Literacy Across Cultures
February  1998 1/2

Key Concepts in FL Literacy: Phonemic Awareness

Charles Jannuzi
Fukui University, Japan



In this third key concept article for LAC, I will look more closely at a term that is being discussed a lot in the literacy field: phonemic awareness. The perceived importance of this concept, in part, seems to arise because linguistic and psycholinguistic insights have long been a concern in literacy research and pedagogy. Linguistic insights, too, have played a significant role in ELT and TESOL, such as the prestigious, usually university-based areas of research and intellectual endeavor known as Applied Linguistics (AL) and Second Language Acquisition (SLA). However, phonemic awareness-- both the term and the concepts it might denote--does not seem to be covered very deeply in the discourses of AL and SLA.

The state of the art: SLA

I consulted Ellis's (1994) monumental work on SLA, The Study of Second Language Acquisition, only to find that for the purposes of this key concept article, the term does not exist in the sort of SLA research and analysis that so often guides theory and practice in ELT/TESOL. We see this in actual workaday ELT/TESOL when both academics (such as teacher trainers) and classroom teachers dismiss phonology as "pronunciation practice", the main purpose of which is trivially to reduce or "fix" accents. Or they prioritize it out of existence, leaving it off already crowded syllabuses. The closest conceptualization of something that approaches the term "phonemic awareness" that I could find in the SLA literature is Ard (1989), who argues for a constructivist approach in accounting for L2 interlanguage phonology. He writes:

A truly explanatory theory or model of the phonological competence of second language learners must provide an explanation of how learners could construct the phonological representation used in their pronunciations....In particular, the types of representations posited for competent native speakers could not be assumed to be available to second language learners. (p. 257)

Ard's argument does usefully point out that we should not presume L2 learners to be like native speakers in terms of underlying competence. Unfortunately, it does not go into any great detail about what implications L2 learners' psycholinguistic construction of the L2 phonology (such as it is--incomplete, negatively influenced by L1, etc.) might have for auditory and bottom-up language processing, phonemic awareness, and listening and reading L2 texts/discourse for meaning.

The state of the art: Literacy

A more complete if somewhat tautological working definition of phonemic awareness comes to us from the field of literacy. According to Williams (1995), it is "the awareness of sounds (phonemes) that make up spoken words" (p. 185). How might the situation be different with beginning level ESL and EFL students? Williams (1995) contends that "such awareness does not appear when young children learn to talk; the ability is not necessary for speaking and understanding spoken language. However, phonemic awareness is important to learning to read [alphabetic written languages]" (p.185). In other words, phonemic awareness is not the intuitive, fluent phonological competence that normally results from acquiring a native language, a competence which underlies, in part, the ability to make meaning (decode and encode) in that language. It is , however, an additional knowledge that overlays such competence, a verifiable insight that one's native or non-native language can be broken down into sounds and sound combinations in order to relate them to the letters and letter combinations of the written language (provided that the writing system at least partly functions phonemically, as it does in English).

But L2 learners are different

One obvious problem for beginning level ESL and EFL learners is that they are not going to have acquired a native speaker's competence in English phonology. This interlanguage phenomenon is most clearly observable and predictable when the phonology of the student's L1 is markedly different from English. A good example is Japanese, because it has such a different speech rhythm, a much smaller set of sound contrasts (English 44, Japanese 21), and much simpler possibilities for syllable structure than English, a language to which it is as unrelated as a language can be. Yet even some Indo-European languages in the Romance branch of the family present the same sort of cross-linguistic problems in phonology (and interestingly enough, the speech rhythm and smaller set of sounds of spoken Japanese are overall closer to Italian or Spanish than either of these two are to English).

Since beginning level ESL and EFL students are not going to have an internalized native speaker competence with English phonology, their development must take a different path. This makes their ESL or EFL language and literacy development somewhat analogous to the learning disabled--at least in the senses that their development will not follow the fairly smooth path of the majority of native speakers and may require highly individualized, linguistically enlightened approaches to instruction and remediation.

Non-native language and literacy students must: (1) learn and/or acquire an adequate interlanguage phonology that compensates for the lack of native competence and then learn and/or acquire the phonemic awareness that is considered a necessary step in learning to read English or (2) learn and/or acquire an adequate interlanguage phonology while at the same time learning and/or acquiring the phonemic awareness necessary to read English.

Indeed, it could be logically concluded that effective phonemic awareness training can not precede the development of a sufficient, internalized interlanguage phonology, though it might be hoped that training and practice in both could prove mutually reinforcing (e.g. with a well thought out approach for adapting phonics to ESL/EFL). What seems to be most regrettable and confusing is the way written texts are often forced on absolute beginning level ESL/EFL students (such as in junior high schools here in Japan), with little or no attention given to their learner needs in (1) interlanguage phonology development, (2) phonemic awareness, or (3) phonic skills.

Some basic distinctions for teachers to keep in mind

The following is a sort of glossary of key terms that teachers should be clear on if they want to try incorporating phonological and phonemic awareness training into their ESL/ EFL and non-native literacy classrooms.

Phonemics vs. phonetics

These two terms are often confused, yet there is an important underlying distinction that pertains to this discussion. In order for a person to understand and be understood in a language, they will, among other things, have constructed and internalized a sufficient set of distinct sound features. These features delimit the way we can make meaning with sounds in a given language. It is our phonemic competence, in part, with these sounds that allows us to perceive, produce, and pattern them categorically in order to process a language, encode and decode it, make meaning in and communicate with it.

Spoken English across major dialects and as spoken for international communications has about 40 distinct sound segments called phonemes. We can become more conscious of these phonemes by using minimal pairs (i.e., they differ in pronunciation by only one sound) to deduce their existence. In English, the minimal pair, 'lip' and 'rip', are two different words with different meanings. So, we can infer that the /l/ sound is a different phoneme than the /r/ sound. But to speakers of Japanese, the distinction is not so categorically clear; in both perception and production, they tend to confuse an English /l/ with an English /r/ because to them both sounds seem equally similar to their one native sound, a tapped (and possibly rolled) /r/ similar to the /r/s of Italian or Russian. English's relatively large sound inventory leads to many other analogous problems for Japanese learners of English.

For the purposes of non-native LL and literacy, phonemic ability as it has been discussed above is not the only concern. Since the sounds that give substance to human languages are more than a linguist's abstraction, non-native students must develop a phonetic talent, too. This could be argued just for the reason that there are many other sounds humanly possible outside the set of phonemes of one's native language, a basic metalinguistic understanding that could helpfully precede trying to learn a second or foreign language. What's more, any native language as it is actually realized in communication involves more different sounds (called allophones) than the set of phonemes described by linguists. Phonetics is about how all sounds, so long as humans are capable of making them with their vocal tracts, are physically produced and received in acoustic space.

As native speakers we tend to limit categorically how we perceive and monitor the production of sounds in order to decode and encode messages and make meaning in a given language; but, outside of our heads and brains and the linguistic intelligence we constantly project from the top-down, sounds in the external world are still just sounds, noises, disturbances. We think that the stressed, aspirated (with a puff of air) /p/ sound we hear at the beginning of the English word 'pot' is the same sound as the unaspirated /p/ (or possibly a glottal stop) at the end of the word 'top'. Phonemically speaking, it is, as we force both sounds into the same /p/ category. This categorization is no doubt reinforced by the phonemic aspects of written English, which does not distinguish between the phonetically different /p/ sounds, spelling them both <p>.

Phonetically speaking the word final /p/ is not the same as the initial one, because all sounds are in actuality both uniquely realized and predictably affected by the sounds that precede and proceed them in the stream of speech. However scientifically interesting such variations and effects are, if we attended only to them, we would never make sense of utterances as meaning something. We also need to remember, however, that beginning ESL/EFL learners will not be able to categorize the sounds phonemically with anywhere near the selective efficiency of a native speaker; therefore, phonetic variations, because they complicate and distract, help turn the stream of sounds into even more of an acoustic blur for the beginning FL learner.

Phonology = phonemics + phonetics

Some linguists might use the term "phonology" to encompass both "phonemics" (the distinct sounds of a given language or the study of them) and "phonetics" (all speech sounds, including the actual realizations and variants of phonemes, or the study of them). I think that, for the purpose of non-native English literacy, it is a useful grouping to make. When earlier I wrote that our students must acquire and/or learn a sufficient, internalized interlanguage phonology as well as phonemic awareness, my use of the term "phonology" was meant to entail both the phonemic and phonetic aspects to learning spoken English as a SL or FL.

Phonological vs. phonemic awareness

In ESL/EFL literacy, this is an additional but important distinction we could make. As I have written above, beginning level ESL/EFL students have to acquire and/or learn a sufficient, internalized phonology that allows them to listen to and speak English for comprehension and making meaning. The need for phonemic awareness arises when it is time for the students to start to relate their interlanguage phonology to alphabetically written English. A better term for this step in learner development, however, might be phonological awareness (thus subsuming phonemic awareness). This would be a more complete sort of metalinguistic consciousness--a developed set of insights about both the phonemic and relevant phonetic aspects of English useful to help in relating the spoken language to the written one. These types of conscious, metalinguistic abilities might also help in the learning and/or acquisition of the second or foreign language.

It should be noted, however, that taking an explicit, metalinguistic analysis to the level of the phoneme is not necessarily a notion that is easy to grasp, no matter how well developed a learner's interlanguage phonology might be. Indeed, it is hardly intuitive for native speakers of English. I would guess that if you asked most literate native speakers of English what the distinct sounds of English are they would start by saying the 'ABCs'. There is an intuitive analysis going on here, but only to the level of the syllable: except for the pronunciation of the letter <W> (which is three syllables) , the names of the letters of the English alphabet are syllables that almost invariably contain a target sound of English. An examination of Japanese literacy also reveals that the native literate person's intuitive level of analysis stops at the syllable: the Japanese do not say their 'ABCs', but rather their kana, which are symbols by and large standing for all of the possible syllables of spoken Japanese.

Whether we call it phonological or phonemic awareness, in the form most basic to non-native English literacy, it entails being able to distinguish single and combined sounds occurring initially from the rest of the syllables and words that follow. Take for example the one-syllable word "cat", which joins three phonemes of English (/k/ + /Q/ + /t/) into one unit of meaning. Someone who is phonemically aware at a minimal level can abstract the initial consonant (or onset) /k/ sound from the rest of the syllable and word (the rime, i.e. the vowel /Q/ plus consonant sound /t/).

Unlike Japanese, for example, English can have fairly complex consonant clusters at the beginning of words, too. A student who is phonemically aware to a sufficient degree will be able to separate the initial cluster or onset /str/ from the rime /aip/ in the word "stripe". If presented orally, such words and their partial segmentation into onset and rime can be used to test and teach phonemic awareness. If done in written form without an oral presentation, however, they require an additional set of abilities: decoding (or word attack or phonic) skills.

Phonological or phonemic awareness + phonics skills = beginning reading

Phonic/word attack/decoding skills take phonemic awareness one step further into the realm of the written language. They require that the learner have (1) a sufficiently large, internalized, mentally constructed interlanguage phonology of English, (2) a phonological or phonemic awareness that distinct sounds can be abstracted from larger syllables, words, and the flow of speech sounds, and (3) the skill to apply these abilities and insights to the alphabetic code of actual written English in order to read and write for making meaning and communication.

Native writing systems (ours vs. theirs)

Although it is a given in TESL and TEFL that our students' spoken native languages are going to have an effect on their abilities with English (e.g., interference or negative transfer in phonology, grammar, vocabulary use, etc.), it is striking how little consideration is given to the importance of native writing systems, especially since we so often take (and often take wrongly) as a given a sort of universal literacy that is supposed to result from being a native speaker of a language. As teachers we presuppose in our students an orientation to the written text as a useful language learning tool: how many teachers try to teach a SL/FL without written texts?

In Japan our students are typically well along in developing adult-level literacy in Japanese by the time EFL is introduced as a junior high school subject. One problem is that the sort of metalinguistic awareness that arises from learning to read and write Japanese as a native language and prestige dialect might be inadequate and even misleading for beginning level EFL literacy. This characterization could be extended to non-native teachers as well as students.

Alphabetic writing systems: phonemic vs. phonetic vs. mixed

Languages written alphabetically usually fall into these three categories: phonemic, phonetic, and mixed. Written Finnish and Spanish are often cited as examples of written natural languages that are highly phonemic; that is, one distinct unit of sound (a phoneme) is conventionally represented with one distinct unit of the writing system (a grapheme). A one-phoneme-to- one-grapheme unity prevails in a writing system that is phonemic.

Although not usually, for certain purposes, Japanese can be written alphabetically using a system called romaji (meaning roman letters). At least one officially approved form of romaji is quite phonemic and was actually proposed during both the Meiji Era and the postwar Occupation to be a replacement for the complex written Japanese that has evolved and is used today (written Japanese is a mix of logographic and syllabic characters). Another form of romaji exists for pedagogical purposes and is quite well known to JSL/JFL students. It has been designed to be somewhat more phonetic because phonetic representations are helpful to SL/FL students, but not completely so, as it misses the major allophones (predictable variations of a phoneme) of a problem sound in JSL/JFL, the so-called syllabic /N/.

There is no denying that written English is an alphabetic system. It just can not be described as purely phonetic or phonemic, and actually gives a rather elusive twist to the meaning of the category "mixed." It is mixed in the sense that it has evolved into a balance of both phonemic and morpho- or logophonemic elements for setting down into the writing the spoken language. This has important implications for how we actually are able to read written English. As Sampson (1985) states:

Anyone who succeeds in becoming a skilled user of written English must eventually learn to use both 'look-and-say' (or logographic) and 'phonic' strategies in both processing modes, reading and writing. The phonic strategy must be used in reading when one encounters a new word....On the other hand, a familiar word with a thoroughly irregular spelling must be handled logographically even by the writer: no-one could spell knight correctly by 'sounding out' the word and converting phonemes to graphemes....Parenthetically, even a 'phonic' reading strategy, when it is used, need not necessarily involve unconscious resort to a fixed, algorithmic set of rules...for converting letter-sequences to sound-sequences. An alternative view holds that an unfamiliar word is read by constructing analogies between its spelling and that of familiar words which can be read logographically, and guessing at the pronunciation of the new word by reference to the known pronunciations of the familiar words. (p. 209)


Conclusion: Not so fast

In native language literacy, some theorists, researchers, and educators have re-examined the possible importance of phonemic awareness and have come to this conclusion: phonemic awareness is a necessary skill in becoming literate. Some more enthusiastic advocates have even gone so far as to draw a causal connection: adequate phonemic awareness causally underlies the jump to beginning literacy. My reading of the literature, unfortunately, does not allow me to support a casual connection. The phonemic awareness that has been measured by researchers and observed by classroom teachers may be epiphenomenal, in which case it may not causally underlie reading development in English, but rather occur along with it. True, it might also be a necessary pre-condition for successful reading development, but one of many and therefore not in itself sufficient.

Also, as with so many other things we might isolate to teach explicitly and deductively--e.g., grammar, vocabulary, study skills, and so on--there is the question of whether or not such instruction leads toeffective learning for the majority of ourstudents. If phonemic awareness training is to be a part of non-native literacy, just what are the instructional technologies and strategies that will allow us to present it to our students as something they can learn, assimilate, and apply in novel situations? Are either phonics or whole language approaches, which have been largely developed for middle class native speakers of English's prestige dialects, adequate for systematically addressing our students' needs? One thing is certain: There is plenty for us to explore and exchange ideas about in our reading and professional development, our classroom research, and our teaching.


Ard, J. (1989). A constructivist perspective on non- native phonology. In S.M. Gass and J. Schacter (Eds.), Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition (pp. 243-259). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sampson, G. (1985). Writing systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Williams, J. (1995). Phonemic Awareness. In T.L. Harris and R.E. Hodges (Eds.), The literacy dictionary: The vocabulary of reading and writing (pp. 185-6). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Recommended Reading

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Champaign, IL:Center for the Study of Reading, The Reading Research and Education Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Truch, S. (1991). The missing parts of whole language. Calgary, Alberta: Foothills Educational Materials. 

Charles Jannuzi can be contacted at Fukui University College of Education, Bunkyo 3-9-1, Fukui 910, JAPAN, and by Email at <jannuzi@edu01.f-edu.> or>

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Literacy Across Cultures
February, 1998 1/2