (graphemes), as well as text features like italics and punctuation, and their corresponding sounds that you know from your knowledge of oral language.
We are hard-wired for speech, not for reading
It’s called phonological awareness – our neurobiological ability to perceive speech sounds – sounds that carry meaning – from other sounds. It’s how we can ‘hear’ when someone has an accent, it’s when comprehension breaks down if someone speaks too fast or mumbles, it’s how we can tell if someone is asking a question or making a statement, and in school – it’s what gives us the ability to learn how to read and process written language. Reading is NOT a natural linguistic ability, but a learned skill! Leonard Bloomfield in his 1942 article, “Linguistics and Reading” wrote: “Writing is not language, but merely a way of recording language by visible marks.”
Now consider the change in meaning when we change one single sound:
The bullfrog eats the moss.
Perception of speech sounds – our phonological awareness – is both at the level of a single meaningful sound (a phoneme, so we call it phonemic awareness) as in the difference between moth and moss, as well as at the level of ‘chunks’ of language – syllables, words, phrases, sentences, and discourse (prosody).
Try reading this, in German!
Read the following sentence:
Im Winter, zieht sich der Ochsenfrosch in den Schlamm.
Wait a second! The reason you can’t get these words off the page (unless you know German) is that you don’t SPEAK any German, so you don’t know what German is supposed to sound like. Even if you used all your fluent reader skills to sound out simple words like der and make connections with cognates like Winter, and even if you knew that Ochsenfrosch means bullfrog, you don’t know that the digraph ch makes the ‘k’ sound, and the trigraph sch says ‘sh’ in German – so you wouldn’t be able to decode the word Ochsenfrosch. By the way, the sentence means ‘In winter, the bullfrog hibernates in the mud.’
Bring phonological awareness into your classroom
What does this mean for our students? Our emergent bilinguals and learners with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia need MUCH more practice raising their phonological, and especially phonemic, awareness than other learners. Emergent bilinguals are still acquiring the sounds of English, while dyslexics have acquired the sounds but need explicit instruction in learning sound-symbol correspondences. If you teach English Language Learners who you think might also be dyslexic, read this informative article by Sylvia Linan-Thompson.
The teaching of phonological awareness in schools (when it’s taught) typically focuses on phonemic awareness because it’s so critical to learning to decode. However, aspects like word and sentence level stress, and sentence and discourse level intonation – prosodic features that are also critical to reading comprehension – are rarely taught. Teaching stress at the word level involves showing students how stress can change the meaning of words as in DEsert vs. deSSERT, as well as its part of speech, as in CONtest vs. conTEST. Sentence and discourse level work in text involves making students aware of emphasis and intonation, especially the difference between declarative statements and questions and the back and forth dialogue between two characters. These aspects of phonological awareness can easily be integrated into daily vocabulary instruction and Close or Guided Reading – check out ReadingRocket.org’s list of phonological awareness and fluency activities.
In New York State, phonological awareness is part of the PreK-2 curriculum in the form of explicit teaching of phonics and Read Alouds but is seldom emphasized beyond Grade 2. I try and encourage all the teachers I work with, especially those who teach in the upper grades – don’t forget about phonological awareness! Read out loud to your students and make it dramatic! Emphasize stress, phrasing, and intonation in your Close Reads. Make them track text with their finger as they listen to you (remember, you are their model of fluent language!). Have them reread text chorally and practice these elements. Make them aware of how what they’re reading is connected to their oral language. Importantly for emergent bilinguals and struggling decoders, incorporate explicit phonemic awareness into your vocabulary instruction. Make them repeat the academic words (start with one or two syllable words, then work them up to multisyllabic words) you have selected for them and tap them out phonemically, sound by sound. Then have them spell and write the word to reinforce sound-symbol correspondence.
Remember, oral language is the foundation of literacy, and phonological awareness is the foundation of fluent reading!
Email me with comments or questions!
Petronila Gennings says
I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the future. Cheers
Ingrid Heidrick says
Thank you Petronila! I really appreciate your feedback, and I hope to do more blogging soon!