Phono…what? Learning to play with language: Part #1

Perhaps you have had a conference with your child’s teacher and the terms phonological or phonemic awareness were echoed several times during the conversation.  These lengthy terms were explained, but you were left with more questions and feeling overwhelmed.  Let’s unpack these terms and give you a few activities to help your child develop these important reading skills.

First, look at the word phoneme.  The ph spelling represents the /f/ sound (foneme).  Phonemes are the smallest sounds of spoken language.  It comes from the Greek word phonos meaning “sound” or “voice.”  A phoneme makes one word distinguishable from another.  For example, /j/ in jump from bump, or /k/ in cat from bat.  Phonological awareness is an umbrella term used to describe the ability to consciously play with rhymes, syllables and phonemes (speech sounds) in words.  Research has demonstrated that phonological awareness is most strongly related to early literacy and is predictive of early reading difficulties.  Phonemic awareness is a specific skill under the phonological awareness umbrella.  It is the ability to recognize and manipulate speech sounds in spoken words.  It is a specific type of phonological awareness skill.  It is the part that is necessary for skilled reading.  An awareness of words in sentences, of playing with syllables, initial sounds, and rhyming are the easiest phonological awareness skills.  Many children with reading difficulties can master these skills, but they cannot fluently manipulate individual speech sounds in words (phonemic awareness).  Phonemic awareness is the most difficult of the phonological awareness skills and the last to develop.  

It is also important to understand the difference between phonemes and letters. Phonemes are oral, spoken sounds, and are displayed between two slash marks /f/.  When you see a letter written between two slash marks you give the sound of the letter.  Letters are the written symbols of spoken sounds.  The written alphabet was invented to make spoken language visible.  

When we use the word awareness in the term phoneme awareness, we are talking about the ability to tell the difference between two words that differ by one phoneme (sound) and why.  Most children can identify the difference between bat and rat, it and sit, and us and up.  Phoneme awareness goes a step further by also being able to  tell why the words sound different.  For example, students are able to state that the /r/ in rat changes to a /b/ in bat, or  a /s/ was added in the beginning to the word it, to make the new word sit. 

Approximately 20 to 30% of children will not develop this skill, phoneme awareness, without instruction.  Listed below are activities to help develop phonological awareness skills.  They progress from the easiest to the most complex (phoneme awareness).  Remember these activities are all oral (spoken) so you will not need any special materials to complete them with your child.  Think of it as having a conversation with your child.  Once you begin, you will find that these activities can be completed while taking a walk with your child, riding in the car, or waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Words In Sentences

Say a simple sentence to your child.  Have them repeat the sentence. Then ask, “ How many words were in the sentence?”

Our dog is big. (4)

I saw five elephants. (4)

This line is very long. (5)

If your child is having difficulties counting the words in your sentences, teach them to pound the sentence in the palm of their hands.  This can be accomplished by having your child open the palm of one hand, and then with the opposite hand, pound or tap each whole word in their palm. Rephrase the question, “How many words did you feel in my sentence, ‘Our dog is big?’.”  

Counting Syllables 

Begin by having a conversation with your child about the term syllables.  Share with your child that syllables are special parts or chunks of words.  A word can have one, two, or many chunks.  Syllables are like beats.  Like the word dog.  It has one beat.  Apple, has two beats or syllables.     Just as above, have your child make a fist to pound or tap the beats in the palm of the opposite hand.  

Say a word, have your child repeat the word, then ask, “ How many syllables do you feel in the word?”   

Birdbath  (2)                   moose (1)

Salamander (4)               motorcycle (4)

Strawberries (3)             football (2)

Watermelon (4)              school (1)

Bird (1)                          read (1)

Circus (2)                       reading (2)

Hotdog (2)                     elephant (3)


Have a conservation with your child about rhyming words.  Give your child a pair of two rhyming words (cat bat, or coat boat) ask them to listen to see if they can hear how the two words are the same (/at/ as in bat or /oat/ as in boat.  Discuss how rhyming words are special because they have the same ending sounds.

Cat  bat           look   took

Pig   wig         power  shower

Jet  wet           cot  bought

Next, give your child pairs of rhyming words and ask if the pairs rhyme.  They can give you a thumbs up for yes, or thumbs down for no.  

Doll  ball  (yes)

Lake  rake  (yes)

Comb  Rome  (yes)

Dot  rat   (no)

Jill  will  (yes)

Stick  pick  (yes)

Wagon  water (no)

Might  right (yes)

Desk  dog  (no)

Dr. Seuss’ books are filled with rhyming words.  By reading these aloud to your child they will help to develop an ear for identifying rhyming pairs.  Also, Runny Babbit by Shel Silverststein is full of rhyming fun that you and your child are sure to enjoy.

Making  Rhymes

Making rhymes is usually a child’s favorite phonological awareness activity.  During this phase you and your child will have fun inventing rhyming words.  Real words as well as nonsense words count!

Say “ Give me a word that rhymes with man? (can, wan, stan)

Say “Give me a word that rhymes with window?  (bindow)

The goal is to have your child only change the first sound of the word.

Monkey   (wonkey)

Wiff  (biff)

Sing  (ring )

Lift  (sift)

Win  (tin)

Sled  (red)

Dove  (love)

Wink  (tink)

There are many possibilities for correct answers.  Remember nonsense words count!  Your child only needs to change the first sound.

For the next step in building your child’s phonological awareness skills, see the next blog, part two of Phono…what?  In this posting phoneme awareness activities will be presented.  

Enjoy playing with language!