Playing with sounds leads to phonemic awareness

Five “playing with sound” games to help children develop their phonemic awareness.

According to Teresa Byington, associate professor of early childhood education, University of Nevada, “We can help our children develop their phonemic awareness and the best way is to play games with them as part of regular, daily routines.”

Literacy experts tell us that reading and writing skills begin with the language skills of speaking and listening. As children develop language, their skills grow more and more refined. So, in the early years, even though they may be using words, they are not necessarily hearing the individual sounds in words—the phonemes.

We can help our children develop their phonemic awareness, and the best way is to play games with them as part of regular, daily routines. Michigan State University Extension has gathered a few games that can easily be played when you are waiting in line at the grocery store, riding in the car or just hanging around. The skill development in these games goes from the easiest to the most difficult. Don’t be surprised if your child cannot be successful at all of these activities right away. Experts tell us that phonemic awareness may not be fully developed until 5 years old or more.

Keep in mind your child’s developmental abilities. Remember to make it fun and start with easy answers. As your child learns the game, they can offer you challenges.

Five “playing with sound” games

Blending or combining sounds together

This is what we do when we are speaking words. We take the individuals sounds in the word and combine them to make a recognizable word. To highlight this process for young children, you can play a game with your child to emphasize the sounds in words. Use “slow talk”—simply drag out the sounds in words most children recognize. The word “snail” would be said “sssss-nnnn-aiaiaiai-lllll” (four sounds in total). Then your child is given a minute to guess how the word usually sounds.

Segmenting or breaking sounds apart

This is what we do when we separate the sounds in words to highlight them. We can use the same word “snail,” only let your voice break between the sounds like this: sss (stop) nnn (stop) aiaiai (stop) lll (stop). Again, give your child a minute to identify the word. To coach your child, you can repeat the sounds more rapidly so that it sounds more like the word than a collection of sounds.

Deleting or eliminating sounds

This is what we do when we begin a word but make the last sound of the word silent, such as “snai…” This is more difficult for children, so we may need to scaffold the process by using the word in a sentence, such as, “I looked under a leaf and I found a little animal crawling—a snai…”.Of course, you can also eliminate the beginning sound, too.

Substituting or replacing a sound with a different sound

This is a game children play with each other sometimes as they sing a song, such as “Willoughby Wallaby Woo.” That song is fun because it uses children’s names, but you can use other simple words. It’s easier if you begin with an example such as “get” and “net,” then ask, “What other sounds could we use to make a similar word?”

Generating or thinking of words with the same or similar sounds

This is an even more challenging activity and sometimes it is easier to use alphabet cards to accompany your conversation. Your child chooses an alphabet letter, you both repeat the sound of that letter and then you ask, “What words begin with this sound?” Children may need a prompt such as suggesting they look around for objects that begin with this sound. You can also incorporate the “I Spy” game, giving a clue to your word with the initial sound the word makes.

The whole point is to make the interaction a fun process rather than an “assignment” where you expect your child to give a “performance.” Laura Bongiorno, director of the early childhood graduate program at Champlain College, tells us that “play is a child’s context for learning,” and, as we all know, literacy begins at home.

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