Tag Archives: phonological awareness

Do You Hear That? Why Phonological Awareness is So Important for Preschoolers

Phonological Awareness is quite possibly my favorite early literacy  skill to discuss.  Partly because many people are already implementing it to some degree without recognizing it (remember: recognize, emphasize, maximize), but also because many resources and studies suggest that it is the #1 predictor of reading success.  Which is often surprising to people, since it has nothing to do with letters on a page.

I wrote about phonological awareness a while back , but this is a topic that could be written on for days!   Here are a few more insights to phonological awareness, what it is, why it’s important, and how it is learned.

A Few Definitions

Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness.  Phonological awareness has to do with the child’s ability to hear and manipulate the sounds within words.  This includes phonemes, syllables, rhyming, blending, segmenting, and even recognizing the number of words within a sentence.  Phonemic awareness has to do more specifically with the individual phonemes in words, and is therefore sort of a subheading under the larger, overarching term phonological awareness.  The two, however, are quite similar and are used interchangeably in most of the literature on the subject, and are often abbreviated as simply PA

What’s a phoneme?  Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in words.  The word “cat”, for example, has three letters, one syllable, but three phonemes, /k/ /a/ /t/.    The word “tree” is also one syllable, has four letters, but has only three phonemes as well, /t/ /r/ /ē/.  There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 phonemes in the English language.  (You can download a chart of the phonemes from docstoc here.)

Phonics vs Phonological Awareness.  Phonological awareness is a skill based solely on hearing and manipulating sounds.  It is not a written task and is not dependent upon meaning.  (So Zax and tracks do rhyme.  Just one more reason why Dr. Seuss is so great!)  Phonological awareness focuses on isolating the task of hearing the subtle sounds in words.  Phonics begins to connect those individual sounds to the written letters that create them.  It is necessary to have a solid foundation in phonological awareness to truly benefit from phonics training.

The Tasks

While there are many ways to categorize the skills involved in phonological awareness, Marilyn Jager Adams, a highly regarded literacy expert, outlined five tasks in relation to PA.  The progression of skill mastery projects through first grade, so don’t expect your preschoolers to do them all right now!  They are also not listed in a progressive order, but varying levels of mastery may be accomplished across each of the skills as individual children move towards proficiency.  And competency continues to develop, even after children have begun to read.  I’ll briefly outline those five tasks here, along with examples for each.

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Alliteration

  • Utilize a variety of poems, fingerplays,songs, nursery rhymes, and rhyming stories.
  • Encourage nonsense words in rhymes.
  • Clap, pat, and drum rhythms in songs and rhymes.
  • Substitute rhyming words in directions and transitions (“Pally can go to snack” –instead of “Sally”.)

Oddity Tasks

  • In a set, identify the object that differs phonemically in a specified position.  For example, in the set cat, can, and mouse, which word starts with a different sound?
  • Identify the word that does not rhyme in a given set.  For example: rock, pig, sock.
  •  Use a puppet or picture cut out to “eat” the object that doesn’t belong.
  • Use a giant felt X to X-out the picture of the “trickster”.

Orally Blend and Divide Words

  • Use visuals like a rubber band, slinky, or hands to “stretch” out the sounds in a word and then quickly and smoothly blend them together.  Break words up phonetically or by onset and rime.  (l-a-dd-er or l-adder, respectively)  Use it as a “sneaky word” activity, with you dividing and the children blending to guess the word!
  • Have children talk like a robot – they naturally divide along syllables.
  • Use rhythm sticks , drums, or simply clap to beat out syllables in names and words.  (I love to use a pumpkin as a drum for this task in the fall.)

Orally Segmenting Words

  • Have children use counters or Elkonin boxes to count the number of sounds in a word.
  • Have children sort pictures according to the number of sounds in the words.  (3= pot, cat, dad; 4= water, dance, jump)
  • Encourage children to talk like a turtle, slowing down to divide into phonemes.

Manipulation of Sounds

  • Children develop the ability to delete and substitute phonemes within words.
  • Give clues for a “mystery word.” (It rhymes with rose, but starts with /n/.)
  • If I said “book” without the /b/, what would it sound like?  (“ook”)

Two Tips

There are two things I feel are necessary to point out before you jump into more PA training.  First, it is very important to model correct pronunciation, especially when doing PA exercises.  For example, if you (as many around here do) pronounce “mountain” as “mou’en”, a child will not be able to correctly identify the phonemes in that word.  Secondly, since PA activities often rely on pictures rather than written words, it is important to clarify with your children, exactly what word each picture represents.  Children will have a hard time matching “bug” and “rug” if they are looking at them as a “beetle” and a “place mat”.

Great Activities!

Part of what makes phonological awareness so great is the fact that it really can be fun!  It’s all about playing with the sounds in words.  There are three books that I use, which are full of great activities as well as more information on the topic of PA.  You might want to check one out for yourself! 

How do you encourage the children you love and teach to get ready to read by playing with the sounds in words?

 Photo by Charlie Balch.
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Five Favorites….To Start

OK, for those of you looking for more Dr. Seuss activities, here are five favorites to start off with!  More to come!

(Does anyone else ever feel like they’re juggling this many things?)

The Cat in the Hat

After reading this timeless and iconic favorite, follow-up by playing your own version of UP, UP, UP with a Fish!  You can use balls or bean bags to represent “the fish” and toss with a partner, stepping backward after each catch.  Or you can simply add physical tasks, one on the other.  Stand on one foot.  Now hop!  Now reach one hand up like you’re holding a fish bowl.  Now fan yourself with the other hand.  Oh, no!  Everyone fall down!  Great for large motor skills!

Green Eggs and Ham

Do I have to say it?  Make some green eggs!  Just add a little green food coloring (maybe even play around with color mixing by adding blue to the yellow eggs).  Involve the little ones and build vocabulary by using good descriptors as you work.  Emphasize the change from liquid to solid as you crack, whip, cook, and serve!  I do so love green eggs and ham!  Oh, as an insider tip, when you read this book, toward the end, the characters are talking underwater.  Wiggle your finger over your lips as you read those lines to simulate underwater talking.  The kids eat it up!

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

This book is essentially a series of wacky rhymes!  One advantage to this is the fact that you can edit and shorten it as much as you need to in order to match the attention span of your audience, since you don’t really need to tie together a storyline.  Since it’s all about rhyming, follow up with a rhyming activity.  Make rhyming sandwiches, as in this activity, or use the same cards and have the children jump, clap, ring a bell, etc. when they hear a rhyming pair.

There’s a Wocket in My Pocket

This is another perfect book for rhymers!  Especially to help them focus on the sound, not the meaning since the rhyming pairs are all invented.  Play a Wocket in the Pocket game afterward.  Create a wocket by enlarging the illustration onto tagboard or simply drawing a face on a tongue depressor. It doesn’t have to be elaborate!  Have one child, the seeker, close her eyes, while someone else hides the wocket by sitting on it.  The seeker then asks a child, “Is there a wocket in your pocket?”  If the guess is wrong, that child can give a clue as to where the wocket is.  (“No, but it’s hiding by someone with pink shoes.”)  Rhyming clues are even better.  (“No, but it’s hiding near someone with pink moos.”)  Take turns being the seeker and the hiders!

The Foot Book

Even as babies, my boys loved this book!  Extend by painting with your feet!  Use the same materials you would for finger painting, but use your toes (or entire feet) instead.  Have children sit in a chair and paint on the paper on the floor, or roll out some big sheets of paper and let them run with painted feet!  Have a wash bin and towels handy!

Next up: If I Ran the Zoo, And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?

For more Dr. Seuss activities, click here!


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Crayons in the Box Song

This is a great song for learning about colors and for building rhyme recognition, an important skill for pre-readers (read more about phonological awareness here).  Use this song during large group, music and movement time, or just as a filler during a transition.  The little ones love it!  Eventually, they’ll be ready to be the ones giving the clues!

Tune: Five Little Ducks (You know, “…but the one little duck with the feather on his back….”)

So many crayons in the box for you,

Red ones, yellow ones, blue ones too. (You’re welcome to change up the colors)

But the one little color that rhymes with (head)

It’s my favorite color, it’s the color….(red!)

(Hesitate at the end so the kiddos can fill in with the mystery color!)

More from the “Exploring the Arts through Our Senses” unit here!

Top photo by ctech.


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Book Activity – The Hungry Thing

The Hungry Thing

I was first introduced to Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler’s The Hungry Thing at a workshop on phonemic/phonological awareness (learn more about that here).  So, obviously, this book and activity are great for building those critical prereading skills.  In this story, the Hungry Thing shows up in a town, asking for food.  The people can’t figure out what he wants.  When he requests “shmancakes” they each have a different idea about what “shmancakes” actually are.  One boy makes sense of it all, reminding them that “shmancakes” sound like “pancakes”.  So they give the Hungry Thing some and he eats them all up!  This continues on to include “feetloaf” and “gollipops”, “boop with a smacker” and “tickles”.  As I read this story, I always pause a bit, allowing the children to chime in with the appropriate rhyming word.

Afterward, I introduce my Hungry Thing puppet.  Mine is just a fuzzy, monster-like puppet.  You could make your own out of fabric or a paper bag, improvise with one you have, or create a cardboard picture with the mouth cut out, similar to what I did in the dinosaur activity here.  It doesn’t matter which one you use, the Thing is so hungry!  Can the children help feed it?   Arrange some play food on the floor, or give one piece to each child.  Be sure to say the name of each piece of food as you set it down or hand it out so that the children are sure to know what they’re called. 

“FEED ME!” the Hungry Thing says, just as it did in the book.   The children respond as the townspeople did in the book, “What would you like to eat?”   With much expression, the Hungry Thing asks for each food, substituting the first sound in each word as he did in the story.   (You can certainly use nonesense words, “felery” for celery, but some of the children’s favorites are also when it ends up being a real word – hair for pear, sneeze for cheese.  Do it any way you want, it just needs to rhyme.)  The children place the food in the hungry thing’s mouth.  My kids’ favorite part with my puppet is when the Thing munches voraciously on the food and then burps loudly with the food flying back out (so that I can clear the way for the next item).  Think of Cookie Monster as your motivation.

Reading this book and participating in this activity helps to build rhyming skills, which are a fundamental pre-reading skill.  Your children will love this activity!  I often leave the book, puppet, and a bowl of food out in the reading area after doing this activity with a group of children so that they can continue the activity on their own!

For more food-themed activities, click here!

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The Invisible Man

invisibleHere’s an activity I think I picked up in a phonemic awareness book once upon a time.  You begin by telling the children you have a friend who wants to be an invisible man, perhaps as a Halloween costume.  (You may need to explain what “invisible means”.)  Show a picture of a person (stick figures are ok) or just a face, if you’re working with younger children, drawn on a chalkboard or dry erase board.  This man is not invisible at all!  Tell the children that if they want to make part of the man invisible, they have to say the rhyming word.  Give a few examples.  If you or the children say “pies”, you erase the eyes.  If you say “farm” erase an arm.  Accept nonsense words (“gegs” rhymes with legs) as rhymes.  Rhyme production is more difficult than rhyme recognition, so for younger children, you would say the rhyming word and give two options for the part to be erased (rhyme recognition).  “What if I said “south”?  Would that be the mouth or the eyes?  South-Mouth, or South-Eyes?”  For older children, you might say, “What word rhymes with arm?” (rhyme production)

Photo by phillip13.

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The Secret’s in the Sound – Phonological Awareness and the Preschooler


Photo courtesy of djeyewater.

Research has shown that the best indicator of future reading success isn’t naming letters, or learning to print one’s name (though both are important tasks) but phonological awareness.

This ability begins developing early, and is completely auditory and oral, meaning it is independent of print.  It has to do with hearing and manipulating the parts and individual sounds in words.  More simply put, it’s “playing with words”.

You may already be doing it with your child and not even realize it!  Check out some of these suggestions for more ideas for playing with words!

  • Story time is rhyme time.  Read rhyming books, poems, and nursery rhymes.  Once your child becomes familiar with them, pause before rhyming words to allow your child to fill in the missing word.
  • Go for silly talk.  Use nonsense rhyming words in a sentence and see if your child can understand what you mean.  (“Will you throw this wrapper in the bashcan?”)
  • Can you find the rhyme? Pick a word and come up with rhyming words together.  Remember that because phonemic awareness is a task of sounds, nonsense words are completely OK.  You can even make it a riddle.  (“I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with hat.  Do you know what it is?)
  • Motion for matches.  Say a pair of words and have your child clap/jump/blow a whistle/etc. whenever the pair rhymes.  Really play up the fact that you’re trying to trick them with pairs that don’t rhyme.  You can simply say the words, or use sets of picture cards made specifically for rhyming tasks to give the children a visual cue along with the spoken word.
  • Same starting sounds. Talk about beginning sounds, such as the beginning sound in a child’s name, and come up with other words that have the same beginning sound.
  • Solve the word mystery.  Say a word, separating the syllables as “clues” and ask what your “mystery word” was.  Beginning with compound words for this task is usually easiest.  (cow+boy=cowboy)  Then move on to individual syllables (jack+et=jacket), and finally to individual sounds (/s/+/a/+/d/=sad).
  • Surround sound.Immerse your children in language sounds.  Sing silly songs and fingerplays using rhyme and alliteration (search this blog to find some great examples).  Make your own rhymes together, create songs to sing about daily tasks, and use alliterations to name your creations (“This is my super silly spaceship to the stars!”).

Learning the letters of the alphabet and being surrounded by print, are important facets of reading readiness, but ultimately, the task of reading comes down to the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds.  The written symbols of print are meaningless until their sounds are understood.  So have some fun with the children you teach and love, and start playing with sounds!

Read more about building a Culture of Literacy here!


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Language & Literacy

Photo provided by Bies

A bandaid feel me better.”  We relish the quirky sayings our children devise as they wade through the task of decoding the furtive rules we use as we communicate.  Our children’s faulty contrivances are not only endearing, but give us some insight into their progress as they decipher our mysterious code. 

The development of language and literacy skills are key to success not only academically, but in life.  Brilliance of thought or tenderness of feelings can easily go unnoticed without the ability to properly and effectively communicate.  In the words of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, “A word devoid of thought is a dead thing, and a thought unembodied in words remains a shadow.”  Moreover, language serves as the channel for most learning, as it involves the ability to receive information whether it be instructional, social, or otherwise.

Language and literacy span a HUGE list of skills and categories, and represent a rapidly advancing aspect of a child’s development.  Children are almost constantly surrounded by language whether in print, in song, in conversation (with adults or other child-decipherers), or even within their own minds.  It is critical to their development as well as their daily life.

Language includes receptive language (listening and understanding), and expressive language (effectively communicating ideas).  Both spheres require the continued mastery of vocabulary, something we continue to hone throughout adulthood (though, unfortunately, at a much more sluggish pace than our younger selves), as well as grammar and semantics.  Language development also includes the advancement of oral and aural skills, often a matter of muscle and air control, discernment of sounds, or learned active listening skills, which frequently come with experience combined with physical growth and development.

Literacy development incorporates a sizable list of activities and skills comprised in the early childhood experience.  In simple terms it is reading and writing, but these skills are end goals, not the jumping off point.  At the preschool level, children must build the foundations necessary to later become independent readers and writers.  They must be able to discern sounds before they can manipulate them, manipulate them before they can anticipate them, and anticipate them before they can read them. Then, to varying degrees appropriate to their own developmental levels, they become readers and writers themselves.

While many programs check the box next to Literacy by handing out alphabet coloring sheets, letter recognition is but one part of early literacy development.  Along with letter recognition, one of the strongest predictors at the preschool level of literacy success in later years is phonological awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words-think Dr. Seuss).  This involves the ability to hear and create things like rhymes and alliterations – key components in fingerplays, nursery rhymes, and songs.  These types of activities may be seen as cute, or “soft”, but they are essential to developing successful readers!  Literacy is also encouraged as children and adults read and write books together, explore environmental print (simply print in the child’s environment: cereal boxes, restaurant signs, labels, DVD boxes, etc.), and engage in conversation.

Surrounding children in a print-rich, language-rich environment and expressing to them our passion for language and literacy in word and in deed goes a long way to building successful, life-long learners.

You may also be interested in the article, A Culture of Literacy: Teaching Preschoolers the ABC’s and More.


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