That’s a complicated sounding term, but it’s meaning is simple: the ability to hear, recognize, and play with the sounds in spoken language. Phonological awareness is really a group of skills that include a child’s ability to:
- Identify words that rhyme
- Count the number of syllables in a name
- Recognize alliteration (words with the same beginning sound)
- Segment (break) a sentence into words
- Identify the syllables in a word
The most sophisticated phonological awareness skill (and the last to develop) is called phonemic awareness — the ability to hear, recognize, and play with the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. When playing with the sounds in word, children learn to:
- Blend individual sounds to make a word
- Stretch out a word into its individual sounds
- Swap in a different sound to the beginning, middle, or end of a word to make a new word
Strong phonemic awareness is one of the strongest predictors of later reading success. Children who struggle with reading, including kids with dyslexia, often have trouble with phonemic awareness, but with the right kind of instruction they can be successful. Learn some of the warning signs for dyslexia in this article, Clues to Dyslexia in Early Childhood.
Parents can make a big difference in helping their children become readers by practicing these pre-reading oral skills at home. Try some of the simple rhyming and word sound games described here.
Why phonemic awareness is the key to learning how to read
This video is from Home Reading Helper, a resource for parents to elevate children’s reading at home provided by Read Charlotte . Find more video, parent activities, printables, and other resources at Home Reading Helper .
Try these speech sound activities at home
“I am thinking of an animal that rhymes with big. What’s the animal?” Answer: pig. What else rhymes with big? (dig, fig, wig)
Road trip rhymes
While you’re out driving in the car, spot something out the window and ask your child, “what rhymes with tree or car or shop?” Then switch roles and have your child spot something and ask you for a rhyme. This can turn into a game of nonsense rhymes (“What rhymes with tree stump?”) but that’s great for practicing sounds, too!
Word families are sets of words that rhyme. Start to build your family by giving your child the first word, for example, cat. Then ask your child to name all the “kids” in the cat family, such as: bat, fat, sat, rat, pat, mat, hat, flat. This will help your child hear patterns in words.
Silly tongue twisters
Sing songs and say silly tongue twisters. These help your child become sensitive to the sounds in words.
Alliteration or “tongue ticklers” — where the sound you’re focusing on is repeated over and over again — can be a fun way to provide practice with a speech sound. Try these:
- For M: Miss Mouse makes marvelous meatballs!
- For S: Silly Sally sings songs about snakes and snails.
- For F: Freddy finds fireflies with a flashlight.
While at the grocery store, have your child tell you the syllables in different food names. Have them hold up a finger for each word part. Eggplant = egg-plant, two syllables. Pineapple = pine-ap-ple, three syllables. Show your child the sign for each and ask her to say the word.
“I spy” first sounds
Practice beginning sounds with this simple “I spy” game at home, on a walk, or at the grocery store. Choose words with distinctive, easy-to-hear beginning sounds. For example, if you’re in the bathroom you can say, “I spy something red that starts with the “s” ssss sound (soap).”
Sound scavenger hunt
Choose a letter sound, then have your child find things around your house that start with the same sound. “Can you find something in our house that starts with the letter “p” pppppp sound? Picture, pencil, pear”
Which letter sounds do I teach first?
Reading expert Linda Farrell recommends that you begin with teaching the letter names, and then focus on the letter sounds that are closest to their letter names (such as /v/). And here’s a great tip for teaching the trickier letter name–letter sound combinations — use arm motions. In this video, Linda demonstrates motions for /x/ and /y/. (From our video series Reading SOS: Expert Answers to Family Questions About Reading.)
Practice blending sounds into words. Ask “Can you guess what this word is? m - o - p.” Hold each sound longer than normal.
When you’re reading together with your child, pick a word from the book and say it with emphasis on the first sound. Pick another word and compare them. “Zzz-zookeeper and rrr-rhinoceros. Can you hear what sound zzz-zookeeper starts with? Is it the same as rrr-rhinoceros?
Jump, skip, hop!
Create simple picture cards that you draw or cut out of magazines. Have your child, identify what’s in the picture, and then break that word into its individual sounds. For example dog is d-o-g, three sounds (phonemes). Three sounds? You and your child do three jumping jacks, skips, or hops (followed by a high-five). You can also do this game outdoors without the cards, just call out simple words for your child.
Tell your child you’re going to communicate in “snail talk” and they need to figure out what you’re saying. Take a simple word and stretch it out very slowly (e.g., /fffffllllaaaag/), then ask your child to tell you the word. Switch roles and have your child stretch out a word for you.
“I spy” blending
Here’s an easy phoneme blending game you can play while talking a walk. For blending, you can say, “I see a sign that says s-t-o-p” Then your child has to blend the sounds to guess your word — stop. (Remember to say only the sounds in the word — not the letters.) Keep the words short, moving from two to three to four sounds depending on your child’s skill level.
Using LEGO bricks, beads, or pennies, say a word and have your child show you how many sounds the word makes. For example, top = t-o-p = three sounds, so your child would place three objects in a row. Then have them tap each object as they say the sound. Remember, your child is just showing you the sounds they hear. So the word bike would be = b-i-k (silent e) = only three sounds.
Try this activity from the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). The FCRR “At Home” series was developed especially for families! Watch the video and then download the activity: Rime House . See all FCRR phonological awareness activities here .
Try this activity from the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). The FCRR “At Home” series was developed especially for families! Watch the video and then download the activity: Phoneme Dominoes . See all FCRR phonological awareness activities here .
Try this activity from the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). The FCRR “At Home” series was developed especially for families! Watch the video and then download the activity: Picture Slide . See all FCRR phonological awareness activities here .
More phonological and phonemic awareness resources
- Sounds and Symbols (VIDEO: PBS Launching Young Readers series)
- Phonemic Segmentation (VIDEO: Reading Rockets: Watch & Learn)
- Playing with Word Sounds: Stretch and Shorten (In English and Spanish)
- Nursery Rhymes: Not Just for Babies! (In English and Spanish)
- Clues to Dyslexia in Early Childhood
- Reading tips for parents of kindergartners in English and 12 other languages
- 11 Children’s Books Featuring Fun with Rhyming and Word Sounds
- 8 Children’s Books Featuring Rhyme and Alliteration (Understood)