Phonemic Awareness Pt. III

Vowel Phonemes

The English alphabet contains the following five vowels: A, E, I, O, U. The letter Y is also considered a vowel when it represents a vowel sound, like “fly” or “lonely.” Vowels make up a small percentage of the letters in the English alphabet; however, the list of vowel sounds that these letters can produce is much longer!  Because there are so many different ways of spelling certain vowel phonemes, learning the appropriate patterns for reading and writing require much more instruction than the “sound it out” method.

For instance, take the diphthong (combination of two vowel phonemes) /aɪ/. This sound can be made using multiple different letter patterns:

  • eye
  • by
  • die
  • bright
  • mite
  • Thailand
  • kayaks

So how do we begin to teach these phonological skills when there are so many letter combinations to create these sounds? 

As discussed in part II, vowel sounds are a whole new ball game when it comes to reading instruction. For beginning readers, as previously explained, it’s all about initially hearing the difference between short and long vowels. Parents and educators can solidify foundational knowledge about how to distinguish short vowel sounds from long vowel sounds by incorporating repetition and movement. 

To introduce short vowel sounds, students will want to practice using familiar one-syllable words with corresponding actions. Parents and/or teachers will recite and model the phrase and motion. Then adults should ask children to recite/perform it back in unison:

  • “i as in itch” (scratch shoulder)
  • “eh as in elephant” (pretend your arm/wrist is the elephant’s trunk)
  • “ah as in apple” (motion as though you’re holding and biting into an apple)
  • “uh as in up” (jump or point upwards)
  • “o (aw) as in octopus” (motion with fingers as though you’re an octopus crawling on the seafloor)

In order to introduce long vowel sounds, repeat the phrase, “Long (fill in with vowel) says its name.” This way, children will begin to equate the words that they are hearing to either long or short sounds. This differentiation prepares them for the spelling patterns/rules that correspond to short and long vowel sounds, which they will learn shortly. Examples include:

  • “The word be is a long vowel sound because long E says its name.”
  • “The word tape is a long vowel sound because long A says its name.”
  • “The word oval is a long vowel sound because long O says its name.” 

After children grasp the concept of how these vowel phonemes sound in different words, they are ready to start looking at the letter/sound combinations (diphthongs) in order to correctly read the various vowel patterns. 

Digraphs

Another key concept regarding phonemic awareness is the digraph. A digraph is a combination of two letters that make up one sound. Common digraphs include sh, ch, th, and wh. When introducing these sounds, provide visuals or photo cards to accompany the examples of words with digraphs—the more familiar, the better. 

Here, you can return to tapping, finger stretching, etc., but instead of tapping syllables within a word, you’ll ask students to tap for the phonemes that they hear in each word. For example, cat and that are both one syllable words; however, students will notice how that has an additional letter. But instead of students tapping out the “t” and “h” sounds separately, the two are combined to form the one sound, the digraph “th.” So while 3-letter word cat is tapped c-a-t (3 phonemes, 1 syllable), 4-letter word that is also tapped using 3 phonemes: th-a-t. 

Phonemic Awareness Pt. II

Phonemic awareness, which many experts say should be mastered before first grade, is just the first layer when introducing a child to reading. While the terms sound very similar, moving from phonemic awareness to phonics instruction is actually a rather involved leap. A child who has mastered phonemic awareness is able to understand that sounds are represented by letters in the alphabet, whereas phonics is more complex. It requires the reader’s knowledge of blending those sounds together to form syllables within words.

Closed Syllables

Closed syllables are the most common form of English syllablesover 50% of all syllables in the English language are closed. But what does this mean? A closed syllable is a syllable with one voweltypically a short vowel soundfollowed by one or more consonants. Examples of one-syllable words that fall into this category include:

  • Cup
  • Cat
  • Bet
  • Dot
  • Sin
  • Log 

This is by no means an extensive list; however, the point of starting with examples of closed syllables is to familiarize children with short vowel sounds and the patterns of letters that consistently create those sounds. When children move on to look at multisyllabic words, the same rules apply for those syllables. Take the word napkin. It is comprised of two syllables, nap and kin, both of which include a single, short-vowel, followed by a consonant.  Other examples to introduce multisyllabic words with short vowel sounds include:

  • Magnet
  • Submit
  • Content
  • Epic
  • Picnic 
  • Sandwich 

Non-examples, where the syllable is open, meaning that the vowel phoneme is not “closed in” by a consonant, include:

  • Ta ble (table)
  • Ba by (baby)
  • Fro zen (frozen)
  • Pro test (protest)
  • Ho tel (hotel)

Syllable Segmentation

In order for children to identify how words are made up of different sounds (or phonemes), we must help them to explicitly hear the different components or syllables within those words. We are likely familiar with the “clapping” method, in which educators model how to “chunk” words into their separate sounds (syllables) by clapping for each syllable. For example, clapping out the syllables for people’s names would look like this:

  • Sarah = Sa-rah (2 claps)
  • Bethenny = Be-then-ny (3 claps)
  • Jake = (1 clap)
  • Felicity = Fel-i-ci-ty (4 claps)

Another option for syllable segmentation involves the use of an abacus, a tool that is typically used for counting and other math skills. Children will slide a bead to the other side for every syllable they hear in the word. Some reading programs suggest a strategy similar to clapping, in which students “tap” or “finger stretch” the syllables in a word. Either way, the process should begin as an auditory practiceno written words or word cards are necessary in this stage. You really are asking children to simply hear the phonemes before they delve into written words. 

Hear the difference: Vowel Phonemes

Short vowel phonemes are introduced organically when children learn about closed syllables. However, the long vowel phonemes are another story altogether; they follow a myriad of different rules when combined with other letters. This is partly what makes the English language so complex! Stay tuned for part III!

Curb Your Words: Remedies for Foul Language

For preschoolers and early elementary-age children, “bad words” might range from potty language and/or bodily function-themed terms to outright curse words. In most instances, youngsters are experimenting with language from a few different angles. 1) They are likely completely unaware of what these adult curse words mean, but they are using them simply because they have heard them from someone; it’s a new term for them to try out. 2) They are preoccupied with “gross” conversations because they have witnessed the giggly or embarrassed reactions from their parents, i.e., they’re just being ornery. 3) They are experimenting with pushing boundaries and testing limits of what they can and cannot get away with saying. 

In instances when children naively blurt out a curse word, but clearly have no idea what the word means or how it is inappropriate, parents should tread lightly. Try ignoring the word this first time. A reaction, whether amusement, embarrassment, or outrage could inadvertently reinforce the behavior. If your child uses the word again, it’s time to have a brief but firm conversation. Explain to him that those sorts of words are inappropriate and unkind. Firmly state that he should not use them anytime. 

If your child says something hurtful to or about someone else, explain how unkind comments can really upset others. Social-emotional skills are still developing at this early age, so empathy needs to be explicitly taught. Ask your child how she would feel if someone called her “ugly” or “dumb.” Segue to a conversation about appropriate ways to express feelings without name-calling. Then discuss the importance of a genuine apology when someone’s feelings are hurt. 

Make sure to practice what you preach at home. We all slip with our words, especially during emotionally intense moments. However, it is important to acknowledge your own mistake to solidify expectations at home. Correct yourself so that your child knows that rules about “bad words” apply to the whole family. With older siblings, it is especially important to have a separate conversation about setting a good example with younger brothers and sisters. Explain that, like it or not, younger siblings look up to their big brothers and sisters—so they must be careful about what they are saying and doing around impressionable siblings. 

Parents can also preemptively intervene by monitoring what children are listening to with regard to music, movies, and television. Too often, we adults are desensitized to the inappropriate nature of our favorite songs and shows. If we’re not careful, children will follow our lead and sing along to distasteful lyrics, unknowingly spouting any number of inappropriate terms. Preprogram kid-friendly radio stations and set restrictions on live and streaming TV options. Remember that sites such as YouTube can also be set with restrictions.

National Physical Therapy Month

October is National Physical Therapy Month, which recognizes those who support individuals with physical, occupational, and speech impairments. The American Physical Therapy Association, APTA, devotes the month of October to recognizing the impact that physical therapy can have through their initiative, #ChoosePT. The goal of #ChoosePT is to shed light on physical therapy as an alternative to pain medication, particularly opioids. APTA’s aim is to raise awareness about the benefits of physical therapy for certain injuries rather than resorting to prescribed pain medication. Of course, the use of pain medication is sometimes unavoidable, especially after a major surgery. However, as the opioid epidemic continues to expand, the ages of opioid overdose victims continues to fall into the early 20s and even teens. Now that the opioid epidemic has officially been declared a public health emergency, families must be prepared to identify and combat opioid overuse.

Fast Facts

  • According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 30% of teenagers consider the typically-abused medications, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, to be “easily accessible” to teens.
  • Surveys indicate that 1 in every 5 high school seniors admits to having taken a prescription drug to get high.
  • Shockingly, about half of adolescent users claim to have obtained the prescription drugs illegally from a friend or family member.
  • While efforts to combat opioid addictions have increased across the country, the number of adolescent deaths related to overdoses has grown significantly over the last five years.
  • While negative peer influence has a major impact on impressionable teens, adolescents with close familial ties, whose parents are more involved and vocal about their disapproval of prescription drugs, are far less likely to engage in their misuse.
    Similarly, teens who prioritize their academics are also less likely to abuse opioids.
  • Because the average adolescent brain is still developing, and doesn’t fully mature until age 25, teens are especially susceptible to risk-taking, impulsivity, peer pressure, and addiction—it is almost as though their brains are primed for seeking the instant gratification that opioids seem to provide.
  • Because of the “euphoric” effects, teens with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders are more likely to engage in prescription drug misuse.
  • Adolescents often believe that, because these opioids are prescribed by doctors, they are much safer than the typical “street drugs.” However, the truth is that the addictive properties are the same—making prescribed opioids just as, if not more, dangerous than heroin, fentanyl, etc.

Stay Safe: Strategies for Parents

  • When doctors prescribe a post-procedure pain killer for your child, ask about the possibility of an alternative to the typically prescribed opioid. Will a higher dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen manage the pain?
  • If prescription opioids are necessary, follow the dosage instructions carefully; do not exceed the daily dose prescribed by the doctor.
  • Monitor the number of pills carefully and secure the prescription yourself; do not leave it up to your teen to administer his/her own doses.
  • When pain has been adequately managed, your teen should not continue taking the medication. It is not like an antibiotic where you should finish the full prescription.
  • Many doctors recommend flushing leftover pills to avoid their misuse.
  • Talk openly with your teen about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs. Remind them that even one instance of abusing a prescribed opioid could contribute to an addiction and/or overdose.
  • Stay keen on any mention of a “pharm party,” as these are growing more popular among high school students. At a pharm party, teens bring prescription drugs and other pills to trade or sell. Sometimes pills are tossed into a bowl and passed around like candy, which is why parents must carefully monitor how and where their prescription drugs are stored.