How To Help Younger Students Build Phonemic Awareness Skills


phonemic awareness skills

Phonemic awareness might be one of the most important, most talked about, and most misunderstood aspects of literacy. Some of that confusion stems from the similarities and differences between phonological and phonemic Awareness. They are very much related, but not interchangeable. If Phonological Awareness is an umbrella that covers skills, those skills include hearing words in sentences, rhyming, hearing syllables and phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness is one aspect of Phonological Awareness. It is about the individual sounds in words and includes isolating, segmenting, blending and manipulating those phonemes.

phonemic awareness

Research has been very clear that while phonological awareness is important, phonemic awareness is key to literacy development. It is important for efficient decoding, encoding, and even fluency. The most recent research has pointed to the importance of advanced phonemic awareness skills and automaticity with these skills.

But, what about the student that is young and just starting out their literacy journey?

How can teachers and parents help build phonological and phonemic awareness for their youngest students?

Many of the activities you see in a great early childhood classroom are great for developing phonological awareness.

  • Reading aloud lays a fabulous foundation.
  • Books with rhymes are particularly good at tuning the ears.
  • Helping children to understand the concept of a word as one spoken part (such as their name),
  • Singing songs
  • Playing games

These are are  all early ways to build PA skills.

Learn more by reading Early Literacy Tips to Support Language Development at Home!

Should you worry about rhyming?

By the time formal schooling starts, formal instruction in phonemic awareness becomes necessary as well. Remember, while phonological awareness is important, the individual phonemes are key. Many tutors and parents get hung up when a student has a great deal of difficulty with rhyming. Students with dyslexia often struggle greatly with rhyming. While it is valuable to keep working at it, don’t neglect the more important syllable and phoneme-based skills. Sometimes it is necessary to let rhyme go for a little while. But, a student that is struggling with phonological awareness skills, likely struggles with phonemic awareness and other aspects of reading.

For those children who are struggling in the development of these skills, here are some tips to keep in mind:


  • Incorporate activities that focus on strengthening listening skills! I can nearly guarantee if your students aren’t demonstrating age appropriate listening skills or practicing them with age appropriate activities, they WILL struggle with phonemic awareness tasks.  Children hear a barrage of noises coming in many different directions all the time whether it’s at home or in school. We need to train them how to be still, and quiet enough to hear single sounds. This takes a great deal of focus for young children to listen to the task, process what you are asking them, and retrieve the correct answer. Make listening tasks into quick games. The tried and true Simon Says is a great one, and is always a hit.
  • Here are some more: Have them close their eyes and play a mystery sound. They have to guess which direction in the classroom it’s coming from. Choose five mystery objects either and hide them behind a presentation board,  or hide just one object inside a box. Make the sound of each object and have children guess which object that is. And finally- a GREAT listening task that is also a prerequisite to phonemic awareness tasks is playing three sounds in row. They have to tell you which came first, which came in the middle, and which came last.  Using silly puppets or animal sounds is great for younger students. They won’t realize you’re prepping them for phonemic awareness tasks, so make it FUN.

helping younger students with phonemic awareness

  • Start with an assessment. The PAST or another phonemic awareness skill inventory will REALLY help you inform your instruction. This is particularly important for struggling readers as they need to make efficient progress to catch up. It is important not only to test for accuracy but automaticity. The PAST is a FREE download and easy to implement! See Equipped For Reading Success by Dr. David Kilpatrick for further instructions, scoring, and next steps after administration.
  • Move through phonemic awareness skills in an organized way. Isolating individual sounds is easier than segmenting all the sounds in a word. Segmenting is easier than blending. Adding sounds is easier than taking sounds away. Taking sounds away is easier than changing one sound to another. Beginning sounds are easier than ending sounds. Ending sounds are easier than middle sounds. Following a progression of skills from simple to complex helps stay within a student’s ideal zone of learning.
  • In addition to moving through skills systematically, move through instructional activities in a systematic way. For example, judging whether two sounds are the same is easier than identifying which in a series doesn’t belong. Sorting rhymes is easier than producing them. Sounds and words that are very different are easier than words and sounds more similar. Gradually increasing the difficulty of activities will make
  • Phonemic awareness is an auditory skill. For younger learners, it is best to teach the skills without any letters attached. The exercise is about listening or as I like to call it “ear training”. Instead of words, you can use pictures to represent words. Note: Phonemic awareness practice is also a highly metacognitive skill.  Simply put- metacognitive tasks force you to think about your thinking. Your children, and even some adults, will have to REALLY concentrate on what you ask them in a task when it comes to thinking about individual phonemes. That’s why I emphasized the importance of building listening skills at the beginning of this post.
  • Make it hands-on: Use manipulatives to make segmenting and changing phonemes concrete. Even though we aren’t using letters, this doesn’t mean there is no visual support. The only limit to possible options is your imagination. Small toys, pennies, colored squares of paper, mini erasers, pieces of felt, pony beads on a pipe cleaner, linking cubes, colored wooden blocks and even small snacks help to make the activities multisensory and engaging. Read “How To Organize Materials for Teaching Phonological Awareness” for organizational ideas.

  • Use hand motions and physical movement to help students focus on particular sounds. Use your voice, by bouncing or stretching sounds to help students isolate specific phonemes. Teach students about mouth position, voiced and unvoiced sounds to help them more accurately analyze the sounds in words.

Above all else… Make it FUN.

Simple movement activities and games make learning highly engaging for younger children. When you make phonemic awareness tasks into a game, you also have an opportunity to build language skills, which so many challenged learners NEED.  This phonological awareness bundle is made with activities that are quick and impactful. It is FILLED with games your students will enjoy as they begin to strengthen their phonemic awareness skills.

Traditionally, curriculums and teachers stop teaching phonemic awareness once students are able to segment words. There is research to support that accuracy with basic phoneme segmentation is not enough. Students need to become proficient and automatic with even advanced phonemic awareness concepts in order for these skills to transfer to reading and writing fluently.

helping younger children with phonemic awareness

For more information and resources:

  1. Be sure to read Equipped For Reading Success” by Dr. David Kilpatrickequipped for reading success
  2.  Skills and lessons are broken down in a systematic format with a TON of hands on activities and games your students will love in this Phonological Awareness bundle. phonemic awareness bundle
  3. Heggerty has manuals with scripted lessons to address phonemic awareness skills in an easy to follow, week by week format.

Stay tuned!

Next time, I’ll get into phonemic awareness tasks for older readers. We’ll talk about more advanced phoneme manipulation tasks, how to recognize when your students are ready to move onto this critical step in their foundational literacy skills, and ways to help them gain not only phonemic awareness, but phoneme proficiency.

Did you happen to see the post on helping older students with phonemic awareness? You’ll find lots of helpful tips if you work with younger kids.

phonemic awareness for older students

Thank you for stopping by today!

The Literacy Nest


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