Welcome back to another post in our series on phonemic awareness! If you’ve been following along, you know we’ve already tackled the varied scholarly definitions of phonemic awareness, explored the different reasons why phonemic awareness is important, and sifted through phonemic awareness annotated bibliography to give you the cream of the crop in research.

Today, we’re shifting gears a bit to focus on the how-to aspect of it all. We’re talking about practical tips for teaching phonemic awareness backed by research.

Tips for Teaching Phonemic Awareness

Below are some actionable tips drawn straight from seminal research papers to help you in your teaching of phonemic awareness. Whether you’re a seasoned pro looking to refine your methods or a newbie searching for a solid starting point, there’s something here for everyone.

1. Make it Purposeful, Not Incidental

You might remember from those staff meetings or PD days that there’s a lot of emphasis on play-based learning or “incidental learning,” where kids pick up concepts more naturally. Now, while this approach has its merits in other aspects of teaching, when it comes to phonemic awareness, a more structured strategy is essential.

According to Yopp & Yopp (2000), phonemic awareness activities are most effective when they are “deliberate and purposeful.” In simple terms, this means each activity you choose should be designed to improve specific phonemic skills, whether that’s blending, segmenting, or isolating sounds. Planning here is key; it’s not enough to have a general sense that ‘rhyming games are good for phonemic awareness,’ for instance. Instead, clarify the ‘why’ and the ‘what’—why is this particular activity beneficial and what specific skill is it targeting?

Having this focused approach also makes it easier to measure progress and adapt your teaching strategies. You can set specific milestones and assess whether the activities are effective in reaching them or if they need tweaking.

So the takeaway here is: Don’t leave it to chance or incidental learning. Be strategic and intentional in your phonemic awareness instruction. By doing so, you’re not only helping your students build a solid foundation in literacy, but you’re also making your teaching practice more effective and targeted.

2. Balance is Key: It’s a Part of a Whole

Here’s the thing about phonemic awareness: It can easily take up a significant chunk of your instructional time if you let it. Given how foundational it is to reading development, the temptation is real to focus intensely on it. But, as Yopp & Yopp (2000) point out, phonemic awareness should be “viewed by educators as only one part of a much broader literacy program.”

I’ve found this especially important in my own teaching practice. You see, phonemic awareness is not an island; it exists in the larger archipelago of literacy skills like vocabulary development, comprehension strategies, and fluency. These components are not just co-existing; they’re interdependent. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure that your phonemic awareness instruction dovetails seamlessly into the larger framework of your literacy curriculum.

What does that look like in a classroom? For one, phonemic activities shouldn’t just occur in isolation. They should be closely tied to your reading and writing activities. If you’re focusing on the sound ‘ch,’ for example, integrate that into your read-alouds, your writing prompts, and even your vocabulary lessons. Make it relevant. After all, the ultimate goal here isn’t just to get kids segmenting and blending sounds in isolation, but to have them applying these skills in real reading and writing contexts.

Another way to maintain this balance is through timing. It might not be effective to dedicate an entire 45-minute block solely to phonemic awareness activities, especially for older kids. Sprinkling shorter, targeted activities throughout your literacy instruction could be a more balanced approach.

It’s like a nutritious diet; you wouldn’t just eat carbohydrates and ignore proteins and fats, right? Likewise, a balanced literacy program is diverse but integrated, meeting various developmental needs without losing sight of the interconnections between them. So, remember, while phonemic awareness is crucial, it’s still just a single piece in the complex jigsaw puzzle of literacy. Keep that in mind as you plan and execute your lessons.

3. Start Big, Then Go Small

So, imagine you’re teaching a cooking class, and your ultimate goal is to help your students whip up a five-course meal. You wouldn’t start by teaching them to make beef wellington or soufflés, right? You’d probably kick things off with something simpler like scrambled eggs or a basic salad. The idea is to build foundational skills first and then layer on complexity.

Well, teaching phonemic awareness is pretty similar, according to research by Stahl & Murray (1994) and Treiman & Zukowski (1991). These scholars recommend starting off with more straightforward, larger units of sound like rhyming words, especially for younger learners or those who are new to this whole phonemic awareness gig.

Here’s a glimpse into how this has worked for me in the classroom. When introducing phonemic awareness to my preschoolers or struggling older kids, I found that rhyming games were like a gateway drug. Seriously, once kids got the hang of recognizing that ‘cat,’ ‘bat,’ and ‘hat’ all have something in common (they rhyme), they were more prepared and confident to move on to the next level.

And that next level is typically syllables. We’d clap out the parts of a word like ‘banana’ or ‘elephant,’ making it a multisensory experience. These activities are slightly more complex than rhyming but still manageable.

After that, it’s time to break down syllables into onsets and rimes. For instance, with a word like ‘stop,’ the onset is ‘st,’ and the rime is ‘op.’ This helps set the stage for the most intricate part: phonemes, the individual sounds in words.

Why does this sequence matter? Well, the research (e.g., Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R.; 2000) suggests that it aligns with how kids naturally develop these skills. By starting big and gradually focusing on smaller units, you’re essentially walking alongside them on their developmental journey, rather than forcing them to make giant leaps.

4. Spelling is Not the Same as Sounds

Griffith and Olson (1992) really hit the nail on the head when they caution us not to let the spelling of words muddy our phonemic instruction. It’s a point well-taken, and it reminded me of the classic English teaching challenge: English is not a phonetic language, which means spelling can sometimes be misleading when it comes to phonemic awareness.

In my own experience, this is a concept that can befuddle not just students but teachers and parents as well. I mean, how many times have we seen spelling and pronunciation clash in the English language? Words like ‘knight,’ ‘gnome,’ or ‘wrist’ come to mind, where letters are silent and don’t correspond to individual sounds. Teaching students to look at a word like ‘choose’ and see it for its phonemes—/ch/, /oo/, /z/—rather than its spelling is pivotal for their understanding of how sounds build up words.

So, what can we do about it in our classrooms or educational settings? First, be explicit about the difference between spelling and sound. Maybe even have a “Spelling vs. Sound” chart or lesson to tackle this issue head-on. When you introduce new words or sounds, discuss their phonemic make-up as well as their spelling. Walk through how many sounds the word actually has, not how many letters it has.

You might also want to use manipulatives or interactive activities that allow students to pair the correct phonemes with their corresponding letters or letter combinations. This way, they can physically see and feel the difference between the spelling of a word and its actual phonemic structure.

In a nutshell, understanding the disconnect between spelling and phonemes can make or break a child’s success in developing solid phonemic awareness skills. It’s a subtle yet crucial nuance that can empower your teaching strategies.

5. Varying Levels and Complexity

Phonemic awareness tasks differ in their levels of complexity (e.g., see Griffith & Olson, 1992; McBride-Chang, 1995; Treiman & Zukowski, 1991). The layered complexity of phonemic awareness tasks means we, as educators, have to be really dialed into where each of our students is at. That’s not just about ongoing assessment; it’s about fine-tuning our observations and tailoring tasks to match skill levels. I’ve often used a mix of group activities and individual tasks to gauge where everyone is at, and then regroup or re-strategize based on those insights.

The point here is, you shouldn’t be throwing out complex segmentation tasks to your entire class without first making sure they’ve got a solid grasp on the simpler tasks like rhyming or sound matching. And when they’re ready for more complex tasks, scaffold the learning. Maybe start with segmenting simpler, shorter words before diving into multi-syllable or compound words. Likewise, don’t keep your students who are ready for a challenge stuck on ‘easy mode’ because you’re playing it safe.

So when you’re lesson planning, consider a tiered approach to phonemic awareness activities. Have a range of tasks ready to go that span from simple to complex, allowing you to adjust on the fly. This adaptability not only helps keep students engaged, but it also ensures that they’re continually being challenged at an appropriate level, making the most of their learning experience.

Final thoughts

We’ve dissected tips and strategies for teaching phonemic awareness, all steeped in research and classroom realities. From making your instruction intentional and balanced, to understanding the nuances of sound units and tasks, we’ve covered the bases. And let’s not forget the eye-opening revelations about how spelling doesn’t necessarily reflect phonemic structures and how different tasks have varying levels of difficulty for students. It’s like a toolbox, and each tool has its own specific job and optimal time for use.

Remember, as much as we want to dive deep into phonemic awareness—and we should—it’s just one piece of a much larger literacy puzzle. So keep it in context, make it meaningful, and most importantly, make it fun. Students are far more likely to engage when the learning is interactive and enjoyable.


Phonemic Awareness: What the Research Says, by Selected Reads

Griffith, P. L., & Olson, M. W. (1992). Phonemic Awareness Helps Beginning Readers Break the Code. The Reading Teacher, 45(7), 516–523. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20200912

Stahl, S. A., & Murray, B. A. (1994). Defining phonological awareness and its relationship to early reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(2), 221–234. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.86.2.221

Treiman, R., & Zukowski, A. (1991). Levels of phonological awareness. In S. A. Brady & D. P. Shankweiler (Eds.), Phonological processes in literacy: A tribute to Isabelle Y. Liberman (pp. 67–83). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. H. (2000). Supporting Phonemic Awareness Development in the Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 54(2), 130–143. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20204888

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