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Answered by Dr. Jody Chong, Assistant Professor, Jackman Institute of Child Study at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto/ Special Education Teacher, TDSB

I am so excited to share some ideas on this topic as it is not only one of the strongest predictors of reading and writing success, but it is also fun to teach. Here are a few ways that educators can work it into kindergarten and primary classrooms.

Make it Personal

One way to motivate and hold the interest of young children is to use their names and those of familiar people and pets. Simple activities like having students who have a certain sound in their names line up or go get ready for recess, using words with targeted phonemes as a jumping-off point (if your name starts/ends/contains the same sound as the first/middle/last sound in “snake” you can…), or using names to inspire silly alliterative sentences are all great ways to make the learning personal (e.g., Marvellous Madeleine makes many malted milkshakes on moonless Mondays.)

When taking attendance, teachers can manipulate the phonemes in the students’ names in a variety of ways. Teachers could call out the names in a “robot” voice (segmented phonemes that the students need to blend). For a phoneme substitution task, the teacher could choose the phoneme /m/ in the initial word position so that Bill, Sanjeet and Leah would become “Mill”, “Manjeet” and “Meah”.  A slightly more challenging variation on this could be to substitute the final phoneme so Bill, Sanjeet and Leah would become “Bim”, “Sanjeem” and “Leam”.

By segmenting their own names into phonemes (first name, last name, middle name, or a combination), and counting them, children can be challenged to find a classmate whose name has the same number of phonemes, or one with more or fewer. They can also be challenged to think about whose name has the most phonemes and whose has the least.

Get Moving

Many phonemic awareness activities pair well with hand and body movements. When segmenting or counting phonemes in words (start with words with 2-3 phonemes and build up), students can incorporate movements such as claps, taps, stomps, or hops as they say each sound. This activity can also be paired with games like hopscotch, basketball, or beanbag toss.

When doing stretched blending of phonemes, they can use slinkies, toy cars, or rubber bands as they stretch out each individual sound in a smooth manner (e.g., “Everyone say the word “ram” (It’s helpful to also provide pictures of the targeted words.) Now let’s stretch the sounds in that word – rrraaammm.”)

Sending students off on a scavenger hunt in small teams can also be a motivating way to get them moving.  Possible ideas for the hunt include collecting objects that all have the same initial sound or having groups collect objects with a certain number of phonemes.

Finally, a variety of activities can be done by creating an extra-large Elkonin box with painter’s tape on the classroom floor. Teachers can start with 2-3 phoneme words (so an Elkonin box with 2 or 3 compartments) and add in additional compartments as the students progress to segmenting longer words with 4,5,6 (or even more) phonemes. Possible activities include:

  • one student at a time coming up to the box and jumping in and out of each section as they segment a word into phonemes
  • multiple students jumping into a section one at a time for each phoneme
  • using an Elkonin box with 3 squares, the teacher could say a word out loud (e.g., cat) and then s/he could change one phoneme (e.g., cat to cap, cat to rat, or cat to coat) and get the students to identify (by jumping into the correct compartment) whether the word was changed at the beginning (first box), middle (second box) or end (third box)
  • a more challenging version of this, once the students were ready, would be to use an Elkonin box containing 4 squares and to incorporate words with beginning or ending blends (e.g., slap, which could be changed to flap or snap or slop or slat)

Can You Sing?

There are so many wonderful songs and chants that can be used in the classroom. Most teachers will be familiar with songs like Down by the Bay and Apples and Bananas as performed by Raffi, where different sounds within words are manipulated in playful ways. Yopp (1992) provides many examples of how traditional children’s songs like Old McDonald or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star can be modified to focus on phonemic awareness. Click here for some other strategies related to phonemic awareness and to access lyrics for some of these songs.

Get Inspired by Picture Books

There are several ways that picture books can be connected to phonemic awareness instruction. Rhyming books (Julia Donaldson books are a personal favourite) and books that focus on alliteration and assonance are a great place to start. Stories with phoneme manipulation (i.e., deletion, addition, substitution) provide children with opportunities to hear and play with the sounds in words in ways that are silly and engaging.  Selecting words for various activities from favourite classroom read-alouds is also a good way to ground phonemic awareness instruction.

Books with Alliteration & Assonance

Many Marvelous Monsters – Ed Neck

Some Smug Slug – Pamela Duncan Edwards

A Little Book of Alliterations – Felix Arthur and Jenny Capon

Faint Frogs Feeling Feverish and Other Terrifically Tantalizing Tongue Twisters – Lilian Obligato

Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses – Nancy Patz

Books with Phoneme Manipulation

The Hungry Thing (also The Hungry Thing Returns & The Hungry Thing Goes to a Restaurant) - Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler

Cock-a-Doodle-Moo – Bernard Most

Runny Babbit - Shel Silverstein

Trick or Treat – Bill Martin Jr.

If I Had a Paka: Poems in Eleven Languages - Charlotte Pomerantz

There’s a Wocket in my Pocket – Dr. Seuss

Maximize Transition Times

Standing in line, waiting for the morning announcements to start, sitting in the hallway waiting for lice check, teachers can “find” small blocks of time to fill with short activities. Try a few of these to get started.

  • “I’m going to say a word, and when I say “show” (“ready, set, show”) you will hold up your fingers to show me how many phonemes/ sounds are in the word (e.g., cap – 3, box – 4, trap – 4, ship – 3).”
  • “I spy something that has 4 phonemes/ sounds and starts with the sound /m/.”
  • “Touch your /h/ /a/ /n/ /d/.”

Use Online Resources (this one’s for you - COVID 19)

Over the past year, we’ve all had to be resourceful in finding new ways to teach and connect with our students and a silver lining in all of this has perhaps been some of the new tools and resources that have been developed in digital format.  Here are a few favourites:

About the Author

phonological awarenessDr. Jody Chong is an assistant professor at the Jackman Institute of Child Study at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. She is also a Special Education Teacher with the Toronto District School Board. Jody has been a member of the LD@school/TA@l'école Advisory Committee, providing input to support the planning and implementation of the LD@school and TA@l'école projects since 2019.