For children to become enthusiastic, fluent readers, they need a firm grasp of phonics and the alphabetic code. That’s where phonemic awareness—the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words—comes into play. It’s an important Core Skill, part of the 5 C’s at the heart of the Begin Approach to helping kids thrive in school and life.
Phonemic awareness can sound intimidating to parents, but it isn’t that complicated in practice. We’re here to break it down and show you how to use it to encourage a love of reading in your child.
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 phonemic awareness through rhyming games and games that encourage sound recognition
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness deals with identifying and manipulating single sounds in words, known as phonemes.
A phoneme is the smallest possible unit of sound in a language (e.g. /c/, /a/, /t/). They blend together to form words (cat). Every word we use is made up of a combination of phonemes.
Even though there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, there are 44 unique phonemes in English (and 250 different ways to spell them). Fortunately, especially in words beginners need to read, most of the sounds are linked to one main letter.
The Key Principle of Phonemic Awareness
If you change any letter in a word, you change everything! For example, take the word “rag.” If the first sound, or phoneme, of the word is changed to a “b,” then you’re left with an entirely new word (bag) with its own distinct meaning.
Building phonemic awareness is really about your child playing around with sounds and then switching sounds in words. It’s like a Dr. Seuss book come to life!
Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonological Awareness
Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness overlap, which can make the two terms confusing!
Phonological awareness is an umbrella term that includes multiple reading skills your child will encounter on their journey to becoming an enthusiastic, engaged reader. They are:
- Blending syllables
Phonological awareness is all about groups of sounds and how they relate to each other. Combining and playing with multiple syllables, or even the number of words in a sentence, is the meat and potatoes of phonological awareness.
Phonemic awareness, on the other hand, focuses on single sounds—or phonemes.
But don’t worry about the distinction too much. It’s mostly academic. Good phonemic awareness activities will help you work on both at once by encouraging kids to play with and manipulate sounds and words.
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 enjoy 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.
6 Skills to Encourage Phonemic Awareness
Jumping straight into matching up sounds with letters may seem like the obvious first step in encouraging phonemic awareness. Your instincts are on the right track; that’s an important part of helping your child learn to read.
But another way to build phonemic awareness is to focus on listening skills—such as isolating individual sounds, blending them together, and then moving sounds around to create new words.
As you’re working with your child, keep in mind that phonemes may take a while for kids to grasp. That’s okay!
Focus on playing fun, easy phonemic awareness games together. Lighthearted, entertaining activities will keep kids happy and excited to learn.
Here are several suggestions to get you started.
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 engaging their phonemic awareness!
Exposure to rhymes is the easiest first step for your child as they learn to manipulate sounds. And who doesn’t love an old-fashioned sing-along in the middle of afternoon traffic or Sunday morning chores?
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. 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).
For example, you could say “cat,” “bat,” and “dot.” Then ask your child to pick out the word that doesn’t rhyme. Once they gain enough confidence, see if they can do it back to you!
3. 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!
4. 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.
You can also change it up by inserting a word that doesn’t belong in the sound group and have your child yell out which word is wrong.
Using the same example, you could say “leg,” “lamb,” “lint,” “mud.” Once your child hears the wrong sound, they have to shout it out! How many times can your child catch you?
5. Creating and Associating Sounds
This is where the old I-Spy game comes in handy. Start by saying, “I spy with my little eye something that starts with an /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!
6. 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.
Building Phonemic Awareness with Begin
Phonemic awareness is an important first step on your child’s journey toward a lifetime love of reading, writing, and learning. At Begin, we build it into many of the games in our award-winning HOMER app. Just 15 minutes a day has been proven to increase early reading scores by 74%!
The more your child is able to play around with rhymes and break apart sounds the stronger their phonemic awareness will become.
And while it’s important to introduce your child to phonemic awareness concepts early in their life, it’s even more important to do it in a way that doesn’t stress them (or you!) out.
We hope this gives you a good start on understanding phonemic awareness and helping your child build it. And remember, if you need an extra hand, we’re here to help!