Yikes…second and third graders reading on a Kindergarten level? It’s true and it’s happening more and more. So what can you do to prevent your little one from becoming a struggling reader? Let me tell you, it’s all about the sounds! Phonological awareness is a significant key to reading success… and evidence has shown us time and again how struggling readers all have difficulty with phonological awareness. So let’s talk about how you can learn more about it and implement some quick activities today with your little one. You will read about:

  • What phonological awareness is
  • Why is it important?
  • How to know if your child is ready to start working with phonological awareness
  • 5 quick ways to practice phonological awareness today
Mother and daughter laying on the floor reading; practicing phonological awareness

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What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is one of the 6 early literacy skills your child should be practicing as an emergent reader. It is the understanding that words make up the sentences we speak and individual sounds make up words. The catch to this skill is that it is all done orally or with pictures. Children should not be using letters when working with phonological awareness.

This concept can be abstract for a 2-5 year old and therefore should be broken down and taken slowly. There are many skills that are included under the phonological awareness umbrella. Let’s start from the easiest to the most complex.

Phonological awareness infographic

Counting Words in a sentence

This first skill is the most basic skill in phonological awareness. It is the understanding that our sentences are made up of multiple words to create meaning. As your child experiments with learning language and creating sentences to convey their wants and needs, they will find that using words in different contexts can convey different meanings.

Understanding the concept of a word as a unit of meaning is a complex idea. But, breaking this down to count, clap, or assign objects a word can help support this idea. Starting with very simple sentence with only one syllable per word like “I see a cat” and then working up to more complex sentences with multisyllabic words like “I want to go walking outside” will give a strong foundation for understanding this concept.

Rhyming

Rhyming is such an important piece of phonological awareness. You want your child to understand that words can sound similar to one another because this will help them in the future with both reading and writing.

The natural progression of rhyming skills is to first hear rhymes and then to produce them. First, your child will be able to tell if two words rhyme or not. So if you say bat/hat, they will be able to tell you those words rhyme as opposed to head/cup, which don’t.

Then, they will be able to produce a rhyme. So when you say “cat”, they will be able to tell you another (or many) word(s) that rhyme with cat. Again, this helps with future reading because if they know how to read “cat”, then they can easily figure out that they know how to read all of the many words that rhyme with “cat”.

Syllables

Syllables are words or part of words that have a “talking” vowel. For example, cat is a word in which the vowel “a” makes a sound. “Cil” from pen-cil is a part of a word in which the “i” makes a sound.

The reason why it is important to identify that words contain one or multiple parts is so when your child begins decoding more difficult words, they are able to logically be able to break them apart to sound them out.

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    Onset and Rime

    Onset and rime is a term that educators use to define parts of a single syllable. The onset of a word or syllable is all of the parts leading up to the vowel. The rime is all of the sounds from the vowel and after.

    For example, in “cat”, the onset is c- and the rime is -at. But in the word “spring”, the onset is spr- and the rime is -ing. Understanding this skill is an extension of rhyming, but will also help your child be able to read and write more words by using words that they already know.

    Beginning, Middle, and Ending Sounds

    Very simply put, this skill involves identifying beginning, middle, and ending sounds within a word. Beginning sounds are the easiest to distinguish, followed by endings. Medial, or middle, sounds can be the hardest to distinguish.

    Segmenting and Blending Sounds

    Segmenting sounds means taking a word and breaking it apart into the smallest units of sounds. This is the process of decoding, but without having a visual (because as you remember, phonological awareness is done orally or with pictures). Segmenting is a true precursor to being able to decode and read. For example, we can take the word “chop” and segment it into ch-o-p.

    Blending sounds is the exact opposite. It is taking the sounds of a word and blending them together to make a whole word. So if we took the sounds c-a-tch, we would blend that into the word “catch”.

    Adding, Deleting, and Manipulating Sounds

    This final and most complex skill is the ability to manipulate sounds within words. This helps children with decoding and spelling so that they use what they already know about sounds to help them read and write new words. This set of skills is more of late pre-K to first grade skills, but it is worth knowing about them and understanding them to see what will be important for your child to be able to do in the future. I’ll go over them in increasing order of difficulty.

    Adding a sound within a word is exactly how it sounds. You might give your child the word “loud” and ask them to add the sound /k/ to the beginning to make the word “cloud”.

    Deleting is also just how it sounds. You could give your child the word “swing” and ask them to remove the sound /s/ to make “wing”. To be even more complex, you could ask them to remove the /w/ from “swing” to make “sing”.

    When you are manipulating sounds, you are asking your child to change a sound in a word. So for example, you could ask them to say the word “moon”. Then, ask them to change the /n/ into /v/ to make the word “move”.

    Boy reading a book on the bed.

    Why is Phonological Awareness important?

    If you read the above definitions, you probably saw a pattern. Phonological awareness is an important skill for emerging readers because it lays the foundation for decoding words. Being able to break apart sounds in a word and hear how they blend together is a crucial skill for decoding.

    I like to use this analogy when talking about phonological awareness: If you are baking cookies, you need to have the appropriate ingredients to be able to make them. But if you don’t have a mixing bowl, a mixing spoon, or an oven, you aren’t going to be able to mix all of those ingredients together to get your delicious end result. 

    If our end result is reading, and the words on the page are our ingredients, our little ones won’t be able to do anything with that print without having the proper “tools”, or “awareness”. 

    These tools help your child use what they know about sounds and apply them to the new language they are learning…reading.

    How to Know your Child is Ready for Phonological Awareness

    Since phonological awareness is a completely oral skill with some picture support, your child may be able to start grasping this skill earlier than some of the other early literacy skills. Let’s take a look at some signs of readiness:

    Shows an Interest in Language

    As your child is starting to develop their vocabulary and learning new words at a rapid rate, they may be wanting to label things and learn even more new words from the environment around them.

    One sign that shows they may be ready to work with simple phonological awareness activities is their desire to acquire more vocabulary. See how closely these early literacy skills are connected? I love it!

    Learn more about the other Early Literacy Skills here:

    Language interest will help your child begin to notice that words can sound the same, start the same, end the same, and hold meaning. This is an opportunity to really make that fascination with words into a playful learning experience.

    Shows an Interest in Books

    When your child wants to play with books, read books with you, or pretend read books to others, then the are definitely ready for some phonological awareness activities. This shows their desire to want to learn the language of reading. Capitalizing on their interest in reading can help you use books as a tool to practice rhyming and other activities.

    Is Speaking in Longer Phrases or Simple Sentences

    When your child is speaking in longer phrases or simple sentences, they are ready to start understanding the more complex concepts of sentences and words. This can help you lay the groundwork for some initial phonological awareness activities like counting words in a sentence and words that sound or start the same.

    5 Quick Ways to Support Phonological Awareness with Your Child

    There aren’t endless hours in the day and on top of everything else you have to do to make life manageable, practicing phonological awareness skills may not make it very high on your list. But, it doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming. Here are some quick ways that you can incorporate some activities into your life without the overwhelm.

    Shapes lined up on the floor to practice phonological awareness.

    Working with Sentences

    To begin this most basic skill, you can take advantage of your car rides to start clapping words in a sentence together. This can help to make the rhythm of sentences stand out so it is easier to distinguish words. Bonus points if you can turn your sentences into silly songs. Just be careful that you aren’t clapping for every syllable. It’s best to start out with sentences that have one syllable to get the hang of it. This is a great way to get some practice on the go!

    At home, take advantage of independent playtime or household chores by using common objects to represent each word in a sentence. In the beginning, you can place the objects out for your child and tap them together while you say the words. These or these work great if you can’t think of things you already have (plus they are developmental toy essentials). Eventually, as your child learns the game, they will be able to put the objects out themselves for each word.

    Working with Words

    Eventually, once your child gets the hang of the activities above, you can move into more focused work with words. Using the same ideas as above like clapping and household objects, begin to focus on syllables. Vary the amount of syllables when you practice so that you are always keeping it fresh and unpredictable. When you are first starting off, only practice with 1-2 syllable words, but as you notice your child improving, vary it even more.

    Another idea that is completely oral is the Speed It Up game. You can say the syllables in a word very slowly and have your child “speed it up” and say the word. For example, if you say really slowly “el-e-phant” you would want your child to say “elephant” really fast. Young kiddos love trying to figure out what you are saying and are so proud of themselves when they get it and try to say it really, really fast!

    Working with Rhymes

    Working with rhymes can be easily done throughout any of your daily routines. What is so important when beginning with this skill is exposure, exposure, exposure. Chants, songs, books, you name it. Anything with rhymes for your little one to hear is the perfect way to introduce the concept that words can sound the same. And as we talked about earlier, that will eventually help them with decoding because they will be able to use words they know to read new words.

    Here are a couple of anytime, anywhere activity that you can do to build up rhyming skills:

    • Share two words and ask if they rhyme or not. Ex// bear/chair and bed/bat
    • Provide a list of 3-4 words that all rhyme except for one. Have your child tell you which word does not rhyme. Ex// bear/chair/care/desk
    • Say a word and have your child produce a rhyming word. Ex// Tell me a word that rhymes with star.

    Working with Sounds

    When you are able to start breaking words down into sounds, you want to start slowly. Really focus on beginning sounds at first so that your child can get used to isolating sounds. A great way to do this is to collect objects around the house that start with the same sound. Or if you are on a car ride, try to spot items along the way that begin with the same sound.

    You could also play the “Speed It Up” game for words like you did with syllables. Make sure your child is firm on how to play the game with syllables first before you try to play it with single sounds. So for example, if you gave your child the sounds /f//i/sh/, you would want them to say “fish”.

    Changing Sounds

    One of the most complex skills in phonological awareness is to change sounds within a word. This is another great activity for the car as it can be done completely orally.

    First, have your child repeat a word after you. Then, tell them to change one sound within the word and have them tell you the new word. This is what that communication would sound like:

    Mama: Say “cat”.

    Child: “cat”

    Mama: “Now change /k/ to /b/. What’s your word?”

    Child: “bat”

    This helps your child understand that words can be manipulated. Some words only need to change one sound to make a new word. This is how words that your child already knows can help them spell new words.

    Next Steps for Phonological Awareness

    Mother helping son put magnetic letters on the refrigerator; practicing phonological awareness.

    As your child progresses throughout their reading journey, you may find that many of the phonological awareness skills are becoming easier and easier. At this time, I’d suggest focusing on that last skill area, changing sounds. There are so many ways to increase the complexity of this skill and it’s such an easy thing to practice while you are cooking, eating, driving, etc.

    Once you have practiced adding, deleting, and substituting for the beginning sounds, move to the ends of sounds. So you can practice with words like this: “Say kite…no change /i/ to /oa/”. You can also add, delete, or substitute for blends within words as well, which adds a whole new level of difficulty. This can be done in this example: “say play without the /l/”.

    So there you have it! A full on guide to phonological awareness and 5 quick ways to support your child with these skills.

    Now your turn…how are you supporting your child when learning about phonological awareness or what new thing do you want to try? I’d love to hear all about it below!

    Don’t forget to share!