Looking for tips for teaching phonemic awareness?
In this post I’ll share do’s and don’ts for teaching phonemic awareness … sharing mistakes I’ve made in the past and new insights I’ve gained through my study of the science of reading.
As we consider do’s and don’ts for teaching phonemic awareness skills, let’s start with the basics.
I admit it … I didn’t understand the difference between phonological and phonemic awareness for a long time.
I knew they weren’t the same as phonics. I knew that phonics has to do with print, and phonological/phonemic awareness has to do with sounds.
But the rest was fuzzy.
A visual helps.
The above graphic is from my online course, Teaching Every Reader. As you can see, there are many components of phonological awareness: rhyming, alliteration, syllables, concept of word, onset- rime, AND phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness is just one piece of phonological awareness.
Many researchers would argue that it’s the most important piece.
There are several mental skills associated with word reading. Phoneme awareness appears to be one of the most important of these skills. Phoneme awareness refers to the ability to notice that spoken words can be broken down into smaller parts called phonemes.David Kilpatrick, Equipped for Reading Success
Did you catch that?
While the other components of phonological awareness have to do with the larger parts of words (syllables, onset/rime, etc.), a phoneme is the smallest part of a word. It’s an individual sound.
How many phonemes does each of these words have?
Ready for the answer key? Note … when you see letters between those slash marks (fancy word = virgules), we are referring to the sounds, not the letter names.
- Hat has three phonemes: /h/ /a/ /t/
- Fish has three phonemes: /f/ /i/ /sh/
- Swim has four phonemes: /s/ /w/ /i/ /m/
- Fox has four phonemes: /f/ /o/ /k/ /s/
- Squish has five phonemes: /s/ /k/ /w/ /i/ /sh/
How’d you do?
If you’re new to counting phonemes, don’t worry! It takes a little practice.
Before we move on, let’s remember that there are four levels of phonemic awareness.
The following infographic breaks down the four types and gives a sample phonemic awareness task for each one.
If you’re asking, “Who cares?” then I say “Great question.”
Knowing what phonemic awareness is does us no good if we don’t understand why it matters.
That brings us to our second “do …”
Let’s start with the end goal: reading comprehension.
How do we get there?
Check out this quote from David Kilpatrick.
Reading comprehension is our goal, and the most direct route to good reading comprehension is to make the word recognition process automatic so a student can focus all of his or her mental energy on the meaning.David Kilpatrick, Equipped for Reading Success
The next logical question is: HOW do we make the word recognition process automatic? How do we get students to the place where they recognize words immediately without needing to sound them out?
Hint: It’s not through memorizing long lists of words!
We use a process called orthographic mapping to be able to instantly recognize words.
Orthographic mapping is a process by which we map phonemes to graphemes.
This threw me for a loop for while, but it’s not as complex as it sounds.
Phonemes = sounds
Graphemes = printed letters which represent sounds
Therefore, orthographic mapping is a mental process by which we match the sounds of a word to the letters in a word (the spellings). By second grade, typical readers need just 2-4 exposures to a word to have it “orthographically mapped.”
We cannot become good at orthographic mapping unless we have both letter sound knowledge AND PHONEMIC AWARENESS.
(That was a very quick look at orthographic mapping, and if you don’t quite get it yet, that’s normal. Here’s an 11-minute video from Ms. Jane’s Tutoring & Dyslexia Services that explains it in an easy-to-understand way.
Once we understand WHAT phonemic awareness is, and WHY we need to teach it, we’re ready to get started.
But before you start, make sure you know how to pronounce phonemes properly.
What’s the sound of the letter l?
Did you say “luh”? Many people make that mistake.
Instead, we say that the sound of letter l is /llllll/.
Otherwise, if students are sounding out the word let, they might read it as luh-et.
Pronouncing phonemes getseven trickier with letters like p and b. It’s hard to clip the sounds quickly so we don’t add an “uh” to the end.
Check out this quick video to make sure you’re pronouncing all 44 phonemes correctly (the sounds will be different, of course, if you are not speaking American English.)
I have to hang my head in shame here because, for years, I didn’t give a lot of thought to phonemic awareness.
By “years” I mean all the years I was a classroom teacher. UGH.
I thought that the playful games we played with words and songs would be enough.
And it was … for some students.
I didn’t get that phonemic awareness is often the missing key for struggling readers. (And truthfully, all my students would have benefited from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness.)
Had I known its importance, I would have made it a point to teach phonemic awareness every day. (Every kindergarten and first grade teaches should fit it into their daily schedule.)
The good news is that phonemic awareness instruction doesn’t have to take long, and it requires few materials.
Many teachers love the Heggerty phonemic awareness curriculum. The program includes hand motions and daily lessons that take just 10-15 minutes.
I think Heggerty is a pretty solid program, but if your budget is tight, you can get a free printable phonemic awareness program at Reading Done Right.
Not ready to purchase a full curriculum? My phonemic awareness bundle has 12 weeks of oral phonemic awareness activities, plus printable games kids love.
Are you familiar with sound walls? They’re all the rage these days – a substitute for the more traditional word walls.
In the past, we used word walls as a way to help kids find spellings of high frequency words.
But the problem with a word wall is that while we have 44 phonemes in the English language, a word wall only has 26 letters.
It makes more sense to teach children sounds (phonemes) and then gradually add words to the sound wall as they learn phonics patterns that spell those sounds.
Here’s a sound wall that I helped a teacher put up this very morning.
I won’t get into all the specifics here, but you can see that the sounds are arranged based on how they’re made in the mouth.
Get our full set of sound wall printables!
Sound Wall Printables
With your purchase, you’ll have everything you need to create a stunning sound wall that will help your students improve their reading and spelling!
I won’t get into all the specifics here, but you can see that the sounds are arranged based on how they’re made in the mouth.
We also put up this sound wall for vowel phonemes. You can see that the vowels are arranged based on how your mouth is formed when you make the sounds. The bottom-most sound is the short o, when your mouth is opened the widest.
Many teachers have little mirrors that they give their students so they can see how their mouth looks when they articulate particular phonemes.
Here’s a very important sound wall tip …
Do not put up all the sounds and word cards on the first day!
The above examples are complete sound walls that you might not even see until third grade.
You should only display the words below each sound when you’ve taught that phonics pattern.
For example, the above sound wall includes “ei” for veil. You would likely not teach that pattern in first grade, so a first grade teacher would never use that card.
(If the idea of sound walls is fuzzy, not to worry – when you purchase the complete set, you’ll get a how-to guide!)
Get the full set of sound wall printables
Sound Wall Printables
Our how-to guide will show you exactly how to set up and use it!
We often hear that phonemic awareness activities can be done in the dark (without print), and that’s true, but it’s also important to teach phonemic awareness and phonics together.
One of my favorite ways to do that is with phoneme grapheme mapping. Check out this video I did with my preschool-aged son and our neighbor. (They are little; please excuse the incorrect letter formation. 😉)
In this activity they practiced:
- Phoneme segmenting
- Phoneme blending
We could have added phoneme isolation by asking, “What’s the first/middle/last sound?”
We could have added phoneme manipulation by asking, “If you took the /s/ off of sun and replaced it with /f/, what would the new word be?”
Another way to integrate phonemic awareness with phonics is to have a phonemic awareness warm-up related to the phonics skill you’re about to teach.
For example: If you’re teaching the ai spelling pattern, tell your students to listen for the vowel sound in each word. They should give a thumbs up if they hear the long a sound.
bat (thumbs down)
rain (thumbs up)
say (thumbs up)
snack (thumbs down)
weigh (thumbs up)
Then continue on to your phonics lesson in which you tell them that ai is one way to represent the long a sound.
Let’s sum up!
This was a hefty blog post about teaching phonemic awareness! Let’s review.
DO understand the difference between phonological and phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness has to do with the individual sounds in words. There are four kids of phonemic awareness tasks:
- phoneme isolation
- phoneme blending
- phoneme segmenting
- phoneme manipulation
DO understand the importance of phonemic awareness. The short explanation is that students must be proficient in phonemic awareness to be able to do the mental process of orthographic mapping – which is how we recognize words automatically instead of having to sound them out.
DON’T leave phonemic awareness to chance. Kindergarten and first grade teachers should reserve 5-10 minutes for phonemic awareness instruction every day.
DO use a sound wall as you teach each phoneme. Remember not to add a word card until you’ve taught the phonics pattern associated with that word.
Finally, DO integrate phonemic awareness with phonics instruction. You can do that with activities like phoneme grapheme mapping or by doing a related phonemic awareness task before you teach a new phonics skill.
CLICK HERE FOR A PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS BLOG POST
As a reward for making it to the end of this post, you’re invited to download this FREE set of phonemic awareness games, a sample from my full set.
Free phonemic awareness games
Check out the rest of this series!
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
I am grateful to have found this site and article. I grew up learning phonics and just got introduced to the words phoneme and phonemics. Do you know how long it took for me to understand how to pronounce them? Longer than it should have by my standards. I appreciate these resources as I desire to help a parent whose child needs to improve in these skills. I just got an idea about how to take the mirror concept even further. I am thinking about pairing the mouth visuals with a phone camera on selfie mode. This way there can be a recording of the practice and also still shots can be made to see how close the person who is practicing can get to the mouth visuals.
You’ve got me excited about partnering with this parent, the teacher and the school. And my kids are grown! With educators like you creating new resources and strategies, I am thinking of doing some level of teaching when I retire from my current career. Know that you have a gift and I look forward to learning what I can do to be a support to those in my circle of influence and in my community. Thank you kindly.
I love that phone idea, Monique! I also love that you’re so passionate about learning something that’s new to you. I definitely encourage you to keep exploring ways to teach when you retire. We need more people like you in the world!
Loved the Do’s and Don’ts for teaching Phonemic Awareness. I was pleased to hear that all phonemes were given the correct sound in the video from the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, but disappointed in some of the word choices and vowel sounds used for short e and long i. I think that better choices could have been made for the words and letter combinations that were used for some of the vowel digraphs such as /oi/ for boy, /ae/ for rain etc. We use Lively Letters at my school and I can’t say enough positive things about this program. I’m looking forward to continuing with the remainder of the series and utilizing all the great materials and games you provide to educators.
Thanks for all that you do.
Thanks for your input, Ann! I agree that some of the key words weren’t the best choices on the Rolls video. Thank you so much for following along with this series!
I am currently on medical leave for teaching Kindergarten. Oh how I still love to receive your emails and joyfully cannot wait to return to my classroom full time, hopefully Fall 2022. Keep the amazing ideas coming! As a teacher that was taught wholistic ready instead of phonemic, this has been golden for me personally. I can’t wait to teach my future in person students your concepts.
I hope you’re recovered before too long and ready to join your students again, Andrea! Thank you so much for your positive feedback! I’m excited about this series. 🙂
What a FANTASTIC post on a super important topic! Thank you also for including so much about sound walls. I am implementing one this year in my kinder classroom for the first time. This series looks excellent.
Thank you so much, Dani! :))
I can’t wait to get these sound cards. I have been looking for simple ones that have a picture and mouth. These are wonderful!
Thank you, Erica! I have some work to get them ready to sell, but I’m excited to have them ready in a couple of months. My goal was to keep them clean and clear!
Loved this video!!! Thank you for sharing! I’m a homeschool parent and learning so much about the proper ways of teaching my children how to read. I noticed that when she pronounced the long i sound in the word light, the grapheme /ie/ was shown… what about “/igh/“ .. would that not be correct to show for the words with those letters?
Thank you for all you do!
Hi Kadara! There are different ways to represent sounds; she must be using a particular type of phonetic alphabet that uses different letters than we might expect. I use more standard letters when representing sounds, so for that sound I would have just used an i with a macron over it.
I started teaching Heggerty to my 4K class yesterday, and this email arrived yesterday night. Fabulous timing! 🙂 Your explanation was excellent, and the video helped me to hear the correct phoneme pronunciations. I will share this post with my fellow teachers. Thank you!
I’m so glad this was helpful, Petra; thanks so much for sharing it!
This article was so very helpful! Thank you for breaking this down in a meaningful way and for the great examples.
Thanks so much for your feedback, Marla! I’m glad this was helpful!