Making Friends With Phonemes

Phoneme awareness is the ability to identify phonemes, the vocal gestures from which words are constructed, when they are found in their natural context--spoken words.  Children need phoneme awareness to learn to read because letters represent phonemes in words.  A phoneme is the meaning of a letter or digraph, the "mouth move" signaled by the letter.  The spelling of a word--its letter sequence--is a map of the pronunciation--its phoneme sequence.  To learn to read words, we have to understand this mapping.  Thus, learning to read begins by "making friends with phonemes"--becoming comfortable and familiar with them.  Informally, children develop this familiarity in conversations about books read aloud, especially alphabet books and books of nursery rhymes.  Guiding and encouraging children's attempts to invent spelling also helps children make friends with phonemes.

Children can also be taught to make friends with phonemes in explicit lessons.  When we examine research-based programs for teaching phoneme identities, we find three features in effective programs: 
a) A focus on a basic set of individual phonemes, one at a time.
b) Activities designed to make each phoneme memorable.
c) Practice finding each phoneme in spoken words.  
Research demonstrates that getting familiar with phonemes helps children make breakthroughs in learning to decode.

Focus on individual phonemes. Children need to get a feel for each phoneme they will use in reading and spelling.  Just as we do not expect children to learn to recognize all the letters at once, neither should we expect children to learn all the phonemes at once.  Instead, we spend time with each phoneme they will need to read and spell words.  Where to start?  Continuants phonemes such as /f/, /m/, and /s/ are easy to stretch and pronounce by themselves.  Unvoiced consonants like /t/ and /p/ can come soon after.  We need vowels right away, because we can't put together any word without a vowel.  Long vowels are easier to identify than short vowels.  However, short vowels should come early because they are typically the first to be introduced in reading lessons since they have simple one-letter spellings.  Children do not need to be taught every phoneme.  As they get used to identifying a limited set of phonemes, they will learn how to identify others.

Select a good basic set of perhaps a dozen phonemes, and introduce the phonemes one at a time, setting aside a few days for each one.  A good introductory strategy is to use meaningful names, gestures, pictures, and letters.  Meaningful names provide a familiar image of a sound similar to the sound of the phoneme in the world; for example, /z/ sounds like a buzzing bee.  Children readily associate /a/ (short a) with a crying baby.   (Click here for a list of ideas for meaningful names).  Phoneme gestures are hand motions children can make to remember phonemes; for example, a good gesture for /p/ is flicking open the fingers on both hands like popcorn popping.  Phoneme gestures require no special materials--they are always at hand, and children enjoy participating in lessons with hand motions.  (Click here for a list of ideas for phoneme gestures.)  Phoneme pictures capture an image of the phoneme's meaningful name.  (Click here for phoneme pictures for the five short vowels.)  Display the principal letter or digraph for each phoneme, and teach children to recognize the letters by guided printing practice.  (Click here for instructions for teaching letter recognition.)

Make the phoneme memorable.  After children have been introduced to a phoneme, they need to stretch it, examine it, and make meaningful connections to other things they know about.  To get across the idea that a phoneme is the same "mouth move" across many different words, have children learn alliterative "tongue ticklers," e.g., "Many mice make music."  Here are three guidelines for good tongue ticklers:
  1. Make sure most words begin with your phoneme (i.e., use alliteration).  Beginnings are most noticeable.  In most cases, don't use words with the phoneme in the middle or end of the words (x is the exception).
  2. For tongue ticklers young children can remember, 4 or 5 phonemes is plenty.  If they are too long, they are hard to remember.
  3. It doesn't matter how phonemes are spelled in the tongue tickler as long as the phoneme is consistent.  These are oral language activities, and children will not see the spellings.
    GOOD:  Cats and kittens cry for Christmas. (The main words all have the phoneme /k/.)
    BAD: Annie ate an apple in the alley.  (Ate has the wrong phoneme for learning about /a/.)

Click here for an excellent collection of tongue ticklers for practicing phoneme awareness. 

Once children learn a tongue tickler, have them have them practice stretching the sounds, e.g., "Nnnnnobody was nnnnnice to Nnnnnancy's nnnnneighbor Nnnnnick."  Have them make the phoneme gesture as they stretch the phoneme, in this case, "driving a jet ski."  Another good way to practice is splitting the target phoneme from the rest of the words, e.g., "N-obody was n-ice to N-ancy's n-neighbor N-ick."  This is important with stop phonemes like /t/:  "T-om t-ricked T-im and t-ook his t-rain off the t-rack."  Children can compose their own tongue ticklers and write them with invented spelling.  An excellent resource is a good alphabet book.  Look for alphabet books that have multiple examples of familiar words to illustrate each letter, such as Dr. Seuss's ABC, with wonderful alliterations like "Silly Sammy Slick sipped six sodas and got sick, sick, sick."

Ask children to be scientists and figure out how they are making the sound with their mouths.  They will need time to experiment and discover what their mouths are doing as they practice producing each phoneme.  For example, how do we make /m/?  When children learn that they must press their lips together and hum, they zero in on the key concept for deciding whether /m/ is found in summer or winter.   As they say the words slowly, they will press their lips together and hum when they say summer, but not when they say winter.

In the long run, children need to learn letters and digraphs as symbols for phonemes.  After students learn to print the most common letter for the target phoneme, have them invent spellings for words with this letter.  To invent a spelling, you must stretch out the word, feel what your mouth is doing, and record letters for the mouth moves.  Daily writing opportunities with invented spelling allow children to identify phonemes and practice using correspondences they are learning.

Find the phoneme in word contexts.  Phoneme awareness means recognizing phonemes in their natural environment, spoken words.  Children have not learned the phoneme until they can spot it in words.  For early practice, help them recognize the target phoneme at the beginning of words.  For this, you might have them pick out illustrations of words beginning with the phoneme from a bulletin board.  Later have them search for the phoneme in the middle or end of a word.  Have them choose between words related in meaning to practice the switch from meaning to sound.  For example, you might ask them to listen for the sound /s/, the "flat tire sound" in words related in meaning:  "Do you hear /s/ in mice or rat?  In duck or goose?  In nest or cave?" 

Only after children recognize phonemes in words should we ask them to think of words that feature the target phoneme.  For example, until they can readily find the phoneme in words, they can't search magazines for illustrations that begin with the phoneme.  DaisyQuest and Daisy's Castle are excellent computer games that use state-of-the-art animation and synthesized speech to help children find phonemes in word contexts.  (Click here for these and other resources for teaching phoneme awareness).

Blending and segmentation work with the target phoneme is very helpful in recognizing the phoneme in word contexts.  Remember in blending and segmentation to work with only one phoneme at a time.  Most blending and segmentation programs presume that children can work with assorted phonemes, most of which they haven't learned to identify.  Blending and segmentation work usually requires letters to represent the phonemes, because otherwise children have too many things to think about at once.  Oddly, research suggests it is easier to blend phonemes to the ends of words.  For example, it is easier to blend roo-m, crea-m, and sli-me than to blend r-oom, cr-eam, and sl-ime.

Creative teachers will think of many other ways to help children make friends with phonemes.  Effective lessons and activities will focus on particular phonemes, make these phonemes familiar to children, and then provide practice finding the phonemes in word contexts.

Return to the Reading Genie.