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Portrait of Annette Bening

Sounds and Symbols

Play with letters, words, and sounds.Hosted by Annette Bening, this episode focuses on how children learn the relationship between sounds, letters, and words as an initial step before being able to decode the printed word. Features children’s book author and illustrator Norman Bridwell (Clifford the Big Red Dog).

Photo by Jon Rou

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About the program

Word play and rhyming games can prepare children to become readers by developing their ear for language. The games you play with your child are more than just fun. In fact, they will get your child started on the road to reading.

Word games build what’s called phonemic awareness — the insight that words are made up of individual sounds. Mother Goose rhymes and Dr. Seuss books provide an excellent way to get your child’s ears attuned to different sounds. In fact, being able to hear that words rhyme is the beginning of phonemic awareness.

This 30-minute program is the second episode of our award-winning PBS series, Launching Young Readers.

Fun with phonemes

One family in Raleigh, North Carolina, shows how playing word and rhyming games puts their child on the road to reading success.

Letters & sounds

A Hmong-American kindergarten teacher in Sacramento mixes serious instruction with lively play for his second-language learners.

Helping struggling readers

The Lab School in Washington, D.C., shows how one-on-one tutoring helps struggling readers achieve phonemic awareness.

Assessments by specialists

At a Lindamood-Bell Center in Denver, a seven-year-old receives one-on-one assessment and guidance.

Norman Bridwell: a writer’s secret

Norman Bridwell talks about Clifford the Big Red Dog and the one consistent message that shows up in his books: When things go wrong, don’t give up…try again.

The alphabetic principle

In Houston, the teacher of an advanced kindergarten class connects letters and sounds in a systematic and explicit way.

Watch the program

Recommended resources

Parent Tip Sheets


Additional Resources

  • PBS Ready To Learn (opens in a new window) is public broadcasting’s on-going effort to ensure that children will begin school ready to learn through high-quality children’s programming and community outreach.
  • Reach Out and Read (opens in a new window)is a national program that works with pediatricians to encourage parents to read aloud to their young children and to give books to their patients to take home at all pediatric check-ups from six months to five years of age.
  • Reading is Fundamental (opens in a new window) develops and delivers children’s and family literacy programs that help prepare young children for reading and motivate school-age children to read.
  • First Book (opens in a new window) is national non-profit organization whose mission is to provide children from low-income families the chance to read and own their first new books. First Book provides an ongoing supply of new books to children participating in community-based mentoring, tutoring, and family literacy programs.


  • First Place Gold Camera award from the 36th Annual International Film and Video Festival
  • Four Silver Statuettes and a Bronze Statuette from the 24th Annual Telly Awards


Introduction: Sounds and Symbols

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Annette Bening: Hi, I’m Annette Bening. In my acting career, I’ve often had the pleasure of performing Shakespeare, the greatest poet of the English language. Just listen to these gorgeous words from a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” spoken by the fairy queen Titania about the guy of her dreams.

Annette: Come wait upon him; lead him to my bower. The moon me thinks looks with a watery eye; And when she weeps, weeps every little flower, Lamenting some enforced chastity. I get swept away by the gentle rhymes and the heartbeat rhythm of the lines.

Annette: Word play and rhyming games can prepare children to become readers by developing their ear for language. You can help them learn that words are made up of individual sounds and open their lives to the pleasure of reading and eventually to the luscious language of masters like Shakespeare.

Fun with Phonemes (Raleigh, North Carolina)

Cecilie: (reading) Four famished foxes and feinstike. Let’s see what’s going to be in this story. Once Donna Foxhole led a family of Fox kids. There was Frank. There was Floyd. There was Freddie and Flo.

Annette: Reading aloud is probably the best single activity to put a child on the road to becoming a reader. But parents can do even more to assure a good start.

Cecilie: What’s this?

Neil: Fish.

Cecilie: Does fish start with an F?

Neil: Yes, ma’am.

Annette: Four year old Neil’s parents have played word games with her ever since she could speak. Word games can build what’s called phonemic awareness, the insight that words are made up of individual sounds or phonemes. Many kids need a little help learning how to pick apart the sounds within a word.

Cecilie: If you hear two words that rhyme, then I want you to clap. How about car, star? [clap] Good girl.

Cecilie: She loves to rhyme. I think that all children just find that…find rhyming fascinating. And she likes words that are sing song. She enjoys that very much.

Annette: Today’s game focuses Neil’s attention on the ending sounds in a word. Hearing a rhyme is the beginning of phonemic awareness.

Cecilie: Tree and bee…tree and bee. [clap] Excellent. Moon. Star.

Neil: No ma’am.

Cecilie: No ma’am.

Neil: But moon and spoon rhyme.

Cecilie: Moon and spoon does rhyme.

Letters & Sounds (Sacramento, California)

Annette: The Mark Hopkins School is located at the center of Sacramento’s large Hmong community. Kabee Lee has been teaching here since 1996.

Kabee Lee: One of the reasons I chose Mark Hopkins to come and work at is because of the diversity in the community.

Kabee: We have ah, English speaking ah, students. We have Hmong students. We have Spanish students. We have Hindi students, Tongan. It’s like, just like a bowl of salad you know, we have everything mixed together.

Annette: With so many of his kindergarteners speaking foreign languages at home, Mr. Lee must work extra hard to teach reading in English.

Kabee: We need Leo to help us. Good job, Leo. Now Leo’s looking to see who’s ready. Now, Leo has a problem. He wants to say a word but he keeps forgetting a sound, a sound at the end. Leo wants some ice cream but Leo cannot say the word ice cream. He forgets a sound. Watch.

Annette: Experts say that kindergarten teachers should help their students achieve phonemic awareness-the realization that within a word are individual sounds, or phonemes.

Kabee: I want to sing about ice crea-. What sound did he forget?

Class: /m/.

Kabee: Very good. Let’s try the next one. Another word. “The star’s so bright.” The star’s so brigh-.

Girl: The star’s so bright!

Annette: Being able to hear the sounds inside a word is just one step down the path to reading.

Kabee: A big glass of milk.

Annette: A child must also learn which letters go with which sounds-phonics, in other words.

Kabee: Alright, let’s see who’s ready. We’re going to do our letters, pictures, and sounds. Ready? Letter…

Class: T.

Kabee: Picture?

Class: Timer!

Kabee: Sound?

Class: /t/t/t/t/t/t/t/t/

Annette: Even in kindergarten, an important ingredient of any reading program is assessment.

Ed Kame’enui: We don’t want to start a program in September and wait until June to get a sense for whether or not we’re successful. We want to start in September, we want to see how we’re doing in the middle of September, at the end of September, the beginning of November, every month we want to have some sense of whether or not the investment we’re making, the interventions we’re using are effective for kids. We can’t do that without progress monitoring systems.

Kabee: Samuel, show me the front of the book.

Annette: Mr. Lee regularly measures each student’s progress. Today, it’s Samuel’s turn.

Kabee: Show me the title of the book. Good. I will show you letters. You tell me the name of the letter, okay? This one.

Samuel: T.

Kabee: T. Good.

Samuel: G.

Kabee: Good. How about this one?

Kabee: Right now he’s still very low ah, in terms of reading, letter recognition.

Samuel: H.

Kabee: Listen. Door, floor. Sound the same?

Samuel: Yeah.

Kabee: Good.

Kabee: But he should come up.

Kabee: How about mix, shoes?

Annette: Hearing a rhyme requires phonemic awareness. These quick tests will tell Mr. Lee which skills each child needs to boost. Reading coaches will offer one-on-one help to the bottom fifth of students.

Kabee: Samuel, can you write your first name, last name for Mr. Lee? Okay, right here.

Kabee: Most of my students, in fact almost all of my students…at the beginning of the year they don’t know anything and towards the end of the year I have this feeling that I’ve done something good with them. You know, they just blossom, even those who don’t speak English. So I feel real good about that.

Kabee: Very good Samuel!

Annette: Kabee Lee is leading his students on one of the most important journeys of their lives.

Kabeee: If you want to be on my train, you have to tell me a word that starts with the letter S.

Annette: Mr. Lee’s last stop today is bringing together phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondences.

Child: Socks.

Kabee: Socks. Good. Get on the train. Get on the train.

Annette: Almost all of Mr. Lee’s kids are on track for becoming readers.

Kabee: Is our train making sound?

Class: Yes.

Kabee: What sound? Well, help me!

Class: /s/s/s/s/s/s/s/

Helping Struggling Readers (Washington, D.C.)

Laurie Rockefeller: I was asking the students to tell me the beginning sounds of words and the word that I was asking for was the beginning sound of the word “cow” and the boy said, “Moo.”

Annette: The Lab School serves children with learning disabilities throughout the Washington area.

Pam Knudsen: The first word we are going to do today is “blot.” Blot [stretched out].

Annette: Research shows that one-on-one tutoring &mdsah; a hallmark of the Lab School — is highly effective in helping struggling readers achieve phonemic awareness.

Mandela: Blot [stretched out].

Pam: The next word is blip.

Mandela: OK.

Annette: A teacher at The Lab School since 1991, Pam Knudsen is helping 8-year-old Mandela to focus on the sounds within words.

Pam: We know from the research that being able to hear those individual sounds, phonemic awareness we call it, is very predictive of learning to read. If you can’t do that it’s likely that you will have problems. The good news is: you can learn to do that.

Annette: Like many of Ms. Knudsen’s students, Mandela is pretty good at spelling because he’s learned how to break a word down into a sequence of sounds.

Pam: They’re often good at the segmenting part, you say the word saat, and they can say what comes first? /s/. What comes next? /a/. What comes last? /t/. But if you put the word sat down there and they have to sound it out and blend those sounds together they may say /s/, /a/, /t/, /s/, /a/, /t/. Sat. To get it to slide together is harder: s-a-a-a-a-t.

Annette: Mandela now takes on this challenge of decoding the word he’s just spelled. He must go from letters to a choppy string of sounds…

Mandela: (hesitantly) B-l-ip.

Pam: [blip] Blend it together.

Annette: …to a smooth-sounding word.

Mandela: Blip.

Pam: All right!

Mandela: Stop.

Pam: Great, stop.

Annette: Ms. Knudsen is providing exactly the kind of teaching that experts know works.

Dr. Reid Lyon: For struggling readers we found that the more systematic, the more direct, the more teacher guidance provided and the greater degree of feedback result in much improved reading over programs that are less direct, where the kid has to figure out a lot of things on their own. Where feedback is not provided by the teacher in a systematic way and where the concepts are basically left to the child to decipher.

Pam: The word is glot. Not a real word but we can sound it out.

Mandela: OK.

Annette: Nonsense words-they sound like English but aren’t real words-get Mandela to tap what he knows about the links between sounds and letters. You can’t recognize a nonsense word by sight.

Mandela: Gl-o-o-o-t.

Mandela: [glot] [drawn out] Glot!

Pam: Great!

Annette: Mandela’s ear for language has improved dramatically at the Lab School.

Annette: A child with learning disabilities like Mandela may need more intensive and individualized support. But research shows that the same kinds of instruction help other struggling readers who haven’t been diagnosed with learning disabilities. That’s good news, since teachers can learn one set of techniques to help all students crack the code of reading.

Pam: When you see these moments of success it’s a thrill. You can almost see them just start looking up and smiling more and saying I did it, I did it. And that is a thrill and we, first time a child reads a book in here a lot of the time I’ll take them down the hall to read it to Bunny the secretary. Now let’s read it to our principal Mrs. Seldon and let’s read it to so and so and everybody is just, oh that’s great how wonderful. You read it. And, and it’s, it’s what we. We stay here for those moments of success.

Mandela: Tios.

Pam: Great. That’s wonderful.

Assessments by Specialists (Englewood, Colorado)

Mom: And then we’ll see how the test results go and maybe they’ll be able to help us with your reading.

Annette: Eric is a first-grader who’s having persistent problems learning to read. His teacher referred him to the local Lindamood-Bell Center to help find out why he’s struggling.

Annette: Mary Peltier, director of the center, first makes sure that Eric can understand the instructions.

Mary Peltier: Well, this should take about three and a half hours or so…

Mary: If a child is at the age where they are reading and certain things are showing up as in reading and omitting letters when they’re decoding or adding in letters when they’re decoding or switching sounds and letters around. If it happens consistently, then that’s definitely something we want to check out.

Annette: Mary Peltier first makes sure that Erik can understand the instructions.

Mary: You know, the first thing I want you to do is to show me, right across here, line them up, show me three blocks that are the same color. Just put them in a row. Good job.

Annette: Peltier now gives the Lindamood Auditory Conceptualization test.

Mary: So, show me /i/.

Annette: In this test of phonemic awareness, each block represents a single speech sound or phoneme.

Mary: If that says /i/, show me /ip/.


Annette: Instead of simply adding a second block to represent the added speech sound for P, Eric starts over.

Annette: He now puts the /i/ sound at the end to form /pi/ instead of /ip/.

Mary: Now if this one says /pi/ show me /pip/.

Annette: Most seven-year-olds can not only hear three speech sounds in a syllable, they can identify and manipulate them.

Annette: Poor performance on this test is linked to weak decoding skills.

Ed Kame’enui: It’s clear that there are some kids that are not able to get access to the written word because of some kind of phonological deficit.

Ed: Whether it’s organic or whether it’s experiential or whether it’s familial, whatever it is they’re not able to get an access to the written code.

Annette: Peltier meets with Eric’s mother to recommend intensive training in phonemic awareness.

Annette: After three to 12 weeks of training, 95% of kids with weaknesses like Eric’s will raise their scores to typical values for their level of vocabulary. And reading success usually follows.

Ed: There’s a myth that if kids start off slow they’ll eventually catch up and what we know from the research is that’s simply not the case.

Ed: We need to intervene early and we need to intervene because we don’t have any time to waste. Time is precious. Kids face the tyranny of time. And in order to catch up we have to be very strategic in what we do in the early years.

Norman Bridwell: A Writer’s Secret

Annette: The year I entered kindergarten, author/illustrator Norman Bridwell created a character who has now appeared in eighty books. He is Clifford the big red dog, one of the gentlest characters in all of children’s literature. I read Clifford books when I was a child. And now I read them to my kids. As Bridwell says, “He’s like Mr. Rogers with fur.” Now with his own TV series and more than eight-five million books in print, Clifford maybe the world’s most famous dog.

Emily Elizabeth: Hi, my name’s Emily Elizabeth. And this is Clifford.

Norman Bridwell: He’s big. He’s gentle. He’s always trying to be helpful. He’s a lovable dog and well-meaning, but clumsy. And I think children appreciate this. If there’s one message that winds up in most of the books, it’s to try. And if things go wrong, don’t give up. Go back and try again. Clifford does that all the time. He’s constantly making mistakes or knocking things over. But it doesn’t keep him from trying.

Dog: Shimmer me timber and ahoy maties.

Norman: When I sit down to do a book, I usually get the idea in my mind, the general plot. And then I start thinking what can happen. And I go through and I do the drawings first. I do very quick, very rough pencil drawings. And I take those very rough pencil drawings and I slip them under a sheet of white drawing paper that I can see through. And I take a black ballpoint pen and I do a very careful ink drawing. I change things as I’m going along. I’ll shift things around or make his head rounder or his paws bigger. And I do an ink drawing for every page of the book.


Norman: I’ve always been amazed by the number of letters that I get from parents and from teachers and from children when they’re a little older saying that that Clifford book was the first book they ever read. Teachers use the books to get the children started. Because I guess they’re fun. And parents often say, “Well, that’s the first book that my child could read.” I guess because they’re simple and they’re amusing.

Norman: (reading) Hi, I’m Emily Elizabeth. And this is Clifford, my big red dog. Yesterday, my friend Marsha said I got my dog from a fancy pet store. Where did you get yours? So I told her how I got Clifford.

Norman: I feel very fortunate to have this part in teaching children to read. Something I didn’t plan. But it’s worked out that way.

Norman: (reading) So I said to Martha that’s how I got my dog. Tell me again how you got your dog. Marsha said forget it.

The Alphabetic Principle (Houston, Texas)

Annette: Madeline Eckford starts her “vanguard,” or advanced kindergarten class today with a game that focuses kids on the initial sound of words.

Madeline Eckford: Boys and girls, we’re still talking about the letter V. And I’ve brought a friend along to help me today help you learn more about the letter V. I’m going to call you up and we’re going to take a look in this box to see what things we can find that begin with the letter V.

Madeline: Clarissa, can you come up and find an item that begins with the letter V?

Annette: Ms. Eckford encourages lots of participation, which helps her see if anyone is falling behind.

Madeline: What is that? What did you choose?

Clarissa: A vest.

Madeline: A vest. And what letter does vest begin with?

Clarissa: V.

Madeline: Can you make the sound for me?

Clarissa: Vvvvvvvvvvv.

Madeline: Excellent.

Annette: Ms. Eckford builds upon alphabetic connections already made. The hallmark of a good reading program is moving through letter-sound connections in a sensible order.

Annette: The students will next apply their phonemic awareness by manipulating speech sounds within a word. The upcoming exercise will also reinforce links between letters and sounds.

Annette: In this lesson, kids must create new words by changing letters in old words.

Madeline: What word did we just create? It’s the word “van.” Very good. Let’s try another word. Take away your letters “a” and “n,” and we’re still going to have our “v” there. The next letter makes the /e/ sound.

Kids: /e/ /e/ /e/

Madeline: And then the last letter, /t/. We just created the word “vet.”

Annette: Ms. Eckford watches for kids who don’t grasp this exercise, because they are at risk for reading failure. They’ll be given one-on-one help.

Annette: Even in this advanced kindergarten, some kids will be slow to achieve phonemic awareness-no surprise, since phonemic awareness is largely independent of IQ.

Annette: For these five-year-olds, rearranging speech sounds is a real challenge.

Annette: But by the time they reach third grade, phoneme swapping will feel like child’s play.

Boy: [speaking pig latin]

Annette: You can’t speak Pig Latin without a high degree of phonemic awareness.

Children: [speaking pig latin]

Annette: You have to isolate the first consonants of a word, move them to the end, and add on the sound “ay.”

Boy: [speaking pig latin]

Annette: As these kids would tell you—’oh-nay oblem-pray’—no problem.

Close & Credits

Annette: With the right kind of instruction, even very young children can improve their ear for language and start hearing the individual sounds within words. And once children master the connections between sounds and letters, they are well on their way to becoming readers. And then their world will open to the beauty and grace of language. Shakespeare put it this way. As imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. I’m Annette Bening. Thanks for watching.

Announcer: To learn more about Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers and how you can help a child learn to read, visit PBS online. You’ll find tips for parents, classroom strategies for teachers and profiles of children’s book authors. All at

Teacher: Like this? You write it for me. Let me see you do it. Like this? Very good. Let me see if I do it correctly. Like this?

Child: Yes.

Teacher: Like that? Good.

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.