Phonemic awareness is the awareness of individual sounds in spoken words.
For example, ‘cat’ has 3 phonemes /c/, /a/ and /t/ and ‘six’ has 4 phonemes /s/, /i/, /k/, /s/. Having an awareness of individual sounds is critical for reading development, as it is necessary to first have an awareness of spoken sounds before it is possible to map those sounds onto the abstract symbols we use to represent them in writing (letters). You may have also heard of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness fits under the umbrella of phonological awareness, but there are many other phonological awareness skills, like discriminating between words in sentences, detecting syllables in spoken words, generating rhyme and so on. Phonemic awareness is one of the hardest phonological awareness skills and is really only used for reading and writing. It is unlikely anyone will ask you to process each sound in a word in any other context, and if they did, it would be a little odd!
There are a range of phonemic awareness activities you can use to develop phonemic awareness skills, which may help to improve reading skills. I prefer to teach phonemic awareness within the context of words and using letters once the child has begun to learn to read, starting with individual consonant letter sounds, then individual vowel letter sounds.
Phonemic Awareness Activities – Learning individual sounds
Same or different
Say “tell me whether these two sounds are the same or different.” Give the child a number of sound pairs, starting with easy to distinguish sounds, then moving on to more difficult sounds. For example /r/ and /g/ are easier to distinguish than /g/ and /y/.
Play “I Spy”
Playing I spy requires the child to generate words that begin with the same initial sound. This is a very helpful early phonemic awareness skill.
Sorting toys or objects
Have the child group toys or objects according to the first sound or last sound (which is trickier). You can use little characters, kitchen objects or even bath toys for this activity.
Give the child a simple 3 letter target word, for example, ‘cup’ and ask the child to say the word without /c/. It doesn’t matter if the response isn’t a real word. This practices phoneme deletion skills.
Give the child a word, for example, cut, and ask them to swap /k/ with /b/ to make ‘but’. Continue a word chain changing one sound each time. It is easier to swap the beginning sound, next easiest is the end sound, and for a challenge, swap the middle vowel sound.
Give the child a word, for example, ‘tip’ and ask them to think of a word that starts with the last sound they heard. For example, they might say ‘pat’ or ‘pick’. Continue the word chain for as long as possible. When it ‘breaks’ start a new one. The challenge is to create the longest chain you can as a team.
Swat the fly
Put a poster up on the wall with a handful of letters familiar to the child, and ask them to use a fly swatter to ‘swat’ words where they hear the sound at the beginning, middle or end of the word. For example, you might put up /s/, /a/, /t/, /d/ /p/ and /i/, then say which sound does ‘dip’ start with. Have the child shout /d/ as they swat the letter ‘d’. Again, it’s easiest to detect beginning, then end, then middle sounds. You can try some words that have none of the sounds to encourage concentration for an extra challenge.
Say some individual sounds and ask the child what word they make when blended together. For example say /s/, /a/, /t/ with a pause between each sound. The child must say ‘sat’. Increase the word length for more of a challenge.
This is a variation of ‘what word’. Give the child some lower case magnetic letters or even scrabble type tiles with a handful of sounds (as in swat the fly). Say the sounds individually, for example /d/, /i/, /p/. Have the child arrange the letters from left to right, saying the sounds for each one, then have them blend the sounds to read the word they have made.
Pass it on
This is a small to large group game. Have children sit in a circle and whisper a word to the first child, who then whispers it to the next. See if they can ‘return’ the word in its original form.
Have fun making up your own phonemic awareness activities or altering these to suit the level and age of your student.
If you’d like to try practising phonemic awareness using letters, download our FREE word ladders phonemic awareness activities cheat sheet.