Education, Parenting

Teaching A Preschooler to Read: A Crash Course in Phonemic Awareness

First off,  let’s establish that phonemic awareness is not the same as phonics (“Phonemic Awareness”; Zarillo, 2005).  I will get to phonics in a later post as I do not want to overwhelm anyone with too much information.  Just know that phonemic awareness occurs when your child is aware that “words are made up of individual speech sounds” (Zarillo, 2005, p. 13).  If you have ever taken a linguistics course, than you may already be familiar with phonemes.  A phoneme is a “speech sound in a language that signals a difference in meaning.” (Zarillo, 2005, p.14).  To put it simply, it is how we know that “cat” and “mat”  are not the same words in the English language.

The activities I present in this article will focus on sound and not so much around their written counterpart (graphemes).  While I have done some worksheets and hands-on activities with my son, a lot of our learning in regards to phonemic awareness has happened through conversations and even some songs (I’m a terrible singer, but he doesn’t seem to mind).  In fact, our discussions are often impromptu and take place in less formal learning environments such as our car or the grocery store.

Before I inundate you with information on the various phonemic awareness tasks and how you can teach them, I would like to give you a list of some of the items I have used with my son. It is not necessary to have all of these materials to teach phonemic awareness, but I find having a variety of manipulatives to be helpful.  When possible, I recommend making some of these materials on your own.  While it may cost you some time, your wallet will thank you in the end.  🙂

  • Felt board, Letters and Figures:  One of the first reading manipulatives I made for my son was a felt board and letters.  You can purchase a felt board and figures, but if you are willing to put in the time, you can make your own for much cheaper.  View my tutorial on how to make your own felt board.
  • Alphabet Bean Bags:  See my tutorial on how to make your own or you can check out this set from Educational Insights.
  • Magnetic Letters:  My refrigerator is covered with these and fingerprint smudges.  Don’t break the bank purchasing these.  You can find them for less than $5 like this set of 36 magnetic letters from Alex.
  • Letter Tiles:  If you already have Scrabble in the house, the tiles from that game will work nicely.  If not, you could always do as I did and pick up a game of Bananagrams.  (I like the idea of picking up a game with letter tiles instead of just purchasing letter tiles from an educational supply store.  I feel like I’m getting more for my money this way.)
  • Books:  I personally like Dr. Seuss books, especially when it comes to teaching sound substitution.  Take a look at this list compiled by Scholastic for books that support specific phonemic awareness tasks.

Phonemic Awareness Tasks and Instructional Activities

Note:  sounds are denoted by a letter enclosed in // (e.g., /b/, /a/, /t/, are the sounds in the word bat).

Here are a few useful definitions:

  1. Blends:  This is when you use two or three sounds to create one sound.  For example, in the word flag the blend would be fl.
  2. Digraphs:  These are not to be confused with blends (I used to mix them up in college).  These “are a combination of letters that make a unique sound that is unlike the sound made by any of the individual letters within the digraph” (Zarillo, 2005, p. 15).  For example in the word dish the digraph would be sh.
  3. Onsets and Rimes:  These occur in one syllable words.  The onset is “the initial consonant sound or consonant blend [whereas the] rime is the vowel sound and any consonant that follows” (Zarillo, 2005, p. 15).  For example, in the word dogsthe onset would be d and the rime would be ogs.
  4. Diphthongs:  These are two vowels combined within a single syllable that work together to create one sound.  For example the oa in boat is a diphthong.

Phonemic Awareness Tasks

  • Sound Matching:  This is when the child can identify the beginning, middle, and final sounds in a word.  For example, you can ask the child to tell you a word that starts with the /m/ sound and the child responds with mop, mat or mouse.
    • In the grocery store, give your child the task of finding foods that start with a certain sound.  For example, ask your child to find you foods that start with /s/.  They can answer with strawberries, squash, soup or sugar.
    • Have a scavenger hunt.  Hide items around the house that, for example, begin with /b/.  The child could search for a book, brush, broom, box, etc.,
    • Show them a picture of a cat (or create one for your felt board).  Ask your child to tell you other words that have the medial sound /a/ (e.g., mat, rat, sad or ran).
    • Alliteration:  Read books like Graeme Base’s Animalia.  My son loves the gorgeous illustrations that support the text (which is all alliteration).
    • Memory:  Play a game of memory to practice beginning word sounds.  Download the game here and print it out on card stock.  If you have access to a laminator, I recommend laminating the cards for extra durability.

  • Sound Isolation:  In this activity, the child must be able to isolate and identify the specific sound in the beginning, middle, and/or ending position of a word.  For example, in the words cat and car the child would need to identify /c/ when asked for the beginning sound.
    • Use your felt board and lay out the sounds of a word out of a order.  For example, take the word  dog and lay out “gdo”.  Ask your child to say the word dog and help you identify the beginning, medial and ending sounds.  As they tell you the correct order, /d/, /o/, /g/, place the corresponding letter on the felt board.
    • Ask your child to identify the beginning, middle or ending sound of a set of words.  For example, what is the ending sound of these words: dish, fish, wish?  The correct response would be /sh/.
    • Use worksheets for extra practice identifying sounds in the beginning, middle, or ending position of a word.  Here is a worksheet that I made to review middle sounds.Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 5.26.28 PM
  • Sound Blending:  This is when the child can combine the individual sounds to create a word.  For example, you might ask your child to tell you the word from these three sounds /d/, /o/, /g/.   The child should respond with “dog“.
    • My son and I often play this game in the car.  I will ask my son to tell me what word I am thinking of when I give him, for example, the sounds /c/, /a/, /r/ and he will tell me car
    • Use your felt board, magnetic letters or letter tiles to create a single syllable word.  You will initially have the letters separated from one another for this activity.  For example, take the word cat and ask your child to sound it out /c/, /a/, /t/.  Then, push the letters closer together and ask them to say the sounds faster.  Repeat this process until they say the word cat.
  • Sound Substitution: In this task, the child is simply required to substitute a sound each time a target sound is given.  For example, if you ask a child to replace the /c/ in cat with /s/, the child would respond with “sat“.
    • My son is at a point where he often does this activity on his own,  often with a common rime and choosing to replace the onset.  For example, we might start with the word cat and he will replace the onset /c/ with /b/ to make bat and then /s/ to make sat.  In activities like this, it is also okay to use nonsense words like wat as the idea is for the child to replace the beginning sound with a new one.  (A word of warning, my son once played around with the the rime uck after saying “yuck” and it eventually led to him accidentally say a bad word.  Yikes!)
    • Use your alphabet bean bags or  felt board and letters and create words with the same rime and different onsets.
      • Busy in the kitchen?  Have your little one use the magnetic letters and create words on the fridge.
    • Sing nursery rhymes and songs.  Try singing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad with your child.  Each time, substitute the initial consonant of “fie, fi, fiddly i o, with a new sound.  For example, /z/ would give you “zie, zi, ziddly  i o”.
    • Dr. Seuss Books:  I personally like There is a Wocket in my Pocket as Dr. Seuss demonstrates sound substitution with nonsense words and real vocabulary (e.g., Bofa on the sofa).
  • Sound Deletion/Addition:  For this task, you say a word and then remove or add a sound and ask the child what the new word is.  For example, you can say the word stag” and tell the child to take away the /s/.  The child should tell you that the new word is tag.
    • Start by saying words aloud to your child so that they are only hearing the sounds.  If asking to remove the initial sound, try using words with consonant blends.  For example, ask your child to delete the first sound (/t/) in tram to get the word ram.
    • Lay out your felt board letters with a word that begins with a consonant blend like stack.  Ask your child to remove the beginning sound (/s/) to give you the new word tack.
  • Sound Segmentation:  This is simply when you ask the child to identify each individual sound in a word (the opposite of sound blending).  For example, if you say tell me the sounds in “dad” the child would respond, ” /d/, /a/, /d/”.  (This has been the most challenging task for my child.)
    • Start with two-sound words.  You may need to model this quite a few times when first introducing it to your child.  Say aloud slowly the word at and ask your child to tell you each sound.  If your child can successfully tell you the sounds in two-sound words, move onto three-sound words and so on.
    • Elkonin Boxes:  If you are unfamiliar with this activity, I recommend heading over to Reading Rockets for a quick overview.  Remember when having children complete this activity, they are focusing on the number of sounds in the word and not the letters.  For example, you can have a word like duck which has 4 letters, but only 3 sounds.  You can download and print my activity to get started.  I have left a few cards blank so that you can get creative and make your own.
      • For a more advanced learner, you can use letter tiles instead of tokens.
      • If you have a kid that likes to move, try modifying this activity by getting your alphabet bean bags and some boxes, tubs or baskets (whatever you have around the house).  Say a word and have your child throw the bean bag that represents each sound into the corresponding basket.  For example, the /a/ in cat should be tossed in the middle tub.
      • Gather some mats or go outside and draw some squares with chalk.  Have your child jump into each square as he/she says each sound.

The best advice I can give you is to be patient and have fun with these activities.  Your child won’t master these skills overnight.  Remember, if a strategy isn’t working then it is time to try something else.  You’ll find that I don’t subscribe to one pedagogical approach, but believe that you should find what works best for the individual child.  Every child is different and learns in different ways, so be flexible in your methodology.  I’ve just provided a few possible activities for each task to get you started.  I recommend giving them a try, but also doing your own research and looking at what other parents and teachers are doing.


Phonemic Awareness. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2017, from

Zarrillo, J. J. (2005). Ready for RICA: A Test Preparation Guide for California’s Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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