Playing with Sounds: Developing Phonological Awareness

When I was in junior high school in the mid-1960s, the musical craze (besides the Beatles) was “The Name Game” written and performed by Shirley Ellis. It is a rhyming song that creates variations on a person’s name. For example, using my granddaughter’s name, Jordyn, the song game follows this pattern:

“Jordyn, Jordyn, bo-bordyn / Banana-fana fo-fordyn /Fee-Fi-mo-mordyn /Jor-dyn!”

In her song, Shirley Ellis claims that there is no name that she can’t rhyme, and she’s right. During that era, we would often greet friends using their name in this song. It always made people laugh and helped break the ice.

Toddlers and preschoolers love playing these types of word games – repeating rhymes, singing songs and reciting chants. If you have 3- or 4-year-olds in the house, you may hear them giggling as they make up their own rhymes, often resulting in nonsense words. They are beginning to understand that language is made up of strings and patterns of phonemes, or sounds. These arrangements of phonemes create words, which have meaning when they’re associated with objects or actions.

Oral language play is critical to learning to read. Too often we are so anxious for our children to learn phonics and read books independently that we skip over one of the most important stages of early reading— phonological awareness. Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of sound structure, which is the foundation for spelling and word recognition skills. It’s important because it is one of the best predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of school instruction.

Children who have a strong sense of phonological awareness can identify and make oral rhymes, clap out the number of syllables in a word and recognize words with the same beginning sounds like “money” and “mother.” In my experience with elementary school children, we found that those children who struggled with reading the most often lacked phonological awareness skills. Once those skills were remediated, these children began to read more fluently.

Phonological awareness is not the same as phonics, a method for teaching reading and writing that associates sounds with printed letters. Rather, phonological awareness is a precursor to phonics that is developed through speaking and listening. Children need to be able to hear individual sounds and relationships before they can efficiently relate the sounds to printed letters, which is not an easy task. In normal speech, there are no real spaces between sounds in words. Children need to be taught to listen for rhyming patterns, word parts and sounds with the following exercises:

  • Blending: Putting together sounds to make words.
  • Segmenting: Taking words apart into individual sounds.
  • Manipulating: Adding, taking away or substituting sounds in words. 

Children build phonological awareness best through word play and word play is something you can work on at home. Play a word game while making dinner, riding in the car, waiting at the doctor’s office or standing in the grocery store line. Make sure the activities are short and fun. If your child starts to get frustrated, stop or move on to another game; he may not be developmentally ready for that game. Try again at a later time.

If you need some ideas for games that reinforce phonological awareness, try one of these:

  1. Help your child think of a number of words or find objects in the room that start with a certain sound like “door,” “doll” and “desk.”
  2. If you’re in a car, find items that begin with a certain sound, such as objects that begin like “ball.” On your next trip, have your child find things that begin like “cat,” etc. 
  3. Make up silly sentences with words that begin with the same sound, such as “Peter prefers pickles, peaches and peanuts for his party.”
  4. Take turns coming up with words that rhyme.
  5. Break a word into syllables or separate sounds and ask your child what the word is. Here’s an example: You say: “An animal that barks is a d—o—g.” Be sure to say the letter sounds, not the letter names. Your child would then respond, “dog.”
  6. Read books with rhymes. 
  7. Teach your child rhymes, short poems and songs. Ask him to repeat the words that rhyme.
  8. Create couplets, or two-line poems, with your child. You make up one line and have her make up the second line that ends with a rhyming word.

Young children learn a great deal through repetition, so I encourage you to add these games into your daily routine. For more information about the importance of phonological awareness in learning to read, here’s a position paper from the International Reading Association.

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