What Works for Phonemic Awareness Instruction
As long as you follow the principles of phonemic awareness instruction, you can devise and implement many different strategies that will help students develop their phonemic awareness skills. In fact, you will want to use many different strategies. When you use multiple strategies while focusing on the same phonemes or sub-skills, your students will develop strong skills that they can eventually use easily and naturally.
The following list of strategies is a partial list. These are a few strategies that we know will work, but you may find or use others. The only caveat is this: any strategies you use must follow the instructional principles described previously.
Six Sample Strategies for Teaching Phonemic Awareness
- Question and answer / Oral response
- Sound searching and identification
- Rhyming poetry and songs
- Repetition and restructuring
- Phoneme / Sound counting
Modeling: To help students learn that words are made of discrete sounds and to help them identify those sounds, you have to pronounce all the sounds in words, and you have to pronounce them correctly. Along with this, you want to avoid adding extra sounds or leaving out sounds. Your enunciation must be clear and correct.
Much of phonemic awareness stems from the ability to say the sounds in words. Students who can accurately pronounce words will have an easier time learning this skill. On the other hand, students learn to say new words based on what they hear. If they hear the correct pronunciation, they learn to use correct pronunciation, and that translates into correctly finding the sounds within words.
Many words sound similar, except for one or two sounds. For example, “lightning” and “lightening” are different by only one sound. Unless students hear each word correctly, they may have difficulty distinguishing one from the other. Other words differ only based on emphasis, such as deCREASE (the noun) and DEcrease (the verb). The list of commonly mispronounced words is long, including “arctic” (not “artic”), “supposedly” (not “supposably”), “height” (not “heighth”), “correct” (not “correck”), and “jewelry” (not “jewlery”).
Your enunciation will become especially important as students begin to move from phonemic awareness to phonics, as they try to match up sounds with symbols (letters), which is necessary for learning to read. Phonics and word recognition will be simpler if the letters correspond to the sounds students are accustomed to hearing. Correct pronunciation will also contribute to correct spelling. You are the model.
Unlike the other strategies described below, modeling is not the basis for learning activities. It is what you do all the time.
Q and A / Oral response: With this strategy, you ask students questions about sounds and they respond orally. Once you have selected the phonemes to study, you ask questions that require students to perform various sub-skills with those sounds.
For example, let’s say you are teaching the “ow” sounds and the blending sub-skill. You can instruct students to say “ow” following your prompt, and then to combine your prompt with the “ow” sound. You say “c”, the students say “ow”, and together you say “cow.” You say “h”, the students say “ow”, and together you say “how.”
As another example, you can ask students to say the first sound in “how,” and then ask what word they get if they change the “h” sound for a “k” sound: “cow.” For a more challenging example, you can have students provide examples of words with the “ow” sound, such as “clown,” “plow,” “ouch.”
The section “Continuum of Complexity: Skill Types” above has many similar examples of using this strategy. The point of this strategy is to provide students some type of direction or question that requires them to use one or more sub-skills to provide a response.
My recommendation is to have students work in small groups to first determine their answer and then to provide their response together.
Sound searching and identification: As students get older, they learn the names of more things. With younger children, you can ask them to find an object in the room that has a particular sound. With older children, you can ask them to find words that contain specific sounds in specific locations within the word. What they are doing is searching for examples of the sound and identifying where those sound are used. This strategy is also useful for expanding students’ vocabulary.
A common (and fun!) activity for this strategy is the game I-Spy. When you are playing I-Spy to help students develop phonemic awareness, you need to ask most of the questions. You can let students ask some of the I-Spy questions, but by asking most of them yourself, you ensure that students get practice with the one or two target phonemes. For example, if you are focusing on the long “o” sound (as in “flow”), you can ask, “I spy something clear with the “o” sound” (window). As students make guesses, you can have them identify and count out the phonemes in the words to determine whether or not the word actually has the right sound. Then you might ask, “I spy something tall and brown that has the “o” sound” (door).
Rhyming poetry and songs: Young children like to sing, and they like hearing and repeating rhymes. Older students, too, enjoy rhyming poetry, especially as they learn more about rhythm and meter, although getting them to sing can be a challenge. Because children naturally enjoy rhyming poetry and songs, you can use them to practice a variety of phonemic awareness skills.
Rhyming poetry and songs help students to develop a sense of word sounds, matching sounds, emphasis, syllables, word groups, sentence structure, and pacing—all of which contribute to developing phonemic awareness skills.
They also form the basis for many fun instructional activities. For example, students can “high-five” each other for every rhyming word and they can hop forward towards a goal line for every syllable. You can have students create their own rhyming couplets using a word list of pairs of rhyming words.
Repetition and restructuring: “Repetition” means studying the same sounds many times over time. Once students demonstrate their ability to find certain sounds within words, you will move on to other sounds. However, from time to time, come back to those same sounds to ensure students retain their grasp of them. Not only will this reinforce their ability to identify those sounds but also it will provide students with a sense of accomplishment and progress that will encourage them to keep learning.
“Restructuring” means studying the same sounds through a variety of phonemic awareness skills. For example, you might be focusing on the “-ite” sound at the end of words. Students can also study that sound within words, swap other sounds for the “-ite” sound, and find out what happens to words when you remove that sound.
The point is to explore sounds in a variety of ways. When you incorporate this strategy into your learning activities, students will improve their ability to break words apart into component sounds, put sounds together to make words, and perform the entire range of phonemic awareness skills.
We will visit repetition and restructuring again as we discuss strategies for learning vocabulary. As you will see, the concepts behind repetition and restructuring apply to both components of reading.
Phoneme / sound counting: To help students make that mental leap from whole words to sounds within words, have them count all the sounds they hear. They can do this by clapping their hands, making marks on a paper, or placing objects on a grid for every sound they hear. With more advanced students, you can have them circle letter combinations that produce individual sounds or that have beats in a rhythm.
Regardless of how students do it, the act of counting sounds they hear forces them to think critically about the phonemes within words. Then, as they improve their ability to identify individual sounds, they can begin learning more advanced phonemic awareness skills.
Sample Activities for Phonemic Awareness
Sample Activity Types
Phonemic Awareness Sub-skills
Continuous exposure by the teacher or other adults
Question and Answer / Oral Response
Pair response to questions
Fill in missing words (based on a rhyme)
Teacher-led oral practice
Sound Searching and Identification
Sounding out words
Identifying words by sounds
Matching pictures to words
Rhyming Poetry and Songs
Fill in the missing words / line
Repetition and Restructuring
Any instructional strategies as you teach and reinforce the sub-skills
Phoneme / Sound Counting
Marking written poetry
Clapping sounds / syllables
Word grouping by sound counts
Matching words by sounds
Sound picture charts