For budding reader, it sounds so familiar

New old-time trend: `Phonemic awareness' before printed word

May 03, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- It's the hot new trend in reading instruction. It's as old as Humpty Dumpty. And when the windows are open on warm spring mornings, you can hear it from the parking lot of Durkee Elementary School on the northern fringe of Texas' largest city.

Children clapping to the syllables of their names. Singing familiar nursery rhymes. Playing with rhyming and alliterative words: "Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater."

These aren't games for 5-year-olds' play time. They're exercises in "phonemic awareness," beginning reading instruction that immerses children in the sounds of the English language before they start to deal with the printed word.

In a nation where a third of all fourth-graders cannot read at the basic level, according to last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, many experts now see in phonemic awareness a hitherto missing link in the chain of reading instruction.

Texas is the place to see it in action. Under the school reform program of Gov. George W. Bush, the state is reaching down as far as pre-kindergarten to prepare children for the journey into reading.

Many other states, including Maryland, also are rushing to make phonemic awareness a top priority. Maryland has just adopted a set of content standards that spell out the phonemic awareness skills to be taught in primary schools.

"Phonemic awareness is absolutely imperative," says Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "I'm trying to institute something that will be institutionalized in every classroom in the state, not just something that's in this district but not in that one, this classroom but not that one."

Texas teachers assess the languageskills of children in kindergarten through the second grade to spot potential reading problems as early as possible. This summer, all 17,600 Texas kindergarten teachers will be eligible for state-paid training in phonemic awareness and other pre-reading activities, such as learning the letters of the alphabet.

In a cramped classroom at Durkee, kindergarten teacher Ruth Peugh started her phonemic awareness teaching last fall with simple exercises designed to teach pupils to recognize and distinguish among various sounds -- coughing, bird calls, voices.

From there, the children learned to understand and follow verbal instructions: "Go to the table. Pick up the book." Eventually, they clapped in time with the syllables of their names and laughed as the teacher read a favorite rhyming story called "Alligator Pie": "Alligator pie. Alligator pie. If I don't get some, I think I'm gonna die."

Now it's April, and Peugh's 5- and 6-year-olds are learning that even the syllables of their names can be divided into smaller sounds, called "phonemes." With classical music playing in the background to block noise from neighboring classrooms, Peugh gives each child five cubes punctured by finger holes.

"Put a cube on a finger for each of the sounds you hear when I say pat," she instructs, sounding the word out slowly: "paaat."

Jorge Rodriguez's fingers display three cubes, the correct response.

Almost all of Peugh's 23 pupils spoke only Spanish in the fall, but already about half are early readers, she says, including 6-year-old Jorge. "He's absorbing things like a sponge."

Why is it important that Jorge recognize that the syllable "pat" actually consists of three smaller sounds?

Because, according to the experts, "pat" represents a common letter pattern in English, and many children like Jorge reach grade school lacking awareness that sounds correspond roughly to the letters they'll need to know when they learn to read.

They need to know how to rhyme, for example, and how to distinguish between the beginning, middle and end sounds of a simple word or syllable like "pat."

"Children who can't take spoken words apart and put them back together are at serious risk of failing to learn to read," says Barbara R. Foorman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas-Houston, whose reading research underlies Texas' phonemic awareness thrust.

"Some get it right away. Some don't, and they are the ones who will be poor readers all their lives if they don't get help. We can spot the potential poor readers fairly accurately and very early."

Research shows that the level of children's phonemic awareness in kindergarten can account for 50 percent of the variance in their reading proficiency at the end of first grade. A University of Virginia study found that 90 percent of pupils who lacked phonemic awareness at the end of the first grade were in remedial classes in the fourth grade.

Much of the research undergirding phonemic awareness comes from studies of poor readers conducted by scientists who, like Foorman, receive their funds from the National Institutes of Health.

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