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Early Childhood Education | English Language Arts | Teaching Strategies | April 25, 2024

Developing Phonemic Awareness in Emergent Readers

Our youngest learners must develop the ability to hear the differences in the sounds of letters before they can ever read print. They must develop phonemic awareness. In this article, we will discuss the importance of phonemic awareness and explore some tips for engaging ways to help children develop phonemic awareness!


If I ask, “what’s the difference between hat and cat?” Are you thinking…one says “meow?” What about hog and dog? Hmmmm… most of us would walk a dog, but not a hog? True, but my answer to both riddles is this: the difference is one phoneme! That small sound makes a significant difference in meaning and comprehension and will have a profound effect on student abilities in reading and writing.

What’s a phoneme? It is the smallest unit of sound in our language.  There are approximately 40 phonemes or units of sound in our English language. So, each of our pairs of words in the example differ by one sound at the start of the word. This seems simple, right?  It is actually quite complex, especially for emergent readers. This sound difference can change meanings. For someone who is young or even new to language acquisition, it can mean the difference between confusion and clarity. Our youngest learners must develop the ability to hear the difference in those sounds before they can ever read print. These emergent readers must develop phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the most advanced level of phonological awareness of phonological awareness (a term that encompasses noticing, recognizing, and manipulating the sounds of oral language). Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made of individual phonemes. Phonemic awareness in early childhood includes hearing the sounds that make up words and blending, segmenting, isolating, and manipulating those sounds.

Hearing and playing with language will have critical implications once reading instruction begins. Stanovich lauded the importance of the ability to hear the sounds of our language (1993/1994) when he posited that phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of reading acquisition. Juel’s research (2006) found that “children who struggled with learning to read words had entered the first grade with little phonemic awareness and were slow to acquire it. Poor readers had, as a group, less phonemic awareness at the end of the first grade than average and good readers had at the beginning of first grade” (p. 410). As well, the National Early Literacy Panel’s (2008) findings reiterate the “ability to distinguish sounds within auditory language” as “an important predictor of later literacy achievement, expanding on earlier N[ational] R[eading] P[anel] findings” (p. viii). It seems, then, that this powerful skill has big rewards for our littlest learners. The reward of phonemic awareness development has a large return in literacy abilities for young emergent readers.

TCM_OurLittlestLearnersHaveBigLearningToDo-650x520-2Tips to Build Phonemic Awareness in Young Children

Phonemic awareness is an essential pre-reading skill. How can you help children develop phonemic awareness? And, how can you make this fun? We know when children are engaged in joyful activities their attention is held and the instruction can move their understandings along. Use these suggested activities to help children develop phonemic awareness.

Students’ Names

Begin with students’ names. Ask the students questions, such as “What sounds do you hear in your own name? Whose names start with the same sound? Do you hear any rhymes in our names?” This activity will make something personal and often repeated such as their names connect familiar sounds with a larger concept. You can extend this activity by inviting students to clap out the syllables in their names. They will begin to gain an understanding for how sounds work together to form their own names. Using these familiar words is an excellent starting point for phonemic awareness development in young children.

Beginning Sounds

Sort items in the room by beginning sounds. Identify buckets or baskets with single letters, such as “b” and “p.”  Distribute pictures of items or real objects (book, pen, pencil, bag) to the students. Show them containers with individual beginning sounds (b, p). Have them take turns “sorting” the items into the correct container.  As students become more aware of the sounds you can use blends (-fl, -st) or digraphs (-sh, -ch) for sorting.


Poetry is one of the easiest ways to hear the language and the rhyme and rhythm within language. Read poems aloud to your students. The rhyme and rhythm of poetry lends itself to “paying attention” to language (Fresch & Harrison, 2013). You can invite students to consider, “What words did the poet use to make it rhyme? What words are similar at the end (cat, hat) and which are the same at the start (shop, shoe)?” Poems provide a perfect format for manipulating the sounds. You can also invite students to consider additional words that rhyme with words in the poem. Adding letters, taking them away, changing them, and stretching them are wonderful ways to help your students develop phonemic awareness.

Spy Sounds

The classic “I spy” game using the starting sounds of objects around the classroom instead of physical attributes is an excellent activity to use with your class to promote phonemic awareness. For example, you might ask a child to spy something that begins with the sound /p/, like pencil or paperclip. The students can find objects throughout the classroom and have their classmates find items that start with a specific sound. This is a non-threatening way to reinforce correct sounds and promote group work. Having students work together will allow some students to recognize phonemes in the room that they may not have immediately noticed or considered previously. This game is excellent to play with individual or groups of students.

Integrating simple and fun phonemic awareness activities on a regular basis supports children as they steadily build valuable pre-reading skills that will improve reading outcomes. When they have developed phonemic awareness, emergent readers will be able to recognize and manipulate the sounds within words, a critical step on the road to becoming readers and writers.

Fresch, M.J. & Harrison, D.L. (2013). Learning through Poetry. Huntington Beach, CA.: Shell Education.

Juel, C. (2006). The impact of early school experiences on initial reading. In D.K. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.) Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol. 2. (pp. 410-426). New York: Guilford.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Stanovich, K.E. (December 1993/January 1994). Romance and reason. The Reading Teacher, 47 (4), 280-291.



Author Bio:

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Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D., Literacy Consultant and Author

Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D., began as a third-grade teacher in Kent, Ohio. Throughout her career, she taught adult literacy at the University of Akron, reading methods at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), and teacher education at Deakin University and The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Mary Jo also taught at The Ohio State University for 20 years prior to retiring in 2015. She is now professor emeritus and an active literacy consultant and author. Mary Jo has authored and edited many...

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