etters and Sounds: Phonological Awareness


Before we can teach a child to "sound out a word" the child must first build an understanding that words are made up of sounds. Although this is obvious to adults, it is not something children automatically know. They must also be able to hear the individual sounds in words and develop their own understanding of what is a word.

Phonics is a term we commonly hear on television in advertisements for reading programs. It is a term to refer to studying what sounds letters can make, and it is a large part of the kindergarten curriculum.

However, phonological awareness is an even broader term, which includes phonics, but also includes all the sounds we hear when someone speaks and how those sounds can be changed around. For example, a child is building phonological awareness if he/she can rhyme, break words into syllables, or play word games such as making up tongue twisters. These games help children focus on language itself. Your child can begin to build phonological awareness before he or she knows any of the letter names: The following are activities to help children focus on the sounds of our language.



*The following are games to teach children how to pay attention to (hear) and manipulate the sounds in words and sentences. Many of the games involve more listening or talking, rather than focusing on printed material. These games should be very brief and fast paced. Many of the games or activities can be done in a few minutes. Do not try to do them all at once because it can become overwhelming or monotonous. You might want to try these activities at meal times, in the car, in the grocery store, at bedtime, or if your child likes to "play school". The most important thing to remember is to play, play, play!! The sillier and more nonsense involved, the more motivated and interested children will be. These games are meant to build a natural curiosity about the sounds and words in our language.



Word games:

1.     Read lots and lots of nursery rhymes! Some nursery rhymes with examples of extension activities are in the appendix.


**Over the years, fewer children have been learning their nursery rhymes. Don't forget Mother Goose!! These rhymes are silly and their meanings sometimes confusing, but they are vital for teaching children the rhythm of our language. There are newer versions also available that are more politically correct (ex. Peter, Peter has a mouse instead of a wife that he keeps in his pumpkin shell). It has been shown that children who learn nursery rhymes become naturally curious about language and begin experimenting with rhyme and changing sounds in words all on their own!!


2.    Read tons of rhyming books! Some are included in the book list in appendix. Occasionally pause and let your child use the rhyme to figure out a word.


Ex. One fish, two fish, red fish ____ fish.



3.    Read children's poetry! See attached list of poetry books in the appendix. There is some amazing and fun poetry now available for children.

Example poems:


First Snow

By Marie Louise Allen


Snow makes whiteness where it falls.

The bushes look like popcorn balls.

The places where I always play,

Look like somewhere else today.


By Jack Prelutsky


Squirrels, often found in parks,

Have tails, resembling question marks.

It's just coincidental, though:

There's little squirrels care to know.




Homework Machine

By Shel Silverstein


The Homework Machine, oh the Homework Machine,

Most perfect contraption that's ever been seen.

Just put in your homework, then drop in a dime,

Snap on the switch, and in ten seconds' time,

Your homework comes out, quick and clean as can be.

Here it isÑ"nine plus four?" and the answer is "three."


Oh me:

I guess it's not as perfect

As I thought it would be.





4.    Play rhyming games:find objects in the house that rhyme, play with rhyming your names, rhyme with food

a.     Tonight we are having wamburgers for dinner. Do you want a mookie? (have your child figure out the real word)

-excellent book: The Hungry Thing by Slepian and Seider


5.    Play games that focus on individual words. These are games to play orally:without the words in front of you.

Ex.  Think of a favorite sentence from books or nursery rhymes

         *Say the sentence

         *Say the sentence again as you clap for each word

                  -try bouncing a ball or hopping for each word

-try drawing lines on paper or placing blocks in a row for each word in the sentence


                           *Start with one syllable words:

                                    -I love you.

                                    -Brown Bear, Brown Bear, who do you see?

                                    -One fish, two fish:


*Move onto words with multiple syllables (this is A LOT harder because the breaks we hear in sentences are usually the syllables, NOT the words!!!!!)

-The eensy, weensy spider:

-One, two buckle me shoe




Syllable games:

       Syllables are parts of words:you can hear the pause between them. Each syllable also contains a vowel sound. Children as young as 3 years old can play games to separate syllables.  Remember to keep the games brief and informal.


1.     Say a word broken into syllables and see if your child can figure out the  word:  Do you want watermellon?



2.    Play with saying the syllables in your child's name.




3.    Find objects in the house that have the same number of syllables:com-pu-ter:.mi-cro-wave



4.    Count the syllables in familiar words.


One way to count syllables is by "arm tapping". Tap each syllable on different places on your arm (Don't use clapping, hopping, etc. because you used these activities with isolating words. We want children to see that syllables are smaller parts of words.)

*How to arm tap:

1.     Hold out your right arm

2.    Say a 2 syllable word such as "popcorn"

3.    Say it again, but this time tap your right wrist with your left hand as you say "pop" then tap your elbow as you say "corn"

4.    Say the word again all together as you slide your left hand from your wrist up to your elbow:you are showing how the two syllables blend together


*Work up to five syllable words:tap wrist, elbow, shoulder, head, then over to your left shoulder.

*Extension: arm tap a word such as "Spiderman":spi (wrist):der (elbow):man(shoulder). Where is "man"? (child should point to his/her shoulder) Where is "spi"? (child should point to his/her wrist.






Letter sound games:

Background for parents:

       The sounds that letters make are called "phonemes" and there are about 44 in our language (including long and short vowels, sounds such as "sh" etc.)


         There are 2 interesting points that parents need to be aware of:


         1. We do not really "hear" individual sounds in words. It is hard to really isolate individual phonemes. They all blend together around the vowel sound and change as they form a word.


2. What I find interesting is that, because it is so hard to isolate sounds in words, many of us were taught the wrong sounds in grade school!! How many of us learned that the letter "B" says "buh" or that "Y" says "yuh"? Many people, including myself, were taught the letter sounds with a vowel attached to it. We add the /u/ or /a/ sound to the consonants. I have even seen these errors in educational games, videos, and computer programs. We all need to be aware of this common mistake. If children learn these incorrect sounds it becomes very difficult for many of them to blend letters into words. For example, try to blend Ôyuh" "o" "yuh" "o" into yo-yo:it doesn't work without a big jump to the word by changing the sounds.


The errors I mentioned are common for only a portion of the consonant sounds. For the most part children are probably learning the correct sounds for letters such as "m" "s" or "l". Below are some explanations of the correct sounds to teach your children. This is for your information only because children do not need the details if they have a good model like you to imitate. It is hard to explain sounds and even harder to relearn something you thought you already knew. After reading the material below, if the sounds are still unclear I would be happy to provide a tape or demonstrate for you:I understand because I had to relearn these sounds too!






Consonant sounds that are commonly incorrectly taught:


Bb:    Say bear:start to say it again slowly but don't say "air". It is just a short /b/ sound that you make by starting with your lips closed and puffing a breath through your lips. You can feel it vibrate in your vocal cords


Pp:     Say pig:start to say it again slowly but don't say "ig". The /p/sound is made just like /b/, but you cannot feel your vocal cords vibrate. The sound is whispered.


Gg:    Say goat:start to say it again slowly but don't say "oat". You can feel the /g/ sound in the back of your throat. Your mouth is open like the /k/ sound. Actually /k/ and /g/ are made the say way, except /k/ is whispered and for /g/ you can feel you vocal cords vibrate.


Jj:    Say jam:start to say it again slowly but don't say "am". To make the /j/ sound your jaw is closed but you lips are open. It is almost like saying the letter "G". The /j/ sound is made the same as the /ch/ sound in chair, except the /ch/ is whispered and you can feel you vocal cords vibrate to say /j/.


Yy:.   Say yellow:start to say it again but don't say "ellow". The /y/ sound is closely tied to a /e/ or /i/ sound. Keep you lips open slightly and feel your vocal cords vibrate. Your mouth should not move. Do not add the /u/ sound by opening your mouth wider.


Ww:   This is one of the most difficult sounds. Say window:say it again but don't say "in-dow". The /w/ sound is made with your lips in a round circle like you are going to whistle, and they stay in that shape. It is very close to the /oo/ sound in moon.








Additional reminders:


1. Vowels:Key words to help you remember the short vowel sounds:

a-apple, e-elephant, i-indian, o-octopus, u-umbrella


*Many kids cannot hear the difference between the vowels until they are much older.


2. The letters "X" and "Q" actually have two sounds:


         /x/ = /k/ + /s/   like the end of box


         /q/ = /k/  +  /w/   like the beginning of quilt


3. Reminder:don't add the "uh" sound to other letters such as "t", "d" or "r". Remember they are sounds:


4.  Ask:  "What is the first sound you make when you say 'cat'?". Do not ask what sound they hear first. We actually hear all of the sounds at once wrapped around the vowel:adults just have learned so much about spelling that we only think we hear the /k/ first.



Phoneme games to play:

         A. To hear individual sounds:


1.     Read books or tongue twisters with lots of alliteration (words starting with the same sound)

 *Sally sells seashells by the sea shore.

 *Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.



2.    Play "I Spy"

You can start with just the sounds:

Ex. I spy something that starts with  /s/

Next move onto the letters:

Ex. I spy something that starts with the letter t.



3.    Listen to and sing lots of children's songs, such as those by Raffi.  Many children's songs play with sounds and nonsense words. Some are great jump rope songs. Children love to make up their own silly words, and they are learning an important aspect of our language in the process.


Ex.     Jump Rope Rhymes[1]


Rhythm, rhythm

Gotta have a beat.

Snap your fingers and

Stomp your feet.

Clap your hands and

Slap your knee.

That's called rhythm.

Don't you see?




Chicka, chicka, whole potata.

Half past allagata.

Bim, bam, bolagata.

Give three cheers

For the dippy, dappy, happy, sappy readers.

Are we happy?

Well, I guess.

Readers. Readers.

Yes. Yes. Yes



Ex. B-A-Bay[2]



B-i-biddee bye


Biddee bye bo


Bidde bay bee



         It's just a kooky song.

         You can sing it, too.

         Any consonant will work with

         A E I O U

(repeat using different consonant)





Ex. Sung to tune of "Someone's in the Kitchen with Diana"[3]

I have a song that we can sing

         I have a song that we can sing

         I have a song that we can sing

         It goes something like this:

         Fe Fi Fiddly i o

         Fe Fi Fiddly i o-o-o-o

         Fe Fi Fiddly i ooooooo

Now try it with the /z/ sound


         Ze Zi- Ziddly i o





4.    Say a word broken into sounds (phonemes) and see if your child can blend them together.


What word am I saying?   /h/  /a/  /t/


5.    Think of words that start with a certain sound. Start with just the sounds, then move onto giving the letter's name when your child is ready.


I am thinking of something. It starts with a /s/ sound



6.    Elkonian boxes

For kids who really like to "play school", try this activity we use in kindergarten and first grade. Attached is a copy of Elkonian boxes. They are simply pictures with boxes under it to represent the sounds.

      Place a handful of small blocks or plastic chips on the picture (They need to be small enough to fit into the boxes)

      Start with the name of the picture and demonstrate for your child how to slide a chip into each box as you break the word into parts.


For example, if the picture is a dog:

1.     Say "dog"

2.    Slide a chip down as you say each sound:

/d/ /o/ /g/

3.    Say the whole word again as you slide your finger under all 3 of the chips (showing how the sounds blend together)


      Let your child try the same procedure.



      After you do the word that matches the picture, let your child  try to show you the sounds in other short vowel words. The picture becomes just a place to put all the blocks to reduce distractions.



       B. To learn letter shapes and names:


It is your choice whether you want to teach just the capitals, or also introduce the lower case. You know your child's interests and abilities the best. If possible try to include the lower case.


If your child is eager to learn and wants to learn the letters, please teach both the upper and lower case alphabets!!!.


 I understand the dilemma and know why most parents and preschools teach the capitals first. Some teachers would also argue with me that the capitals should be taught first. It is a point of debate. First of all, the upper case alphabet is easier to learn and write because the letters are more distinct from each other. Many of the lower case letters look alike, such as b,d, p, and q. Secondly, many commercial games only use upper case letters and magnetic letters for the fridge are usually just capitals.

Some parents may feel they need to teach just the capital letters, and worry about the lower case later. That is totally fine, especially if your child is not very interested in learning the letters yet or if he/she is not developmentally ready. It is more helpful if they at least know some of the letters before entering kindergarten, and as I said before, the capitals are easier to learn.

However, if your child is excited about learning letters or is learning the letter names of the capitals quickly, then please also teach the lower case. If you think about it, the lower case letters are used the most. They are the letters children see the most in books, and they are the letters they need to print most of the time in their writing.


Games and activities:


1. Magnetic letter games:

      Some teacher stores, such as the Painted Horse in Augusta, may have lower case magnetic letters.

      Sort letters by shape (curve letters, letters with tails, letters with tunnels, letters with long stems, etc.

      Match upper to lower case.

      Put in ABC order



2. Teach the ABC song:then do it backwards!


3. Make letters out of different materials and textures so children can feel the shape:

*some examples: play dough, sand paper, 3D glue pens, string, etc.


4. Pick a letter and draw it on construction paper. Let your child cut it out and look through magazines to find the same letter. Have your child cut out the letters from the magazines and glue them on the big letter.



5. Children can learn many letters by learning the letters in their name. These kinds of activities are also very motivating to children because using their names makes it more personal and gives them ownership.

      Name puzzle: Write your child's name in large letters and cut the letters apart. Your child will have fun mixing and putting his/her name back together

      Find words in books that start with the same letter as his/her first and last name

      Help your child type his/her name on the computer



C. To match sounds to letter symbols


1.     Letter bingo:just like regular bingo, but each square has a letter and the caller calls out the sound. You can make your own or there is a commercial game available called Quizmo.


2.    Cut out a big letter out of construction paper. Have your child glue on pictures from a magazine that start with that letter's sound and make a collage.


3.    Make little letter books. Put a letter on the cover and on each page have your child draw a picture that starts with that letter.


4.    Sort pictures into piles. For example, put all the pictures that start with an /s/ sound into one pile. Write the letter S on paper to label this pile.






[1] Archambault, John and David Plummer. ABC Chicka Boom with Me, Hunyington Beach, CA: Creative Teaching Press.

[2] Archambault and Plummer.

[3] From Yopp, H. K. "Developing phonemic awareness in young children" The Reading Teacher 45, 9, pgs. 696-703, 1992