Phonemic Awareness: Playing With Sounds is Serious Business

What Does It Mean?

Playing With Sounds Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. For example, a child could tell by listening that "big" and "boy" start with the same "buh" sound, or that "bug" and "frog" end with the same "guh" sound.

What Kids Need to Learn

Children who are learning to read will progress much faster and with more confidence in reading and spelling if they can do tasks like these:

  • identify beginning sounds of spoken words: dog
  • identify end sounds of spoken words: walk
  • recognize words that begin with the same sound: dog, duck, doctor
  • blend separate spoken sounds together into one word: /l/ /i/ /p/ = lip
  • break up a word into its separate sounds: pick=/p/,/i/,/k/, or

Putting It In Context

Many children begin developing skills like these when they are 3 or 4 years old. This may happen very informally, or kids may receive direct practice in preschool or kindergarten. Because children enter first grade with different background experiences, their skill with manipulating sounds will vary, and first grade teachers will need to include some phonemic awareness activities to give kids practice in this area. Most children have a solid basis in this area by grade two.

Why It Is Important

Kids need to be able to hear the differences in spoken sounds before they can recognize letter sounds in written words. Reading words and spelling are much easier when kids understand how sounds work together.

Kids need to be able to hear the differences in spoken sounds before they can tell the difference between sounds in written words.

Challenges Kids Might Face

Children who do not have strong phonemic awareness skills may have difficulty reading aloud, spelling, and blending sounds together or grasping phonics concepts. Phonemic Awareness Teachers may mistakenly work more on spelling or increased phonics instruction when what the child really needs is more time working with the spoken sounds of words.

If too many different skills are taught too close together, or if not enough time is given for kids to learn each skill, children may have trouble applying these skills to reading and spelling.

How to Help Kids Who Are Struggling

Here are some simple things you can do to help kids improve their skills:

  • Weave phonemic awareness games and activities into the day and make it fun; this is one area that is better "taught" informally through sound games.
  • Start with the easier skills, such as identifying beginning sounds. Save harder skills, like blending sounds, for when kids can easily handle the easier tasks.
  • Work on one skill at a time. Packing in several "sound games" that work on different skills will confuse struggling learners.
  • Help kids connect sound work to reading written words by incorporating letters into your phonemic awareness activities. For example, the teacher might say the word, "bug". "What sounds are in that word?" (/b/,/u/,/g/) "Who can write the sounds in 'bug'?" (Child writes b, u, g). "What word do those sounds make?" (bug)
  • If children are struggling with other aspects of reading, check their ability to work with spoken sounds first. They may simply need more practice working with sounds before moving on to printed words.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey