Learning to read can be quite an overwhelming task for small children. In fact, if you think about it, it’s astounding that children are even capable of learning to read in such a short amount of time. However, before they begin to read print, they must have an adequate foundational understanding of how sounds in words work. That is where phonemic awareness comes into play.

What is phonemic awareness?

In easy-to-understand terms, phonemic awareness is the ability to identify, think about, and manipulate sounds in spoken speech. This is NOT the same as phonics. Phonemic awareness is actually a critical skill that is a precursor to reading letters. That’s why phonemic awareness instruction should NEVER involve print. If you find yourself working with letters or printed words, then you have skipped a step and crossed the line into phonics. This is a very important point. Research tells us that it’s essential to focus on phonemic awareness in the classroom before reading can begin. We want to ensure that children have a solid understanding of the sounds of speech before we start phonics instruction.

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Nowadays, we are facing an added difficulty, though. In today’s early-childhood classrooms, teachers are feeling an ever-increasing pressure to get their students reading. It is easy to lose sight of the developmental process and try to skip steps in order to get our kids reading books as soon as possible. There is just one problem: skipping steps is not going to work. Children’s progress in reading will be limited if they haven’t learned to think about the sounds in words.

As early childhood teachers, we need to remember that we can’t skip past phonemic awareness skills. We can’t just barge ahead in the hope that all of our students have arrived in our classroom complete with the full-blown skills of thinking about and manipulating sounds in their minds. On the other hand, we also can’t afford to spend a lot of time doing phonemic-awareness instruction. I am happy to tell you the good news that we don’t have to! Phonemic awareness instruction can and should be done in small pockets of time throughout the school day. In fact, oral language and phonemic awareness can often be taught and reinforced in as little as five to ten minutes per day.

Here are five quick, easy, and fun phonemic awareness activities that are perfect for the beginning of the school year in any early childhood classroom. Yes, you heard me correctly – that word was F-U-N. I know fun has become an undesirable notion in many schools today. But I assure you that these activities will be fun and that your students really will learn about our amazing language! I have also included activities that require little or no preparation – things you can do on the fly! Although these activities don’t cover the full range of phonemic awareness skills needed to produce great readers, they are still fantastic activities to begin any school year!

Listening

The ability to listen closely is a key ingredient of phonemic awareness. This is the part of instruction that is skipped most often, because teachers assume that young children know how to listen. They may not! Furthermore, if they don’t, they’re not ignoring you. It’s just that they don’t understand what “listen closely” means. They have to be taught.

The Listening Game.

One of the first phonemic-awareness activities I do with my students, even as soon as the first day, is to bring their attention to noises. After lunch, we come back to the classroom and all the children lie quietly on the floor. It’s not naptime, but it’s a great time to unwind, which is important for young children. As we lie there quietly for five to ten minutes, we listen for sounds. We all stay perfectly still and quiet. We become “sound spotters.” We don’t use our eyes – we use our ears. There are always sounds and weird noises you can hear in a school building. We may hear the air conditioner, doors closing, teachers talking, stomachs growling. The possibilities are endless! Your part is to talk about the sounds you and the children hear. Use a little teacher enthusiasm and exaggeration to get the kids interested in this activity. The key phrase is, “Who can spot a sound with their ears?”

“Moo-Moo,” Where Are You?

I love playing this game with my class. The kids have a ball, too. In fact, they simply think we are playing.

How to play: All the children sit in a circle. One child lies down in the middle of the circle and covers his or her eyes. The teacher chooses another child to go somewhere in the room and pretend to be a cow by making a “moo-moo” sound. The child in the middle of the circle – with eyes still covered – points in the direction of the animal sound. This game is great because it gets children to listen closely for sounds and for where the sounds are coming from. It also prepares their ears to listen more closely to sounds in words. When the child in the middle correctly identifies the sound and direction, he or she gets to go next and make a different animal sound.

Rhyming

Rhyming is such a great phonemic awareness activity! Most children easily grasp the concept of rhyme. Some need a little help, though. Using word-play with rhyming helps children notice that sounds in our language have meaning and follow certain patterns. Again, this is a precursor skill to seeing sound patterns reproduced in print – as a phonemic awareness practice, it is purely auditory.

The absolute best way to introduce rhyming to your students is by reading lots of fun rhyming books, poems, and songs. Act silly and have fun! The more fun you have with the rhymes, the more the kids will notice the rhymes and enjoy the activities. Exaggerate the silliness of the rhyme. The poem “Down By the Bay” and the book “Silly Sally” are perfect examples of how rhyme can be super fun!

In My Box

This game is great to use after your students have at least some understanding of how rhyming works. That means you have already read lots of rhyming books, poems, and songs and played with those rhyming words.

How to play: Get a small box and place some pictures in it with pairs of familiar words that rhyme (like box/socks, cat/hat, or chair/bear). Use enough pictures so that everyone in your class has a turn. Sit in a circle with your students. Start with a child you know is strong in rhyming. Hold the box and choose a picture. If the picture shows a cat, say “In my box, there’s a cat”. Call on him or her to come up with a rhyming word. The child might say, “In my box, there’s a hat” (or some other rhyming word). After he or she answers with a rhyming word, hand him or her the box. Now he or she gets to choose a card and continue the play.

Syllables

Working with and noticing syllables within words is important, because it makes students aware of how words can be split up into smaller parts, according to their sounds. Our ultimate goal is to work on individual phonemes (vowels or consonants), but children must first learn the concept of “parts of words.” It’s easier for young children to start with larger parts of words and then work their way down to the smaller, discrete individual sounds of phonemes. We are building a bridge from hearing words to hearing phonemes.

Bippity Boppity Bumble Bee

This is such a fun game. You get the kids clapping out names, first. As they get used to the game, you can start using other words with more syllables.

How to play: Sit in a circle with your students. I have a little stuffed bee that the kids love to hold. You could also use a printable bumble bee. The teacher begins the chant and walks around to a child:

Teacher: “Bippity Boppity Bumble Bee, Will You Say Your Name For Me?”

The child responds, “Jennifer.”

Teacher: ” Let’s all say it.” And the class says her name out loud, while clapping once for each syllable.

Teacher: “Let’s all whisper it.” And the class whispers her name, while quiet-clapping the syllables again, once per syllable.

Teacher and class: “Bippity Boppity Bumble Bee, Thank You For Saying Your Name For Me!”

Repeat with another student and his/her name. As students become familiar with the game, you can allow students to take on the “teacher” role.

Old MacDonald

Here is another great game that you can use to give the students practice in listening to syllables and putting them together into words. It follows the pattern of the song, Old MacDonald. By the time I use this activity with my class, we have read and sung Old MacDonald hundreds of times, so the song is well-known to the students.

How to play: The teacher begins by telling the students they are going to learn a new game – it’s a different version of Old MacDonald, and it’s kind of a silly version. The teacher begins singing, “Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm he had a /ti/ /ger/, E-I-E-I-O”. Of course, the kids think the introduction of the tiger is wildly funny, but notice what they have actually done: Without being told, they have mentally combined the syllables /ti/ and /ger/ to realize what the animal was! It’s huge! Then I show the children a picture of a tiger and they feel proud that they figured out the animal – and they think it’s too funny! Again it’s lots of fun, and they really think we are just playing a game.

The most important thing to keep in mind as an early childhood teacher is that phonemic awareness can be such a fun time! It shouldn’t be long drawn-out lessons. All you need is five-to-ten-minute pockets of time each day. Phonemic awareness activities are also great to use during transition times throughout the day. I often use the ten minutes before lunch, and sometimes during group restroom breaks, to practice and reinforce listening and oral language skills. And the payoff is big! If you give phonemic awareness the attention it deserves, your students will be richly rewarded when it’s time for them to start reading!

So now you know some of my secrets – the teaching games I use myself! I’ve had success with them, so I’m sure that if you make them your own, not only will you have fun with them in your classroom, but your students, too, will have an easier time with reading and go further faster!