Phonemic Awareness Activities For Preschoolers

Not sure what “phonemic awareness” means or why it's important? Learn all about phonemic awareness and how you can help your preschooler develop this critical pre-reading skill.

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Spoken words are made up of individual speech sounds called phonemes.

Developing phonemic awareness usually starts with being able to identify the beginning sounds of spoken words.

A preschooler who can tell you that “bee” starts with the sound “b” is just starting to develop phonemic awareness.

The next step is being able to come up with more words starting with the sound “b”. That’s how you know your preschooler really understands and hasn’t just memorized it.

Some children will find it easier to hear the sound at the end of a spoken word such as the sound “t” at the end of “cat”.

Hearing the middle sound of a word is more challenging, especially when it comes to distinguishing between the short vowel sounds in words such as “big”, “bog”, “bug, “beg”, and “bag”. In longer words, preschoolers will typically hear some, but not all, of the sounds.

Over time, your child will be able to segment or stretch out a spoken word to say all of its individual sounds. Your child will also be able to hear a spoken word stretched out and then blend the sounds to say the whole word out loud.

A child who has developed phonemic awareness will not only identify phonemes, but will also play with the individual speech sounds in spoken words.

In the early elementary years, your child will be able to delete sounds in a word and substitute sounds and say the new word. For example, what is the word “clamp” without the sound “m”?  The correct answer is “clap”.

Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important?

I know you’re reading this because you want to be sure that you’re doing everything possible to help your preschooler learn to read easily. Maybe you even ended up here after searching for alphabet activities on Pinterest!

There’s a lot of pressure on parents these days to teach letters and sounds before kindergarten. This is even more true if you’re hoping to keep your preschooler home for as long as possible.

But I don’t want you to waste your precious time on alphabet activities that aren’t what your preschooler needs right now!

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is starting letter recognition activities before their child has enough phonemic awareness to understand that letters represent speech sounds.

The result is ending up in a scenario like this frustrated mom:

My 2.5yo son is able to recognize letters. I started doing the sounds but he looks at me like I am silly and he corrects me "A, Mommy, this is A" when I say " A, ah, ah" and he seems frustrated. Any advice?

Here’s another struggling parent who is looking for help:

I'm having trouble teaching my 4 year old daughter phonics. She can recognize some of the alphabet but once I teach her about the sounds of each word, she gets really confused and upset. I have tried to match the sounds to items like "a" is for "apple" but it hasn't worked. Any other methods you could advise me to try?

To completely AVOID frustration with teaching letter sounds, simply START with phonemic awareness activities.

Written words are made up of speech sounds in a row. Your child needs to learn phonics — the code between speech sounds and written symbols — to be able to write and read words.

Phonemic awareness activities make it easier for preschoolers to learn letter sounds and phonics.

Most alphabet activities you’ll find on Pinterest focus on getting your preschooler to memorize letter names and letter sounds out of context and in isolation. The result is that your preschooler might not understand of what the letters actually mean.

When you develop phonemic awareness FIRST, then it’s just a matter of associating the letter symbols with the speech sounds that your child already knows.

Children who struggle to learn to read often struggle with phonemic awareness. Imagine how challenging it would be to learn sound-letter associations if you struggle to hear and identify the speech sounds in spoken words.

Research shows that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of success with reading.

That’s why I recommend skipping letter recognition activities until your preschooler understands that letters represent speech sounds.

I also don't want you to waste time teaching letter names. It’s information that doesn’t help your preschooler sound out words. Knowing letter names can sometimes interfere with learning phonics!

The 2005 National Reading Panel Report agrees that phonemic awareness should come first:

"Without phonemic awareness, phonics is harder to learn. In other words, phonemic awareness is something that should be taught before phonics."

If this is news to you, you're not alone. In fact, there's still a gap between reading instruction in schools and the science of reading. So you're in the right place to set up your preschooler for success with learning to read!

When And How To Help Your Toddler or Preschooler Develop Phonemic Awareness

Most children around 3 years old are developmentally ready to start developing phonemic awareness by drawing attention to the beginning sound of spoken words.

The first step is to draw attention to the beginning sounds of spoken words by playing a new version of the "I SPY" game.

Instead of inviting your preschooler to find something that’s a specific color, you’ll invite him or her to look for something that starts with a specific speech sound.

Play beginning sounds games to develop phonemic awareness before teaching letter sounds.

Help your child learn beginning sounds with language objects or letter sounds picture cards.

You can easily draw attention to the beginning sound of spoken words during everyday conversation, but it’s extra fun with language objects or letter sounds pictures. Having props also provides a bit more structure to this phonemic awareness activity.

For example, you might have a set of Montessori language objects inside a bag and then pull out a few. You’ll name each one as you take it out. Then say: “I see something that starts with the sound /m/…. map! Mmmmap starts with /m/.”

The more you model hearing the beginning sound of spoken words, the more your preschooler will start to understand the game and begin to develop phonemic awareness.

Eventually you can ask your preschooler to point to or say the object that starts with a given sound. 

Over time your preschooler will understand that spoken words are made up of speech sounds in a row, and that letters (and combinations of letters) represent individual speech sounds in written words.

The reason why phonemic awareness activities are sometimes called “sound games” is because phonemic awareness activities don’t involve ANY letter symbols.

If you search for “phonemic awareness activities” on Pinterest, you’ll find a lot of other types of activities that DO involve letter symbols. It can be really confusing! For example, you’ll find activities for “matching letters and initial sounds” or “beginning sounds clip cards”.

Phonemic awareness activities vs sound-letter matching activities.

Phonemic awareness activities should come before associating speech sounds and letter symbols if you want to teach phonics step by step.

Hold off on alphabet activities with letters until it’s clear that your preschooler can come up with a few words beginning with a speech sound that you say. 

Quick Summary: Phonemic Awareness Activities for Preschoolers

Phonemic awareness activities make it easier for your preschooler to learn sound-letter associations. Just a few minutes a day can make a huge difference and really sets up your preschooler for success with learning phonics.

Phonemic awareness activities don’t involve any letter symbols. This means you can do phonemic awareness activities during every day conversations. You can even play these beginning sounds games any time and any where!

Hold off on alphabet activities with letters until your preschooler can identify at least the beginning sound of spoken words. Then it's just a matter of showing that those speech sounds look like and doing fun sound-letter matching activities to reinforce that association.

When you focus on just what your preschooler needs right now, you’ll save a lot of time and energy. Plus you’ll avoid the frustration that comes with introducing concepts before your preschooler is ready for them.

To learn more, watch this FREE CLASS about teaching phonics step by step so that you're prepared to teach your child to read at home.


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