A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word that makes a difference in the meaning. For example, the word shop has 3 phonemes, /sh/-/o/-/p/, and the word clipped has 5 phonemes, /k/-/l/-/i/-/p/-/t/.
This blog post will help you figure out how to help a child begin to become aware of phonemes. Previous blog posts have introduced the concept of phonemic awareness and described how it fits into a first grade classroom’s day. But what does a lesson look like with a child just beginning down this road—one with no phoneme awareness—whether this is a young child or an older student with reading difficulties. This progression can help illustrate how to start any child along the road to successfully decoding words.
But First… Some Myth Busting
A common misconception is that students have to learn about rhyming or syllables before learning about phonemes. This is not true! Although it’s typically easier for students to learn about syllables first, experimental studies have not shown that larger phonological units, like learning about syllables, helps students better understand phonemes. And studies that have started with the phoneme level with children just beginning school (from all different backgrounds) have seen improvement in students’ phonemic awareness skills. And we know phonemes are the unit of sound that matter for beginning reading and spelling.
It’s also common misconception that letters shouldn’t be included in phonemic awareness tasks—research actually suggests the opposite! Although you can help students develop phonemic awareness with or without letters, there is research to suggest including letters helps students develop phonemic awareness more… and works on reading and spelling at the same time! This aligns with the findings of a recent meta-analysis of word reading interventions for 1st-3rd graders. The researchers found significantly smaller effect sizes if the intervention included phonological awareness, yet significantly larger effect sizes if they included encoding or writing.
This is what led the National Reading Panel (NRP) to state within their phonemic awareness guidance, “If children have not yet learned letters, it is important to teach them letter shapes, names, and sounds so that they can use letters to acquire phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness instruction is more effective when it makes explicit how children are to apply phonemic awareness skills in reading and writing tasks.” (NRP, p. 2-6)
What might this look like?
So now what? How might this look in a classroom of preschoolers, kindergarteners, or with an older, struggling reader?
First, we’ll help the child become aware of just the first sound in a word. The first sound is typically the easiest sound to distinguish from the rest of the word, especially if it is a continuous phoneme (you can say it until you run out of breath) such as /m/, /s/, /f/, or /a/. Starting with continuous phonemes will help students just beginning to recognize sounds in words because you can stretch the sound out for them!
Here’s a sample of a beginning lesson…
Teacher: “We’re going to play a game! We’re going to figure out what sounds we can find at the beginning of words and match them to letters. This will help you learn to read and spell! I have two letters on the table, “m” and “s”. What sound does “m” spell?
Teacher: “Yes, “m” spells /mmmm/! What sound does “s” spell?”
Teacher: “Yes, “s” spells /ssssss/!” Okay. Now let’s try to find these sounds at the beginning of words. If you hear the sound /mmm/, touch the “m”; if you hear the sound /ssss/, touch the….
Teacher: “Yes, you’ll touch the “s” if you hear the /ssss/ sound. My first picture is a “mmmmat” (hold the initial sound to help students as they begin to become aware of sounds). Say mmmmat.”
Teacher: “Yes, “mmmmat”. What sound do you feel your mouth make at the beginning of “mmmmat”?
Teacher: “Yes, “mmmat” starts with /mmm/!” Touch the letter that spells /mmm/ and say /mmm/. (If the student does NOT say /mmm/, the teacher can model the response, “Listen and look, “mmmmat” starts with /mmmmm/. Say, /mmmmm/! Good, /mmm/. Touch the letter that spells /mmm/.”)
Students: “/mmmm/” (while touching the letter m).
Teacher: Yes, “m” spells /mmmm/! Let’s try another, super readers! Listen to see if you hear /ssss/ or /mmmm/ at the beginning.”
Once students can do this, you can move to working with the final sound in words, like “sunnn”, or “himmm”. And finally, help students to become aware of the medial sound in a three phoneme word, like “saaaaat” or “diiiiiiiig”. Once they can distinguish initial, medial, and final sounds in 3 sound words, they are ready to segment 2 and 3 sound words using letter tiles. Check out the resources tab for more phonemic awareness resources!
Here is a video of my own 3 year old, Rye. She was trying a similar activity of becoming aware of initial phonemes out on our driveway this afternoon! This one included two letter-sounds she has been learning, “m” and “s”.
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