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Phonemic Awareness: A Guide for Parents Plus 17 Skills to Teach Kids

by | Oct 31, 2023 | Core Skills

We all hope our kids love reading. It opens doors to various skills, like sequencing, problem-solving, communication, and empathy-building.

We can help our kids become passionate, fluent readers by ensuring they fully grasp phonics and the alphabetic code.

Phonetic awareness—the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words—is also key. It’s a critical Core Skill, part of the 5 C’s at the heart of the Begin approach to helping kids thrive in school and life.

How can you teach phonemic awareness to your child? It isn’t that complicated. And we can help!

Read on for our guide to phonemic awareness, including examples, activities, skills, and more!

The Short Cut

  • Phonemes are the smallest sound units that make up the words in a language, like /a/ and /c/
  • Phonemic awareness is a child’s ability to identify and manipulate phonemes.
  • Parents can help kids develop through the five levels of phonemic awareness with rhyming and games that encourage sound recognition.
  • A play-based learning membership can also help kids develop phonemic awareness at the right time and in the right way.

A Parent’s Introduction to Phonemic Awareness

A Parent’s Introduction to Phonemic Awareness

Before we define phonemic awareness, we need to back up a little and define the umbrella it falls under: phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness is an early and important literacy skill that forms the foundation for kids to understand how the sounds of a spoken language work.

As children gain phonological awareness, they begin to:

  • Rhyme
  • Count syllables
  • Recognize alliteration
  • Segment sentences into individual words

Only after kids learn these key components of phonological awareness can they grasp the final one: phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness Examples

Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in a spoken word. Phonemic awareness is the ability to perceive and use those individual sounds in spoken words.

A few ways children show phonemic awareness include:

  • Identifying the words in a sentence that begin with the same sound (for example, rain, rat, ran, and road all begin with /r/ in “The rat ran across the road in the rain.”)
  • Separating the first and last sounds of words (for example, the beginning sound in rat is /r/ and the last sound in rat is /t/)
  • Putting sounds together to create words (for example, the sounds /r/, /a/, and /t/ make the word rat)
  • Separating a word into its component sounds (for example, rat is made up of the sounds /r/, /a/, and /t/)

Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Phonemic awareness is one of the first skills your child will need in their tool kit for learning to read. It’s also one of the first steps to building their confidence with sounds (and, later, words).

A child with a healthy foundation of phonemic awareness stands the best chance to read fluently (and fall in love with it)! It’s hard to learn how to read if you can’t match sounds to letters.

Phonemic awareness helps kids make those matches, which in turn allows them to sound out words they don’t recognize or understand.

Plus, if you change any sound in a word, you change everything!

For example, take the word “rag.” If the first phoneme (/r/) of the word is changed to /b/, then you’ve got an entirely new word—bag—with its own distinct meaning.

Building phonemic awareness helps your child understand those distinctions, and how words work.

The Critical Role of Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness isn’t phonics, which is the process of matching the sounds of letters with actual written letters. Phonemic awareness is solely an auditory skill.

But it is a critical precursor to phonics (as well as learning how to read), because it allows kids to understand that sounds work together to form words.

If a child can’t understand that rain, rat, ran, and road have the same beginning sound, they’ll have a tough time identifying that the written letter R begins all of them.

As a child practices phonemic awareness, they gain skills they need to sound out words when reading.

Developing Phonemic Awareness: A Stage-by-Stage Approach

Although kids unconsciously use phonemes from the time they begin to speak, they don’t instinctively know how to recognize them. Phonemic awareness must be intentionally taught.

It begins with kids learning two-phoneme words, like am and it. They can then move on to three-phoneme words (rat and ran), then four-phoneme words (only and happy), and then five, six, seven, and so on.

As kids progress in their understanding of phonemic awareness, they learn these six skills:

  1. Isolation: recognizing individual sounds in a word (rat breaks down into three sounds—/r/, /a/, and /t/).
  2. Blending: hearing a sequence of separate sounds and combining them (/r/, /a/, and /t/ make the word rat).
  3. Segmentation: breaking down a word into its individual sounds and counting how many there are (rat is made of three sounds).
  4. Addition: adding a sound to a word to make a new one (adding /s/ to top to create stop).
  5. Deletion: removing a sound in a word to create a new one (removing /s/ from stop to create top).
  6. Substitution: swapping one sound for another to create a new word (replace /r/ with /b/ in rat to create bat).

16 Skills to Encourage Phonemic Awareness

It takes time and effort to gain phonemic awareness. Although there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, it contains about 40 phonemes—and there are about 250 spellings of them too! (Like /f/ can be spelled with an F, a PH, or a GH!)

You can help your child learn them by playing some fun games for practice!

1. Hearing Rhymes

This one is probably part of your routine family life already. You may not have realized it, but by singing along to nursery rhymes with your child, you’re already encouraging their phonemic awareness!

Try making a game of creating rhymes using the beginning sound in a word. For example, you could start with the word “rat.” Your child might reply with the word “hat.” You can come back with “bat,” and so on.

Many kids find this kind of wordplay a lot of fun. Don’t be surprised if they start giggling, especially when they (or you) run out of real words and start making up words like “zat!”

2. Rhymes on the Road

Kid playing phonemic awareness I Spy in a cardboard box

Try an “I Spy” rhyme game while you’re in the car traveling somewhere. This is a great way to have fun in the middle of afternoon traffic!

Look out your window and when you spot something, ask for a rhyme. “I spy a tree. What rhymes with tree?” Then you can ask your child to spy something for you to rhyme with!

3. Differentiating Rhymes

Helping your child distinguish which words do or don’t rhyme is an important introduction to how changing a letter in a word also changes the sound and meaning.

For this exercise, play a rhyme game. You’ll say three words, two that rhyme and one that doesn’t. Make sure you play up the silliness so your child understands that you made a mistake (one that they will be confident they can fix).

4. Producing Rhymes

To help kids learn to make their own rhymes, try saying a sentence and asking them to finish it with a word that rhymes. For example: “In my bag, I have a ___ (rag).”

You can play up the fun in this activity by seeing which one of you can come up with the silliest rhymes. And since you’re mainly focusing on listening skills for this activity, the words you come up with don’t even have to be real!

5. Recognizing Sounds

Recognizing the beginning and ending sounds of words is really important for emerging readers!

Try saying three words that begin or end with the same sound and asking your child what sound they share. For example: l-l-leg, l-l-lamb, l-l-lint.

6. Creating and Associating Sounds

I-Spy comes in handy again here! Start by saying, “I spy with my little eye something that starts with a /r/ sound.”

Have your child answer with something around you that begins with that sound. And while you’re playing, remember that at this stage, you’re focusing mostly on sounds (“rrrr”), not the traditional letter name (“arr”).

Make sure to give lots of praise and cheers when your child gets it right!

7. Blending Sounds

This one can be a lot of fun with the right twist! For example, pretend you’re a robot who has come to Earth and is trying to learn the English language. Ask your child for help with a certain word in robot-speak.

Break down the sounds in a word and tell your child you don’t know what the word is. Ask them to repeat it in robot talk (example: /c/a/t/), and then ask them what word you are saying.

This will help them practice blending different phonemes together to create a single word with a single meaning.

8. Try Some Tongue Twisters

This silly sound game is a fun way to practice repeating the phonemes that begin words. Phrases like “Alice ate an apple” and “Balls bounce and boing back brilliantly” help your child solidify beginning phoneme sounds. See if you can make an alliteration for every letter of the alphabet!

9. Find Syllables at the Grocery Store

Family shopping together at the grocery store while working on phonemic awareness

As you walk through the grocery aisles, ask your child to name the syllables in the foods you find. They can hold up fingers for each syllable and then you can count their fingers together.

A conversation could go like this: “What is this?” “A tomato!” “Yes, and how many syllables does tomato have?” “To-ma-to.” “How many is that?” “One, two, three!”

10. Sound Scavenger Hunt

Ask your child to go through your home and find objects that begin with a specific letter. (“Find things that start with /b/!”)

Once they bring them to you, have fun with the objects! Count them. Ask your child to line them up and say each one as fast as they can. Or try playing a make-believe game using all of the objects.

11. Move to the Syllable Beat

Draw or cut out pictures of objects with your child. Then turn the object images over. Have your child pick one up. Ask them what the object is and how many syllables it has.

Then decide what movement you’ll match to the syllables. It might go like this: “What is that?” “A rhinoceros!” “How many syllables does rhinoceros have? “One, two, three, four!” “Let’s jump four times!”

You can also vary the game by deciding what movement you’ll do before you choose the image!

12. Silly Putty Segmenting

Practice finding the segments in a word by stretching out the sounds. So rat becomes rrrrrrr—aaaaaaaaaa—ttttttttttt. Exaggerating their voice is a fun way for your child to work on phonemes.

You can make this game hands-on by using silly putty. Have your child hold a ball of putty in both hands and then pull their hands apart as they elongate the sounds in the word.

Then ask them to freeze every time they come to the end of one sound and begin moving again once they start another. This will reinforce the number of segments in the word.

13. Same Sounds Memory Game

Print or cut out images of pairs of words with the same beginning sounds, like rat/red, mop/mapp, and bat/bed. Turn them all face down in a grid shape, as you would for the game Memory.

Then ask your child to search for “same sound” cards, turning over two at a time.

As they search, make sure they place them down in the same spot they pick them up from, so they can remember where each image is located. Once they find a pair, they can remove them from the grid.

14. Stuffie Sounds

Family using stuffies to work on phonemic awareness together

Get your child’s favorite stuffed animal in on the phoneme action!

Act out interviewing their stuffie. Ask a question that has a one-word answer, and then pretend the stuffie responds by saying the word very slowly.

Then you can act surprised and confused—”What did she say? I didn’t understand any of that!”—and ask your child to translate because they know their stuffie best.

15. Phoneme Telephone

Remember the game Telephone, where you’d sit with friends in a circle and whisper a word into the ear of the person next to you?

And by the time the last person said the word out loud, it would sound nothing like the word at the beginning?

Phoneme Telephone is the same—but in reverse. Sit with your child (or a few kids!) and begin by saying a word. Your child needs to say close to the same word, only changing the beginning phoneme. So you might say rat and your child might say mat. Continue until you can’t think of any other words—or make some up!

16. Syllable Bingo

Toddler playing bingo on the floor

Make Bingo cards, but instead of writing numbers in the squares, draw pictures of words with 2, 3, 4, and 5 phonemes.

Tell your child you’re going to say a word out loud, and they need to count the phonemes and put a chip—pennies, cheerios, scraps of paper, whatever you have handy—on the picture representing the word that has the same number of phonemes.

17. Phoneme Hopscotch

Create a hopscotch court with chalk on a sidewalk or driveway (if you’re indoors, you can make one using masking tape on the floor).

Instead of numbering the squares in sequential order (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10), write the numbers of phonemes in a word in any order you want (2, 2, 4, 3, 5, 5, 4, 7).

To play, say a word out loud. Ask your child to sound it out and tell you how many phoneme sounds the word has. They have to jump to that number on the hopscotch court.

Continue the game until your child reaches the end of the court, then play again!

Technology for Learning Phonemic Awareness 

Child holding tablet above head in excitement

Technology can be a great way to help kids develop phonemic awareness. With the right apps and digital learning content, you can turn your kids’ screen time into a chance to learn a critical skill!

Apps & Digital Resources

In our award-winning HOMER app, kids explore personalized reading games matched to their age and level—including phonemic awareness. Kids follow a personal reading pathway and explore digital activities that teach the alphabet, letter-sound correspondence, and more.

Just 15 minutes a day has been proven to raise early reading scores by 74%!

Beyond the app, you can explore our free digital parent resources related to language and literacy for articles, printables, and more!

Integrating Technology into Learning Activities

Technology can be a useful tool at home for teaching skills and reinforcing learning, but it can also be overwhelming.

How much is enough? How much is too much? A few pointers to help you decide what’s best for you and your family:

  1. Set expectations for how much technology and for how long (per day) your child will use it.
  2. Create a space solely for tech play, and try to avoid carrying technology out of it.
  3. Try, when you can, to make the tech activities your child is doing interactive. Maybe they can make something for someone or explain what they’re doing to you while they do it.
  4. Find tools that resonate for you and your family. Technology isn’t all built the same.
  5. Ask teachers and other educators for tech tools they recommend.
  6. Use technology to bridge the space between your child and the people they love who are far away. For instance, they could read a story online to a grandparent, or show a codeSpark level to a cousin.

Practical Tips for Supporting Phonemic Awareness in Kids

Kids working together on a phonemic awareness game at a table

Create a Supportive Learning Environment

You’re probably already doing the right things to create a supportive and engaging environment in your home. And in the end, that’s what you need most to open the doors to your child’s creativity and curiosity.

Try to give them:

  1. Love, attention, and emotional support
  2. Access to lots of books
  3. Rich sensory experiences
  4. Lots of language all day (through speaking to them frequently)
  5. Spaces in your home for different types of activities, like a reading nook
  6. Developmentally appropriate independence
  7. Access to music
  8. Meaningful experiences
  9. Lots of outdoor play

3 Ways to Encourage Phonemic Awareness at Home and School

You don’t have to do anything extravagant or “extra” to turn your home or classroom into a space that encourages learning. The most effective ways to inspire an interest in sounds, words, and all things literacy-based can be woven into your everyday life.

  1. Play lots of games, like the activities we’ve suggested. Make up some of your own. And ask your child to make some up too!
  2. Try lots of ways to get at learning—multisensory approaches create more opportunities for your child to absorb information and build the foundation they need to be able to read.
  3. Bring phonemic awareness into your routines. Play with it when you’re getting your child dressed, at the dinner table, at bedtime—and any time in between.

Building Phonemic Awareness with Begin

Photo illustration showing photos of kids using the Begin brands: Little Passports, HOMER, Learn with Sesame Street, and codeSpark

Now that you know what phonemic awareness is, you can support your child using phonemic awareness activities. Over time, they’ll grow the skills they need to learn how to separate sounds, sound out words, and ultimately learn how to read.

Spending some time now to build this literacy foundation will benefit your child now and well into the future.

And we can help!

Our age- and stage-matched learning membership incorporates phonemic awareness activities and literacy learning at the right time and in the right way for every child.

Take our online quiz today to discover which stage of our membership is best for your family!


Dr. Jody Sherman LeVos
Jody has a Ph.D. in Developmental Science and more than a decade of experience in the children’s media and early learning space.