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Guide to Phonemic Awareness Strategies

 May 31, 2020

By  Cheryl Jerabek

Phonemic awareness strategies help children who are just beginning to learn to read or those who are struggling with reading. Essentially, phonemic awareness is the foundation for literacy.

Phonemes are units of sound that help us distinguish words from each other. There are approximately 44 phonemes in English, but there are more phonemes in some accents than others.

An example of a phoneme is the /k/ sound. This sound is present in words like ‘kit,' 'cat,' and ‘sky.' We can use either the letter C or the letter K to make a /k/ sound.

That’s because English is not a strictly phonetic language. Note that there are 44 phonemes, but only 26 letters. There is not always a direct relationship between how a word is spelled and how it sounds.

However, most words in English are phonetic. So phonemic awareness strategies are a useful tool for kids learning to read in English.

Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonics

Phonemic awareness and phonics are two different approaches to letters and sounds.

Phonemic awareness is also known as sound discrimination. It is the ability to understand and manipulate phonemes in spoken language. A phonemically aware child can break a spoken word into the smallest units of sound that make it up.

For example, they can hear the three separate sounds in the word ‘mat.’ They know they can remove a sound from a word and turn it into another word. For example, they might switch /m/ with /b/ to change ‘mat’ to ‘bat’.

Phonics is about understanding the relationships of phonemes to the letters that represent them. Children who understand phonics can recognize letters that represent phonemes. For example, they know that /b/ is represented by the letter B.

When we read, we are putting phonemic awareness and phonics together. We are decoding the written form of a word (letters) into its spoken form (sounds).

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Primary Tasks and How You Can Practice Them with Your Child

Research shows that phonemic awareness strategies are a crucial first step in learning to read. Phonemic awareness is the best predictor of early reading ability in children of kindergarten age. Additional training in phonemic awareness can also help prevent reading problems.

Teaching phonemic awareness is, however, not the only way, and will not suit all children. If phonemic awareness is not working for your child, you can explore other approaches.

A lack of phonemic awareness can point to hearing problems or dyslexia. As with many issues, early intervention for reading problems is key. If you have any concerns about your child’s progress, please ask a teacher or child health professional.

You can assess your child’s phonemic awareness by ensuring that they can:

  • Rhyme simple words like ‘cow’
  • Count the number of sounds in a word
  • Break a word down into the beginning, middle, and end sounds
  • Create new words by removing a sound and/or adding a new one
  • Hear and pronounce the endings of words properly

If your child can easily do these tasks, they may be ready to learn phonics.

If not, here are some steps you take to practice phonemic awareness strategies with your child. Be creative about how you can make these tasks fun. For example, you could use a puppet to model the examples.

Be careful about speaking words as they are spoken, not written. Sometimes we think we are pronouncing words as they are written when we’re not. For example, we say ‘doc-tuh’ rather than ‘doc-tor’ for ‘doctor.’

Isolation

Isolation is about identifying individual sounds in a word.

The following exercise will help your child pinpoint where sounds occur in words. Ask your child where they hear a key phoneme in a word. Repeat the exercise using different words.

Here is an example. Where do you hear the /m/ sound in ‘Sam’? Is it at the beginning or the end?

Identity

The identity skill is the ability to identify the same sounds in different words. For example, if your child can recognize that the words ‘bat’, ‘boy’ and ‘bus’ all start with /b/.

To practice identity with your child, give your child a sound. Ask them to come up with different words that start with that sound.

Categorization

Categorization is recognizing the odd one out in a string of words. This task is one of the more advanced phonemic awareness strategies.

Read a list of words and ask your child to identify the one that doesn’t sound right.  

Examples:

cat, rat, dog, mat

slug, hen, pen, den

dog, frog, bed, log

sleep, jeep, sheep, car

chop, mop, hop, pot

Blending

Blending involves combining a set of sounds to form a word. For example, ask your child to combine the sounds /r/, /a/ and /n/ to make ‘ran.’

Segmentation

Segmentation requires separating a word into its individual sounds. Practice this skill by asking your child to separate a word and count how many sounds they can hear. They can even clap or tap as they hear the different sounds.

Deletion

Deletion is the ability to recognize the remaining word when a phoneme is taken away.

Here are some sample questions for deletion. What word do you get when you take away the /s/ sound from ‘sleep’? What happens if you take the /n/ away from ‘fun’ and use /z/ instead?

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Using Activities and Games

Play is such a powerful tool for learning, and phonemic awareness is no exception. The following activities and games align with phonemic awareness research-based strategies.

Simple Phonemic Awareness

It’s never too early to start thinking about phonemic awareness. However, if you haven’t paid much attention to it before, it’s not too late.

Even babies and toddlers can start with very simple phonemic awareness tasks. Practicing animal sounds with young children teaches them about the world around us. It also teaches them the many sounds that we use in English.

You can introduce phonemes by assigning personalities to different sounds. For example, a hissing snake can represent the /s/ sound. A revving motorbike or a growling tiger can represent an /r/ sound.

Many books for children help with developing phonemic awareness. Try rhyming books like Tog the Dog or Dr. Seuss favorite Hop on Pop. Other good examples are Many Marvelous Monsters, Sheep in a Jeep, and Don’t Be Silly, Mrs. Millie!

Counting words, syllables, and phonemes is also a great introduction to phonemic awareness. Read to children and clap for each word, syllable, or phoneme.

Other simple phonemic awareness strategies include:

Asking children to listen for sounds and talk about what they hear

Getting children to listen and count the sounds in their name

Being silly with words that rhyme

Compound Phonemic Awareness

The following games can help children practice more advanced phonemic awareness. These activities are suitable for children at the kindergarten level. They can be played with individual children or modified for a group.

There are many games that you can buy to practice phonemic awareness.

These include:

Junior Learning Rhyming Word Dominoes

These dominos are matched by words that rhyme rather than numbers. You can also use them to match the beginning, middle, or end sounds.

I Spy a Mouse in the House! Pictures Rhymes Game  
In this game, players match cards to objects that rhyme. It’s great for developing vocabulary as well as building phonemic awareness.

Educational Insights Phonics Beanbags
Get your child moving with these cute beanbags. You can toss them into bowls or rings or throw them to each other. Each bag features a cute picture of an animal or object. You can sort the bags by the number of sounds or syllables.

However, you don’t need to spend money on premade games.

Many free online games also help develop phonemic awareness strategies. These are great because they encourage children to play and learn independently. Some good examples are:

Sound Match

Chicken Coop

Word Gobble

Here are some examples of games that you can make yourself or play without special equipment:

Speaking words out loud
Say a word aloud, and ask your child to identify the beginning, middle, or end sound. Repeat the exercise using different words.

Paper cup phonemes
Practice identifying where phonemes are placed with this fun food game. Give your child a special snack, like crackers or raisins, and two paper cups.

The paper cups should be different colors. One cup is for words that begin with the sound, and the other is for words that end with the phoneme.

  • Read one word and one phoneme out loud. Ask your child to listen for the phoneme and where it occurs in the word.

If they place the treat in the correct cup, they get to keep it. Who knew practicing phonemic awareness strategies could be so tasty?

Then repeat with different words and sounds. This game can also be played with markers if you don’t want to use food items.

Hopping and jumping with phonemes
Give your child the following instructions. Hop on one foot if the sound is at the beginning of the word. Jump up and down if the sound is at the end of the word.

Give them a word and a sound, and then repeat with different words and sounds.

Take a sound away
Explain that when you remove a sound from some words, you can make a different word. For example, if you take /d/ away from ‘deer,’ you are left with ‘ear.’

Ask your child to sound out each word.

Start with words like ‘fear,’ ‘floor,’ ‘witch,’ and ‘mat.’

Add a sound

Add sounds to make new words. Give your child some examples, then encourage them to try their own.

An example to start with is adding /m/ to ‘ice’ to make ‘mice,’ or add the /f/ sound to ‘ox’ to make ‘fox’.

Phonemic awareness strategies like this one encourage creativity as well as language development.

Bippity Boppity Bee

For this game, you’ll need a stuffed or printed bee for your child to hold.

Give your child the bee and say, “Bippity Boppity Bee, will you say your name for me?” Say your child’s name, clapping for each syllable. Next, whisper the name and softy clap for each syllable.

Then thank the child by saying, “Bippity Boppity Bee, thank you for saying your name for me.”

Repeat the process for other members of the family. You could even include pets or toys.

Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

This game encourages physical activity while learning phonemic awareness strategies.

Think of a word with four distinct sounds like ‘stop,’ ‘jump,’ or ‘mist.’

Touch a different part of your body when you say each sound. Have fun by going faster and faster with each round.

Memory

Create a variation of memory by pairing words that rhyme instead of the same objects. For example, you could have ‘rat and cat,’ ‘ox’ and ‘fox,’ and ‘dog’ and ‘frog.’

Flashcard snap with phonemes

Play snap with flashcards. Instead of matching cards with the same number, adapt the game to starting phonemes. Players match cards to words that start with the same sound.

Phoneme bingo

Players mark a picture from their card if they hear the sound it starts with.

Sound deletion

Parents can use compound words to demonstrate how removing sounds can create new words. Some examples of compound words are ‘lipstick,’ ‘butterfly,’ and ‘mailbox.’

The Importance of Phonemic Awareness Strategies

The National Reading Panel has identified five areas of essential reading instruction. One of these areas is phonemic awareness. Above, we've identified strategies for teaching phonemic awareness.

Practice these activities often. Even just five or ten minutes a day can help your child learn to read fluently. Reading has so many benefits for children, including the development of writing skills and vocabulary expansion—but don’t get ahead of yourself. Remember that phonemic awareness is a precursor to learning letters. Children need to hear and manipulate sounds before they start learning to read.

Once you start introducing letters, you have crossed into phonics. Leave that for later and focus on first developing a grounding in phonemic awareness strategies.

There's a complete & proven reading program that uses the phonemic awareness method, see our Children Learning Reading review to learn more.

Cheryl Jerabek


Cheryl Jerabek lives in a tiny remote town in Southwestern Colorado. She writes full-time from her cabin nestled in the mountains. She often expresses how lucky she feels to be able to do what she loves from a setting that looks like a postcard. When she’s not writing, Cheryl loves hanging out with her husband and two grown children, her dog, Joe, and adores spending time with her three grandchildren.

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