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Phonemic Awareness: What is it? Why does it Matter? How to Improve it?

Updated: Mar 26



What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. For example, when you hear the word “cat”, you are processing 3 distinct sounds. The sounds of /k/ /a/ /t/ are heard and blended together to form the word cat. Phonemic awareness goes beyond blending. Sound segmenting, deletion and substitutions come into play as well.

Phonemic awareness skill development is a continuum of skills. The skills start at the basic syllable level and move to complicated phoneme substitutions. Here is an example of a syllable level skill. Start by breaking compound words into word parts. Say “cow-boy” then say “cowboy”.

Kicking it up a skill level is onset-rime. Isolate the initial sound away from the rest of the word. This activity sets the stage to breaking down words into smaller units. For instance, separate the initial sound from the rest of the word. Say, “ b-ug” (bug). Ask the learner to guess the word. One way to think about segmenting sounds is to chop the word into pieces. Can you chop the word ‘cat' into individual sounds? (/k/ /a/ /t/ )


As students gain skills, the tasks become more complex. Here is an example of a more complicated skill called sound/syllable deletion. “Say rainbow. Now say rainbow, but don’t say rain.” A more complex activity would be “Say cat, but don’t say /k/. (at)

Phoneme substitutions are another level up and work like this. “Say snowflake. Now say snowflake but change the flake to ball. What’s the new word? (snowball) A level up example is “ Say cat, but change the /k/ to /h/. What’s the new word? (hat).”


Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

The most important foundation for reading is a solid phonemic awareness foundation. Think of it like needing a strong base to build your block tower. You don’t want it to lean or tip over. Thoughtful construction ensures long term results.


Many parents believe teaching the alphabet letter names and their most common letter sounds is all it takes to become a reader. But it’s more complex than that. Although there are 26 letters, those letters make up 44 different sounds. Fortunately, most words, approximately 85% of words in the English language, can be decoded if the learner has a strong knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics.



So….learning the alphabet letter sounds is important, but without phonemic awareness, the skill isn’t efficiently used. Phonemic awareness prepares the reader for print. It prepares them to sound out and read new words. When phonemic awareness is underdeveloped, readers often have difficulty sounding out words, even if their letter sound knowledge is strong. If a learner vocalizes each letter sound, but blends the sounds incorrectly, they may need help with phonemic awareness. The good news is, phonemic awareness is TEACHABLE.

How Can You Help Improve Phonemic Awareness?

Readers need to understand that letters are represented by sounds and sound patterns are used to make up words. To foster this skill my best advice is…


Play with words! Play with sounds! Keep the activities short and enjoyable.


Here are a few ideas:

Read rhyming books.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See, by Bill Martin, Jr are staples guaranteed to hold interest. Read them with beat and intonation. Youngsters will soon be chiming in with the rhyme.


Listen to and sing songs that rhyme.

The song Down by the Bay lends itself to learning, fun, and engagement. The Learning Station offers a version you might like. (www.learningstationmusic.com) One site called Early Learning Ideas also offers free rhyme pictures to use with the song. (https://earlylearningideas.com)


Play Guess My Word.

Say a word in pieces, either by syllable or by isolated sound, ask the learner to figure out your word. Try to say the word like a robot. For example, /d/ /i/ /g/ (dig).


Play I Spy.

“I spy with my little eye, something that rhymes with cat (hat).” Or break the word into syllables and ask them to guess. Say, “I spy with my little eye a lady-bug” (ladybug) or “ I spy with my little eye a rail-road (railroad).”



Play Robot Simon Says.

Play the game Simon Says, but when it’s time to tell them to “ put your hand on your leg” instead say….”Put your hands on your l-e-g (leg).”


Play Mystery Bag.

Put something inside a bag. Have your child guess what is inside the bag by clapping out the sounds or providing a rhyme clue. For example, if a fork is inside the bag, you can say it’s a /f/ /or/ /k/ or it is something you use to eat that rhymes with pork.


Make Up Rhymes.

Make up your own rhyme as a family. Use something well known and tweak it. “Roses are red, Daisies are white. I love you with all my might. Roses are red, the dirt is brown. You make me laugh like a funny clown.”


Push the Sounds.

Grab some cubes, goldfish or skittles. You can use anything really. Say two sound words. Have the learner push up one object for each sound. “ Say, toe”. The student pushes up two objects. One object for the /t/. One object for the long o sound. /o/. Once mastered, move to 3 and 4 sound words. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIhurqhIk0c&feature=youtu.be


Segment words into individual sounds.

Here is a video with examples. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sHaoQNBi4c


Whichever activities you choose, keep them short, light-hearted and FUN. The best learning takes place when kids are engaged and it doesn’t feel like hard work. Here's a video from Brainspring that shows how phonemic awareness can even be done on a car ride.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLRHfrwjK4g&feature=youtu.be


In closing, I applaud you for taking the time to help your learner. All kids can learn if given time and the proper instruction. A friend of mine recently shared this popcorn comparison. I think it is helpful to remember.


"Popcorn is prepared in the same pot, in the same heat, in the same oil and yet…the kernels do not POP at the same time. Don’t compare your child to others. Their turn to POP is coming!" (author unknown)



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