How to Teach Phonemic Awareness

In Equipped for Reading Success, Dr. David Kilpatrick emphasizes the far-reaching effects of reading on academics, behavior, self-confidence, and future opportunities.

He notes that “rarely do weak readers catch up.” According to research, many reading challenges can be prevented, and if educators are able to recognize the critical skills that build a strong foundation from the start struggling readers are capable of making more significant progress.

One of these critical skills and a strong predictor of future reading success is phonemic awareness. It’s an area of essential skill development that deserves our full attention. To better understand the importance of this skill, Kilpatrick looks to the overarching goal of reading: comprehension.

Skilled readers are fluent readers. They can focus on what they are reading because they have developed the ability to recognize words automatically. Unlike struggling readers, skilled readers are not faced with the laborious process of sounding out words or guessing. Regular and irregular words are distinguished effortlessly, known as “sight words.” How is this possible? Skilled readers store words through a process called orthographic mapping.

Orthographic mapping is an active and instant recognition process that allows us to see a word and instantly map the parts of the whole. The process does not occur in a left-to-right progression but rather as a string of letters in a unit.

When we map, we recognize, discriminate, and activate meaning all at once. Our brain retrieves this information from stored “files” that have developed over time and exposure and begin in early childhood with phonological awareness.

Young students partaking in multi-sensory instruction

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the awareness that words are composed of sounds, and those sounds have distinct articulatory features. People with dyslexia lack the basic phonemic awareness that most individuals have, and they may have a hard time with reading comprehension, spelling, writing, vocabulary, and fluency.

Structured Literacy utilizes the Orton-Gillingham approach along with other structures such as phonemic awareness, morphology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and text structure to improve reading skills. 

Consider phonemic awareness an umbrella term that describes three essential skill levels that are the foundation for reading: syllable level, onset-rime level, and phoneme level.

  • Syllable Level – Teaching students to hear the parts of the whole word and identify them as syllables will assist with syllable division and decoding multisyllabic words in reading.
  • Onset-Rime Level – Activities can expose students to word families and practice the segmentation of the onset (initial phonological unit before the vowel) and the rime (a string of letters that follow). Examples are p-an, s-at, st-all.
  • Phoneme Level – Children acquire phonemic awareness when they can identify beginning sounds in words, blend sounds to make a word, and count the individual sounds within a word.

Students who do not develop phonemic awareness skills are at risk of struggling with reading in their future years. The Orton-Gillingham approach is made up of components that ensure that students are not only able to use learned strategies, but can also explain the how and why of phonological strategies. Phonemic awareness is one of these components that all teachers should become familiar with and consider a critical skill for developing readers. 

With Orton-Gillingham, students learn skills that become progressively more complex, usually beginning with instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness. Once students exhibit phonemic awareness, Orton-Gillingham based programs address which letters or groups of letters represent different phonemes and how those letters blend together to make simple words.


What Are Phonemes?

Phonemes are the smallest units in our spoken language that distinguish one word from another. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes in a spoken word. 

The Orton-Gillingham approach translates the spelling of sounds into phonemes. Structured Literacy is deeply rooted in phonemes and systematically introduces the letters or graphemes corresponding to each phoneme. Once students exhibit phonemic awareness, Orton-Gillingham based programs address which letters or groups of letters represent different phonemes and how those letters blend together to make simple words. 

For example, a child can identify the phonemes in mad when he understands that there is a phoneme at the beginning, middle, and ending of the word that makes up the whole word and that each of these sounds can be manipulated individually. To support young readers, teachers should have a good understanding of the sequence of specific phonemic awareness tasks that will prepare students for success in reading.

Early, explicit, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, like Orton-Gillingham, increases a child’s attending to sounds according to research. In grades K-2, teachers can make phonemic awareness activities a highly anticipated part of the daily schedule. Phonemic awareness activities should:

  • Include enjoyable, enriching activities that provide opportunities for children to engage in language play,
  • Provide multi-sensory exposures (10-20 minutes per day) using auditory, visual, and tactile learning modalities,
    • Incorporate songs, chants, poetry, and rhymes to support metalinguistic awareness
    • Use data to inform instruction, and
    • Vary complexity for different learners.


Examples of Classroom Activities to Facilitate Phonemic Awareness

Nars from Mars (Rhyming)

This activity helps to model rhyme generation to students in the classroom. Make a puppet from a sock or paper bag and give the puppet antennae to represent “Nars”. When Nars visits the class from his planet, the students will help him learn the English language. As Nars approaches various objects in the classroom, he will identify them incorrectly by rhyming. For example, when Nars selects a book, he will label it as a “nook,” a pen as a “chen,” a table as a “lable,” and so on. Each time, the students will help him by stating the correct (rhyming) word. Students will look forward to visits from Nars.

Going to Grandma’s (Rhyming)

Have the students sit in a circle on the floor and get ready to pack a basket full of rhymes to take to Grandma’s house. The teacher will start the string of rhymes by saying, “We are going to Grandma’s, and I am packing a ________.” The basket will be passed to the next student, who will say, “We are going to Grandma’s, and I am packing a (word that rhymes with the former word).” As an example, if the teacher said “skirt,” then the next student might add “shirt,” and then “dirt,” and so on. This will leave the students in giggles, and the round will end when no other rhyming words can be generated. The basket can get passed again with a new starter word.

1, 2, 3, 4 Syllables are on the Floor (Syllable Counting)

Place four hula-hoops on the floor and place a number 1, 2, 3, or 4 in each hoop. Place various objects in a box and model the first turn. Take the object and label it (example = elephant). Clap the syllables in the word and place the object in the hoop marked with a 3.

Sort the Sound (Phoneme Categorization)

Using sets of four pictures (or objects) per sound, the teacher will model how to complete the sound sort. If the target ending sound is /t/, the teacher will name each picture and select the three pictures in the set that ends with /t/ while removing the one picture that does not fit. This activity may be done with beginning, medial, or ending sounds.

Sound Boxes (Phoneme Segmenting and Blending)

The teacher will provide students with tokens (cubes, chips, stickers) and a sound box template. The child will listen to a spoken word and move a token to represent each sound. For example, if the teacher dictates the word “step,” the student will move four tokens, one for each individual phoneme /s/-/t/-/e/-/p/.

Stretching or Repeating (Phoneme Deletion and Substitution)

The teacher will dictate a word while stretching one of the sounds “/s/-/a/-/a/-/a/-/t/” and ask the student to identify the word. The student is then asked to replace the stretched sound /a/-/a/-/a/ with another sound /i/-/i/-/i/ and identify the new word. For phonemes that cannot be stretched, the teacher may repeat the target sound “/h/-/o/-/t/-/t/-/t/.” Once the student identifies the word, the teacher may have him replace the repeated ending sound /t/-/t/-/t/ with /p/-/p/-/p/ and state the new word.

Make a Change (Phoneme Manipulation-Deletion and Substitution)

The teacher will lead the class in a series of phoneme manipulation tasks, which will, in turn, activate the other phonemic awareness tasks. (From Kilpatrick’s book, Equipped for Reading Success)

  • Say enter. Now say enter but don’t say ter.                 Student: en
  • Say pin. Now say pin but don’t say /p/.                       Student: in
  • Say smile. Now say smile but don’t say /s/.                    Student: mile
  • Say club. Now say club but don’t say /l/.                         Student: cub

Kilpatrick hails phoneme manipulation tasks as superior to all other phonemic awareness tasks, as they require students to utilize other skills such as isolation, deletion, segmentation, and blending.


The Importance of Phonological Awareness Assessment

While phonological awareness skills are addressed in the Orton-Gillingham methodology, assessment data should be continuously monitored to effectively inform instruction, track progress, differentiate lessons, and identify students who may be at risk for future reading challenges.

The Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST), adapted and revised by Kilpatrick in 2018, can be used as a whole class screener or a component of a comprehensive, formal assessment. It evaluates a child’s understanding of the syllable, onset-rime, and phoneme levels using skills that develop in sequence from kindergarten to second grade.

Although this tool can be a powerful screener in the prevention of future reading challenges, it can also be used to identify older students who failed to develop these skills in earlier years. Regardless of age, the goal is for students to develop to the level of automaticity.