Effective Strategies for Teaching Phonemic Awareness

Because phonemic awareness is a necessary pre-requisite to reading, it is important that it is included in early reading or pre-reading instruction. While there are many ways to teach, the following proven strategies should be considered when teaching phonemic awareness to young children.

Timing and Grouping

Phonemic awareness should be a priority in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and early first grade reading instruction. Studies have found that young children benefit the most from short instructional sessions (up to 30 minutes long) offered in small group settings. Teachers working with small groups should focus on between 2 and 3 phonemic awareness skills at a time to help children solidify these important pre-reading abilities.

Teaching With or Without Letters?

While phonemic awareness is not dependent on print, children seem to benefit the most from instruction presented with written words. At its very core phonemic awareness is a listening and speaking skill rather than a reading skill. Phonemes are, after all, sounds. Still, research shows that teaching phonemic awareness using letters helps children solidify their skills. Print words allow them to see and apply the connection between sound and letters necessary for reading. Adults working with young readers on developing their phonemic awareness should make explicit connections between sounds and letters by not only including print words in instruction but also drawing the children’s attention to sounds by saying and pointing to letters simultaneously.

Individualized Approach to Instruction

Children come to school with different phonemic awareness levels. Some may have a strong understanding of and ability to apply knowledge of how phonemes function in words while others may have little to no phonemic awareness.

Just as with phonics instruction, phonemic awareness instruction should be individualized to meet the specific needs of each child in the classroom.

Because it is the primary pre-requisite for reading and is such a strong indicator of future reading ability, the greatest attention should be paid to those students with little or no phonemic awareness.

Clapping and Tapping

One of the easiest ways to help children realize that words are made up of several sounds and syllables is to allow them to “break up” words by clapping or tapping out their syllables. Tapping can be performed with fingers, hands or an object such as a stick. When first introducing this concept, adults should model clapping or tapping. For example, a teacher can show a child that the word “balloon” has two syllables by clapping twice while reciting the word (/ba/ -clap- /loon/ -clap-). Once children understand the activity they should be encouraged to perform it independently on a regular basis. This kinesthetic connection allows children to become actively engaged with words.

Keyword Substitution

This activity aids children in developing an understanding of the role that phonemes play in the meaning of words. When a phoneme is changed in a word, more often than not, the meaning changes. Keyword substitution activities use familiar songs as a basis for “playing” with words. Adults can take the lyrics of a familiar song and create new lyrics that substitute words with small phonemic variations. For instance, the chorus of “Pop Goes the Weasel” could be changed to “Hop Goes the Weasel”. After singing the song with the new lyrics adults should discuss how changing a phoneme shifted the meaning of the song.

Picture Flashcards

Picture flashcards are excellent tools for helping children who do not have strong phonics skills work on their phonemic awareness. Adults should create a series of flashcards featuring pictures that are familiar to the child. When using the flashcards the adult should ask the child to name the picture featured on each card. After saying the word the child should be asked to identify the first and second sounds (or phonemes) in the word. This activity helps children realize that words are made up of a series of independent sounds or phonemes.

Home-School Connection

Because phonemic awareness precedes actual text reading, it is most often developed at home. Parents play an important role in their children’s phonemic awareness. Research has shown that children exposed to print-rich environments at home prior to entering school show much higher levels of phonemic awareness. A print-rich environment is one where reading and writing are evident and important. Parents can model phonemic awareness by reading aloud to their children and allowing their children to see them reading in authentic ways. They can also give their children opportunities to practice language by talking, singing, reciting nursery rhymes, playing guessing games and engaging in early writing activities. Almost any activity involving spoken or written language that parents engage in with their children benefits their development of phonemic awareness.