Sound the Foghorn

Emergent Literacy Design

Bruce Murray

To learn to read and spell words, children need the alphabetic insight that letters stand for phonemes and spellings map out the phonemes in spoken words.  Before children can match letters to phonemes, they have to recognize phonemes in spoken word contexts.  Short vowels are probably the toughest phonemes to identify.  This lesson will help children identify /u/ (short u).  They will learn to recognize /u/ in spoken words by learning a meaningful representation and a letter symbol, and then practice finding /u/ in words.

Primary paper and pencil; chart with “Uncle was upset because he was unable to put his umbrella up”; class set of cards with u on one side and a question mark on the other; drawing paper and crayons; Bud the Sub (Educational Insights); picture page with bug, bag, cup, gum, sun, bus, hat, rug, drum, tub, nut, and wig (Modern Curriculum Press Phonics, Level A).


1. Introduce the lesson by explaining that our written language is a secret code. The tricky part is learning what letters stand for--the mouth moves we make as we say words.  Today we’re going to work on spotting the mouth move /u/.  At first /u/ will seem hidden in words, but as you get to know it, you’ll be able to spot /u/ in all kinds of words.

2. Ask students:  Did you ever hear a tugboat’s foghorn say /u/? That’s the mouth move we’re looking for in words. Let’s pretend to sound the foghorn, and say /u/.  [Pull an imaginary foghorn chain.] We sound the foghorn to warn the other ships we’re coming through the fog.  Sound your foghorn:  /u/.

3. Let’s try a tongue twister [on chart]. ”Uncle was upset because he was unable to put his umbrella up.”  Everybody say it three times together.  Now say it again, and this time, stretch the /u/ at the beginning of the words.  “Uuuncle was uuupset because he was uuunable to put his uuumbrella uuup.”  Try it again, and this time break it off the word:  “/u/ ncle was /u/ pset because he was/u/ nable to put his /u/ mbrella /u/ p.”  Nice work.

4. [Have students take out primary paper and pencil]. We can use letter u to spell /u/.  Let’s write it.  Start at the fence line.  Draw down to the sidewalk, curve over, and back up the fence, and now, without lifting your pencil, draw straight down to the sidewalk.  I want to see everybody’s u.  After I put a smile on it, I want you to make nine more just like it.  When you see letter u all by itself in a word, that’s the signal to say /u/.

5. Let me show you how to find /u/ in the word thumb.  I'm going to stretch thumb out in super slow motion and listen for the foghorn.  Th-th-th-u-m.  Th-th-th-u-u-u . . . There it is!  I do hear the foghorn /u/ in thumb.

6. Call on students to answer and tell how they knew:  Do you hear /u/ in up or down?  Glass or cup?  Walk or run?  under or over?  Work or fun? [Pass out u/? card to each student.] Say: Let’s see if you can spot the mouth move /u/ in some words. Show me u if you hear /u/ and the question mark if you don’t.  [Give words one by one] Uncle, was, upset, because, he, was, unable, to, put, his, umbrella, up.  [Note:  was has /u/ but put does not].

7. Say: "Bud is a little submarine.  Gus is the captain.  They find a tugboat that gets hit by an iceberg and starts to sink.  Can Bud and Gus rescue the crew and save the day?"  Read Bud the Sub and talk about the story. Read it again, and have students raise their hands when they hear words with /u/. List their words on the board. Then have each student draw a submarine and write a message about it using invented spelling. Display their work.

8. For assessment, distribute the picture page and help students name each picture.  Ask each student to circle the pictures whose names have /u/. 

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1990). Acquiring the alphabetic principle:  A case for teaching recognition of phoneme identity.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 805-812.

 Click here to return to Connections.