Long before they learn to read, kids must develop a pre-reading skill set. If the goal is to help children recognize words on a page, it is crucial to make sure they can differentiate between individual sounds and begin to understand how those sounds relate to words. This, in a nutshell, is phonemic awareness. Our Atlanta prep school teachers have found that when children are severely behind in reading, it is often because they lack this critical foundation.
What Is Phonemic Awareness, and Why Is It Important?
You might have guessed that phonemic awareness has something to do with phonics, which has everything to do with letters and their functions. Each letter has a sound (or sounds) that it’s designated to make. For example, the letter “k” makes the /k/ sound, and the letter “m” makes the /m/ sound. These sounds are known as “phonemes.” As they learn to recognize individual letters, preschool-age children should also learn to recognize each letter’s basic sounds. Additionally, a well-rounded phonemic awareness should include the ability to notice rhyming words, count syllables, and spot alliterations.
What Skills Are Necessary for Phonemic Awareness?
Although the overall goal of phonemic awareness is to help children recognize letter sounds and their relation to forming words, a number of specific skills are required for children to have a thorough understanding. Children should be able to:
- Identify phonemes: Differentiate between first, middle, and last sounds in simple words (e.g., the first sound in the word “top” is the /t/ sound).
- Separate and blend phonemes: This is what “sounding it out” refers to. Children should be able to identify each sound and then combine them to form the word (e.g., “c-a-t”).
- Subtract phonemes: “What would we get if we took the letter ‘s’ out of the word ‘west’?”
- Add phonemes: “What would we get if we added the letter ‘c’ to the word ‘lock’?”
- Swap phonemes: “What would we get if we replaced the ‘t’ in ‘top’ with an ‘m’?”
How Can You Help Your Child Develop Phonemic Awareness?
1. Start Early
Even if your child has yet to enter a classroom, it’s never too early to begin teaching them the fundamentals of phonics. Pointing out letter sounds can be a part of everyday conversation. Try combining daily tasks and activities with letter sound recognition. Here are a few examples:
- “B is for b-b-bed!”
- “T is for t-t-toys. Can you please put your toys away?”
- “D is for d-d-dinner. Time to eat!”
When it’s time for school, make sure your child’s preschool or kindergarten uses a phonics-based curriculum and continue to help them recognize letter sounds at home.
2. Read Aloud and Read Often
Reading aloud is one of the best ways to help your child gain phonemic awareness. Since there’s no such thing as too much reading, try to read as often as possible and make it a part of your daily routine. Tired of cycling through the same books? Head to your local library and let your child pick out something new to keep them interested and engaged.
3. Rhyme for a Reason
Rhyming words are an excellent way for children to connect and differentiate letter phonemic sounds. Crack open a Dr. Seuss book or ask your child to come up with some words that rhyme with “cat.”
4. Consonant, Vowel, Consonant
Start with simple words, no more than three letters, with the “consonant, vowel, consonant” pattern. Once your child has gotten the hang of these kinds of words, you can gradually increase in word complexity.
5. Clap it Out
Another crucial part of phonemic awareness is the ability to separate individual syllables. Have your child clap out the syllables in a word as you say it. For example:
- “E-liz-a-beth” (Have them try their name and their friends’ names, too!)
6. Make it Fun
Children often do their best learning when they don’t know they’re learning. Play a game of “I Spy,” where you say, “I spy with my little eye a /r/-/u/-/g/.” Or, try a variation of “Red Light, Green Light” where they can only move forward if they hear the short /o/ sound. There is no shortage of phonics-inspired games that you can try with your child. If you’re feeling creative, try coming up with a few of your own.
7. Make it Sensory
Use playdough, sand trays, and other sensory tools to help your child draw or shape letters and words, then practice saying their phonemes.
8. Make it Musical
The internet has a great selection of phonics songs to help your child learn their letter sounds. Songs like “CVC” (consonant, vowel, consonant), “The Alphabet Phonics Song,” and “The Big Pig Song” are great examples of catchy tunes that can be found on YouTube.
9. Make it Crafty
Who doesn’t love a good craft? Try making a paper bag puppet that likes eating things with the /p/ or /b/ sound in their name. Or, cut pictures out of a magazine of things with the /f/ sound in their name and make a cool collage.
10. Make it Routine
No matter what you do to help your child reach phonemic awareness, do it often. Children learn through repetition, so try to integrate these strategies and activities into your daily lives as much as possible. Even if it feels like they aren’t picking up on things, keep trying. With patience and practice, you can help your child build their phonemic awareness and set them on the path to becoming expert readers.