“C-a-t. . . . MAP!”
Ever have students who do that?
Even when students know letter sounds, they may still have trouble reading because they don’t blend the sounds correctly.
The likely cause is a lack of phonological or phonemic awareness.
Phonological, Phonemic: What’s the Difference?
First things first, phonological awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate sounds in spoken words. While phonological awareness can include syllables or parts of words (ex: onset and rime), phonemic awareness deals with individual phonemes, or sounds.
For example, blending or segmenting the sounds in the word CAT is a phonemic awareness activity. Identifying the number of syllables in the word CAT is not.
They are both phonological awareness activities, but phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that deals with phonemes, or individual sounds.
So, in a nutshell:
phonological = individual sounds AND words and parts of words
phonemic = individual sounds
Children need strong phonological awareness skills in order to decode words when reading and it’s important to work on these skills starting from pre-K and continuing to 1st grade and even beyond.
Phonological Awareness Activities and Games
So how can you develop these essential skills while having fun? Well, I’m glad you asked! Here is a list of phonological awareness skills and some activities and games to practice them.
Being able to identify discrete words. Sometimes kids have a hard time separating words in a sentence, or they may mistake syllables for words.
- Have students repeat words, one at a time. Use mono- and multi-syllabic words.
- Count words in a sentence.
- Make a gesture after every word in a sentence (stomp, clap, sit, etc).
First, kids learn to recognize when words rhyme. It helps to point out the part that sounds the same so students know what to listen for.
Producing rhymes, or coming up with their own words that rhyme, is a more difficult skill. Scaffold by giving students the first sound and having them say the rime, then blend the word.
- Read rhyming books or poems. Emphasize the first word in a rhyming pair and ask kids to call out the 2nd rhyming word.
- Rhyming Riddles- “I’m thinking of a snack that rhymes with wookies…cookies!”
- Rhyming Circle- Have students sit in a circle. Start by saying a word and go around the circle, asking kids to add a rhyming word to the list. Each student says the words before their turn and adds a new one! *Start with the next child for each new word.
Recognizing when words have the same beginning, ending, or middle sound.
- Tongue Twisters!
- Name Matching- Say a word and ask kids whose names start/ end with the same sound to stand up/ jump/ raise their hands.
- Around the Room- Ask students to find something around the room that begins with the same beginning sound as their name. Or, have them find 2 objects that start/end with the same sound. This is more fun if you have a class set of plastic glasses! *TIP* Read Rosie’s Glasses to teach growth mindset at the beginning of the year and gift your students these glasses, then use them throughout the year for reading, read/write around the room, and other activities that have to do with searching! I used these glasses, but I like these colorful glasses too!
- Mystery Bag- Place a few items that begin with a target sound in a bag. Give children clues and see if they can guess all of the items. Take one out for each correct guess. “In this mystery bag, I have 4 items that start with /m/. The first one is white and soft, and people use it to make S’mores!”
Being able to separate an individual sound from a word. For example, isolating the beginning sound in the word MAT (/m/). Sometimes the first letter doesn’t match the sound (ex: ship). Remember, we are focusing on phonemes (sounds) rather than graphemes (letter representations).
- “When I say. . . “- Say a word and have students say just the beginning/ middle/ ending sound in the word. Make it into a song! Start each with the phrase, “When I say CAT, you say (kids say /K/), CAT, /k/, CAT, /k/!” (Tribute to DJ Kool here! #iykyk)
Blending individual sounds together to say a word.
- “Code Words”-One of our favorite phonological awareness games! Say the sounds in a word and have kids call out the word. This could be an item around the room, a snack kids are eating, kids’ names, or words in a category, i.e; body parts. This can also be used to blend syllables or onset/ rime.
- Talk “whale”- Seen Finding Nemo? It’s one of my favorite movies, probably because I can relate so well to Dory’s poor memory! 🤣 I also love to speak “whale” (very slowly) and have kids blend the sounds to say the word quickly. Read more about speaking whale for sounding out words here.
The opposite of blending, segmenting is separating the sounds in a word.
- Hop to it- Show a picture of an object and have kids hop for each sound. For example, show a pig, kids say /p/,/i/,/g/, hopping 3 times. In my room, we had a rug with squares so kids hopped on a new square for each sound.
- Bounce to it- Same as above but bounce a ball once for each sound or syllable.
- Use manipulatives- Have kids move a manipulative for each sound. For example, move counters into Elkonin boxes, smash balls of play-doh, or just make it tactile by tapping dots.
- Read this post for syllable games and tips for teaching syllable division
Although blending and segmenting are the most popular types of phonemic awareness activities. it’s helpful for kids to continue with these more are advanced skills:
- Phoneme Addition: Adding a sound to the beginning or end of a word (ex: star + /t/ = start)
- Phoneme Deletion: Omitting a sound (ex: start – /t/ = star)
- Phoneme Substitution: Changing a sound (ex: Change the /t/ to /m/ in start = smart)
The Hungry Thing by Jan Slepian is one of my favorite books for phoneme substitution! Print out the food cards from the freebie and place them on a pocket chart, then cut an oval for a dish. Ask kids to make you a breakfast plate with shmancakes, mapples, and wattles (pancakes, apples, and waffles).
It can be hard coming up with examples to use for each of the activities above, but in my Phonological Awareness Bundle, I include skill cards that can be printed or displayed on a whiteboard for whole-group practice.
If you are looking for a way to incorporate more phonological and phonemic awareness into your instruction, it’s a great resource to have! Besides the skill cards, it also includes quick warm-ups you can do during your small-group reading or for whole-class practice. Each warm-up has 3 activities with lots of words to use (meant to be used across several sessions, a few words at once).
*Intervention tips for students who struggle with each task are included as well.
In addition, I made practice pages for each skill that you can use for even more practice or as quick assessments.
I don’t know about you, but when I have things organized and ready-to-go, I’m much more likely to use them, so having everything in one place is a huge help!
Phonological awareness is one of the best predictors of reading success, so it’s essential to have a plan in place for explicit instruction and plenty of practice. Using games to engage your students in practicing these skills makes learning more fun for them, and teaching more fun for you. I hope you got some ideas for implementing phonological awareness games in your classroom!