Adapting English Phonemic Awareness Instruction From L1 for Japanese Young Learners

Allison Murakami

If you think back to your preschool and kindergarten years, can you remember how your teachers reenforced language? There are likely infinite answers to this question. However, regardless of what the target language was, many will remember learning songs, chants, tongue twisters, clapping rhythms, or reading storybooks with catchy language. While there are many benefits to each of these activities, all of them support learning a crucial metalinguistic skill—phonemic awareness.


What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness, a subcategory of phonological awareness, is the understanding that oral language can be broken down into phonemes, the smallest units of sound in a language. Recognition of phonemes allows speakers to hear and identify the components that make words different. For example, if the phoneme /c/ in “cat” is replaced with /m/ the word becomes “mat” instead of “cat” (initial phoneme substitution). When young learners can say that the first sounds in the words “cat” and “mat” are different and can correlate them to other words, then they are developing one of the phonemic awareness skills. Such differences in phonemes may seem inherent to adults, but children learning language tend to learn words for meaning rather than sounds (Mason, 1980). Furthermore, it can be difficult to detect all the phonemes in a language because they are often blended together (coarticulated) in syllables (Cutler & Otake, 1994). Developing phonemic awareness requires a great deal of direct instruction for children to notice the phonemes in a word.


Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

With one of the purposes of language being communication, it may not seem like a priority to teach children to scrutinize oral language into individual sounds if they know the meaning of the word as a whole. Indeed, children learning English can still use oral language even before they have a chance to learn phonemes. However, the ability to analyze words for their sounds, and then to manipulate those sounds, is an indispensable skill for learning to read, spell, and improve elocution. Children learning English can have an advantage when they are taught phonics if they are aware of how phonemes combine to make words.


Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonics

One of the challenges of teaching phonemic awareness to young learners is the confusion with phonics. In English, phonics is learning letter-sound relationships so that one may read and write. Phonemic awareness is different from phonics in that it focuses only on the sounds of oral language. No print is used in teaching phonemic awareness. It may be tempting to teach phonemic awareness and phonics together, but ideally phonemic-awareness instruction should come first. Introducing letters too early may cause students to rely on visual discrimination between words rather than auditory discrimination (Ehri & Wilce, 1985). Furthermore, English has 44 phonemes but only 26 letters to represent these phonemes, which means letters and sounds do not map in a 1-to-1 correspondence. Teaching the phonemes earlier can help students when they later grapple with the logic of the alphabetic principle—that letters represent sounds and combine to make words (Castles et al., 2018).


The Phonemic Awareness Skills

In L1 contexts, direct phonemic-awareness instruction is typically introduced in preschool and developed throughout kindergarten and early elementary school. There are eight types of phonemic-awareness skills that children learning English as their L1 need to master. The first four typically develop first, with the last four taking longer to acquire. These skills should be taught without any use of printed words.

Isolation: What is the first/last/middle sound in pig? (/p/ /i/ /g/ respectively)

Identification: Which word has the same first sound as bus?  sun, ball, map (ball)

Blending: What word am I saying? /b/ /a/ /t/ (bat)

Segmentation: How many sounds are in bat? (three) Say the sounds. (b-a-t)

Categorization: Which word doesn’t belong? bin, cat, cut  (bin)

Substitution: The word is cat. Change /c/ to /s/. (sat)

Deletion: Say farm. Now take away the /f/. What word is it? (arm)

Addition: Say top. Now add /s/ before top. What word is it? (stop)
(Yopp, 1988; Adams, 1990)


While some children may be able to perform these tasks without instruction, research has shown that a majority of children do not instinctively notice individual phonemes nor are they able to perform these tasks without direct instruction and practice (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989, 1990).


Phonemic Awareness with Young Japanese L2 Learners

When students learn any new language, they will eventually need to cope with discerning and producing sounds different from their L1’s.  Research suggests the more similarities there are between the L1 and L2, the more phonemic-awareness knowledge from the L1 can help the learner adapt to the L2 (Bruck et al, 1997). If a student’s L1 has fewer phonemes than the L2, then it is anticipated that the learner may have less sensitivity to the new phonemes of the target language (Durgunoğlu, 2002).

The other primary factor in adapting English phonemic-awareness instruction, and possibly the most difficult factor to account for, is vocabulary. In L1 phonemic-awareness instruction, teaching vocabulary is usually not part of the process because most children have encountered the words prior to instruction. However, with young Japanese learners the situation is less straightforward. Some young learners may have learned English vocabulary through activities outside of school. Other students are learning English for the first time. With such a mix of English ability in a class, time must be dedicated to clarifying what words mean before phonemic awareness instruction begins. Without understanding the vocabulary, students may find the sounds arbitrary which will in turn become counterproductive for phonemic awareness.


Activities Using Phonemic Awareness for the L2 Classroom

There is always a lot of ground to cover in language learning, but phonemic-awareness instruction does not have to take a large portion of class time to practice. The following are examples of activities which can help students practice the basic phonemic awareness tasks, all of which I have used in my own classroom. As phonemic awareness is not an inherent skill, be sure to include sufficient modeling of an activity and vocabulary confirmation before requesting students to perform the activity themselves.

Activities for Phoneme Identification

Phoneme identification is commonly the first step in beginning the phonemic awareness journey. Start with CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. Since phonemes are the focus, this means not only using words like /h/ /a/ /t/ but also words like /sh/ /i/ /p/. Once learners are comfortable with a number of English phonemes they can attempt segmenting and blending activities. Teach any vocabulary necessary for the activities beforehand.

Find the Phoneme: Show students a number of cards with different pictures on them (e.g., sun, ball, bat, apple, ghost, wall). Ask the students to separate the cards showing pictures that start with /b/. Students can also be asked to separate cards based on the middle or final phonemes.

Phoneme Memory: Normally, this game is played by having children place a number of cards face-down and turning cards over two at a time in search of a matching pair. This time, have no matching picture pairs among the cards. Students will turn over the cards two at a time, and if the initial phoneme matches, the child can collect the pair of cards for a point. For example, if a student turns over the cards ‘bat’ and ‘ball,’ these cards are a match because they both start with /b/. This game can also be played with middle or final phonemes.

5 in a Row: This game takes after bingo. Select 5-8 phonemes to focus on in the game. Fill in a 5x5 grid with pictures of vocabulary the students know which begin (or end) with the selected phonemes. Make several versions of the bingo card with the pictures mixed up in different locations in the grid. Prepare a spinner with the phonemes found on the bingo card for the teacher’s use. The teacher will spin the spinner and announce a phoneme. The students place a token on a picture starting with that phoneme on their bingo cards. Repeat until someone gets five in a row.


Activities for Segmenting and Blending

For young learners just starting out with English, segmenting and blending phonemes from the get-go may be daunting. Using phonological awareness (breaking sentences into words and chunks) can help transition into phonemic awareness. Develop students’ abilities to hear the separate words in a sentence. Start with shorter sentences and build up to longer sentences. Once students are familiar with sentences, analyze individual words from the sentences for their phonemes. The teacher should spend ample time modeling the sentences before students can be expected to perform the activities themselves.

Step Up: Have a few students stand in a line at the front of the room. Say a sentence. When the first word is read, the first student should step forward. When the second word is said, the second child should step forward, and so on. The student on the left should always start so that students can get used to reading sentences starting from the left.  Gradually move towards individual phonemes the more confident the students become with the initial sentence.

Sound Circle: Students stand or sit in a circle. Say a sentence. In turns, students should repeat the words of the sentence, in the correct order, passing a ball from one person to the next. When students acclimate to the sentence, choose single words for students to break down into phonemes using the same concept.

Phoneme Count: Say a word. Have the children place tokens on their desks, or draw circles, for every phoneme they hear.

I Spy: Prepare a picture showing a variety of items, or ask students to find things in the classroom. The teacher says, “I spy with my little eye a /m/ /ou/ /se/.” Students can circle or point to the object in the picture, or go search for it in the classroom.


Activities for Categorization

Cover It Up: The teacher can choose to play the game as a class with one set of cards for all, or to prepare a set of cards for each student individually. Show students pictures of four different things that they have learned. Three of the words should have the same phoneme with the last word being different. Check the vocabulary with the students before starting (e.g., horse, hammer, hat, apple). Ask the students to cover up the picture of the thing that does not start with /h/. The teacher can increase difficulty by asking students to identify middle or final phonemes instead of the first phoneme. Add more pictures to the challenge for older and experienced students.


Activities for Substitution, Deletion and Addition

The following activities can easily be interchanged to develop any of these three skills. Substitution, deletion, and addition are considered to be more advanced phonemic-awareness skills, and can be trained after students are confident in phoneme identification, segmenting and blending.

Traffic Lights: Make three circle cards for each student—one red, one yellow and one green. Then, choose two CVC words differing by one phoneme (e.g., map, tap). The teacher asks, “Which sound changed?” If it is the first phoneme, the students hold up the red circle. If it is the second phoneme, they hold up the yellow card, and so on. After the students have held up their cards, check what phonemes changed (/m/ and /t/).

Phoneme B-I-N-G-O: This activity takes after the B-I-N-G-O song. Show students a picture of something they learned in class. Check the meaning and have students say the phonemes found in the word. If the word is “leg,” students should pronounce /l/ /e/ /g/. Now tell students to clap instead of saying /l/. They should say (clap) /e/ /g/. Ask them to identify the new word without /l/. Ask them to delete different phonemes, or multiple phonemes, with a clap to make this activity more difficult.

Letter Math: Show a picture of something the students have learned (e.g., a nail). Check that the students remember what it is. Ask, “What if I add /s/ to the front?” The students should try to say “snail.” Clarify the meaning of the new word. Then, ask students to add a phoneme of their choosing to the front of the word. Ask some students to share their new word and say their word with the class. It is ok if the students make nonsense words.



While phonemic-awareness instruction is more widespread in places where English is an L1, it can also be useful in L2 situations, as discussed above. Young L2 learners can develop their auditory discrimination skills, learn the fundamental sounds of oral speech in the L2, and how to manipulate these sounds to improve their speaking and listening abilities. Phonemic awareness can also help children understand the alphabetic principle when it comes time to learn phonics. With so many possible benefits, spending a little time teaching phonemic awareness in the young learner classroom seems like a sound idea.



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Allison Murakami is an English teacher with over 12 years of experience teaching young Japanese learners, from preschool to junior high school. She recently completed an MA TESOL through Birmingham University and is currently teaching English at primary school in Miyagi. Her research interests include phonological awareness, psycholinguistics, and social-emotional learning.