Phonemic awareness is an important skill to teach kids who are getting ready to learn to read or who are struggling to get the hang of basic reading. Phonemic awareness is an understanding of phonemes and how they work together to create words.
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that can be differentiated in a word. For instance in the word “cat,” the phonemes are the “c” sound, the “short a” sound, and the “t” sound. A child who possesses phonemic awareness can segment sounds in words (for example, pronounce just the first sound heard in the word cat) and blend strings of isolated sounds together to form recognizable word forms.
Side Note: I am aware that phonemic awareness is not the only approach to teach reading or the best approach for every child. Some children never develop an understanding of how letters make certain sounds or how those sounds blend together to make whole words. Some children who read, learn through memorization of word shape, order of letters, etc.
However, research indicates that early teaching of phonemic awareness before actual reading is introduced, and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness for children who are struggling to get the basics, is highly beneficial and can actually prevent reading problems down the road.
If phonemic awareness training is not working, we naturally try other approaches.
What is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics?
Phonemic awareness is an understanding about spoken language. Children who are phonemically aware can hear the word (b – a – t) said in three separate sounds and tell you it is bat. They can tell you all the sounds in the spoken word dog. They can tell you that, if you take the last sound off cart, you would have car.
Phonics, on the other hand, is knowing the relation between specific, printed letters (including combinations of letters) and specific, spoken sounds. You are asking children to show their phonics knowledge when you ask them which letter makes the first sound in bat or dog or the last sound in car or cart.
Recent longitudinal studies on reading have demonstrated that the acquisition of phonemic awareness is highly predictive of success in learning to read, and to decode (i.e., sound out a word, blend it together to figure it out) in particular. If children understand that words can be divided into individual phonemes and that phonemes can be blended into words, they are able to use letter-sound knowledge to read and build words. To read more about phonemic awareness and how it relates to reading acquisition see Phonemic Awareness and the Teaching of Reading A Position Statement from the Board of Directors of the International Reading Association.
Below are helpful strategies for teaching phonemic awareness.
1-Show printed material to your child and talk about the sounds and structure of the words:
Research suggests that the greatest impact on phonemic awareness is achieved when there is interaction with print, along with paying specific attention to phonemes, sound/word structure. Seeing the words, hearing the sounds, and studying the structure with a coach (parent, teachers, etc.) allows them to make the connection between what they see and hear, a crucial skill for reading. It is also helpful to point to each letter and say each sound.
2 – Play letter games/phoneme substitution games:
Research shows that letter/sound games help develop phonemic awareness. Here are some game ideas:
- Take turns thinking of a word. Have the adult and child work together to say each sound in the word. Write down the word (adult or child) and say each sound individually pointing to the letter(s) that make that sound.
- Pick a word and take turns switching the first sound in the word to see how it changes the word or switch the last sound to see how it changes the word and sound (e.g., turn cat into bat or pop into pod).
- Put letters on index cards (e.g., give your child a, t, and c and ask them to arrange them into cat, and talk about each sound-you can do this with a variety of words-rat, pot, bed, mat, etc.).
- Play a rhyming game. Take turns thinking of words that rhyme with cat, dog, big, etc. Look at the words, talk about the structure and what makes them rhyme.
- Play the song lyric game by changing a phoneme in a song to see how it changes the meaning of the lyrics. For example, “Pop Goes the Weasel” could be changed to “Hop Goes the Weasel.” After changing the lyrics talk about how changing a phoneme gives the song a different meaning.
Related Article: 10 Fun Activities to Teach Your Child Letter Sounds
3 – Use auditory, visual, tactile (touch), and kenisthetic (movement) representations of sounds to teach phonemic awareness:
Many successful training studies include concrete representations of sounds to help children understand how to manipulate sounds in a word (e.g., Ball & Blachman, 1991). For instance, auditory cues are in play when children are asked to clap the number of syllables they hear in a spoken word. (Let’s clap the sounds in cat!)
Or you could use visual/tactile cues like blocks or chips to represent each sound in a word (e.g., writing each sound or letter on each chip and seeing how you could manipulate the chips to change the words or letters). How about making letters out of play-doh and using those letters to create words, switch sounds around, etc.).
Kinesthetic cues are used when children jump as they repeat sounds, say a rhyming word, or say each sound in a word. How about using your body to make letters (give me a C, give me an A, give me a T!).
Model for your child how to clap the sounds or syllables in a word, jump while saying letter sounds, or use play-doh or blocks to manipulate or change words around.
4 – Provide Early Writing Activities:
Research also indicates that early writing activities are helpful for developing phonemic awareness. Let your child guess how to spell words. If they are correct, talk about why. If they are incorrect, provide guidance on what letters need to be changed and why.
If they can’t write letters yet, have them tell you what letters they think would make up a word, or use play-doh, magnetic letters, blocks or the computer to make words. Show your child how to take your thoughts and put them on paper. Use simple sentences like “I am hungry” or “I love cats!” I also love using dry erase boards for writing practice!
5 – Practice at Home Before School Starts (if you didn’t do this it is okay-just start practicing now):
Research shows that children who are frequently exposed to print and phonemic awareness activities at home prior to starting school have higher levels of phonemic awareness. Parents can model phonemic awareness by reading aloud to their children, talking about the spelling, structure, and sounds in a word; showing their child how to write a word while saying the sounds; or leading games that incorporate letter and language play. Give your children opportunities to practice early reading skills by talking, singing, rhyming, and playing guessing games.
We also know that many kids love the IPAD and do well with fun, interactive computerized games! A great app to practice phonemic awareness is Kindergarten Reading,Tracing, and Spelling-Learn to Read First Words School Adventure!
Keep Your Cool
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting. If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session. Keep practice sessions short (5 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going. For suggestions on ways to encourage children to complete tasks or activities they do not want to do, read 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
Do you teach phonemic awareness? What strategies do you like to use?
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.