The Big Five: Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Part 2


The Big Five_ Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Part 2


In the first part of this blog, I defined the first of the “Big Five” essentials for reading: Phonological awareness. I also shared my preferred order for teaching each of the skills under the phonological umbrella. 


Phonological Umbrella


Today, I will begin by discussing activities and resources that promote and develop overall phonological awareness and then I’ll shift the focus to activities related to the component skill, phonemic awareness. The final part of this blog trilogy will consider formal and informal assessment of phonological and phonemic awareness. 


As previously mentioned, there is no single correct order to develop phonological awareness skills, and I find myself tweaking my program from time to time. The most important thing is to lay the foundation for phonemic awareness development through rhyme, words, syllables, alliteration, and initial sound work. The previous blog explained the kinds of activities and tasks that develop such skills, and here are six resources I have found effective for that purpose. 


For Younger Students:


1. Phonemic Awareness in Young Children by Marilyn Jager Adams, et al. This is a treasure trove of ideas for listening and rhyming games, developing awareness of the strings of words that comprise language, syllable awareness, initial and final sound work for onset-rime, and finally, phonemes.

2. Getting Ready to Read by Jo Fitzpatrick. This contains numerous games that are easy to create and quick to play. They advance through five levels of difficulty: Rhythm and rhyme, parts of words, sound sequences, separation of sounds, and manipulation of sounds. 

For Younger and Older Students:


1. Great Leaps Reading Grades K-2 by Cecil D. Mercer and Kenneth U. Campbell. This book includes a sound awareness section that I use regularly with my students. These activities can also be used with older students. 

2. Language Growth-Phonological Awareness and Language Activities by Kenneth U. Campbell. This book is intended for Grades 3-8. Recently, I have found it particularly useful for students with deficits in both phonological and phonemic awareness, and language comprehension. Great Leaps also offer a similar book for emergent readers. 

3. HearBuilder. We have been using the HearBuilder program with all our students for almost a year. Since it is only practical for us to take about 10 minutes of a 60 minute session to work on phonological and phonemic awareness skills, this is a useful supplement for them to work on at home. It is in four parts and we start them off on the Phonological Awareness app. The program is available for individuals, tutoring practices, and schools. Through the administrator interface, you can limit the programs available to each student, until they are ready to move on. You can also set the difficulty level or skip the student to a higher level if they are finding the work too easy. We have used this program with older middle school students, but it particularly appeals to children in Grades K-5. 

4. Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick. This is my go-to program for remediating older students. The focus of this program is on manipulation activities. No direct exercises for rhyming and alliteration are given at the earliest levels in this program, but Levels F and G do rely on these skills. The author suggests that additional rhyming and alliteration exercises can be given, and when using this program with younger children it may be important to do so. The program moves from the syllable level to the onset-rime level and finally from basic to advanced phoneme level. 


Phonemic awareness is crucial for reading, and the other skills of phonological awareness are the foundation for phonemic awareness. The development charts of phonological awareness tell us that phonemic awareness starts at the onset-rime level, so this is where I shall begin my discussion. However, for a more in depth study I recommend listening to the free webinar on “Phonemic Awareness” by Lynn Givens, and made available through the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy.


As a student moves from blending, segmenting, and deleting syllables, to working on blending phonemes and segmenting syllables into phonemes, there is an inbetween stage that will help them get there. This is the onset and rime stage. However, even before embarking on this, it is important for a student to have been exposed to activities that involve alliteration and initial sound awareness, which I discussed in part 1 of this blog. Once they are comfortable with such exercises they can graduate to working with onsets and rimes. David Kilpatrick, in his curriculum “Equipped for Reading Success,” devotes a whole level to this stage, so it is very important that a student master this before working explicitly with phonemes. I shall repeat the definition of onset and rime which was previously given in part 1. 


Onset: The onset in a syllable is any consonant sounds that come before the vowel. In “cat,” the onset would be ‘c’ making a /k/ sound. 

Rime: The rime in a syllable includes the vowel and any consonants that follow it. In “cat,” the rime would be /at/. 


In her book “Beginning to Read,” Marilyn Jager Adams explains in detail why this should be covered before working exclusively with phonemes. She says, “The theory is that the onset and rime of a syllable are separate but internally coherent psychological units. While it is relatively easy to break the onset away from the rime, it is relatively difficult to break either the onset or the rime into its phonemic components.” 


From this foundation we can move through the following stages in phonemic awareness. The resources mentioned above can be used to practice these skills.


Stage 1: Identification of phonemes:


Before starting with identification activities, students can count phonemes and then they can select two words from a choice of three with the same beginning, final, or middle sound. 


Phoneme matching exercises may be helpful here; such as manipulating colored cubes and using the same colors to indicate the matching phonemes in words being compared and different colored cubes where the phonemes differ. 


Next they can be asked to tell the teacher which word, from a choice of three, has a different beginning, end, or middle sound. Then students might be asked to tell the teacher where they hear a certain phoneme or sound in terms of its position in a word, which could be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. For example, “Where do you hear /t/ in cat?” 


The next stage is indicating which phoneme is at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of word. For example, “What sound do you hear at the end of cat?” 


When identifying sounds in different positions, the initial position is the easiest to identify, followed by the final, with the medial being the most difficult. This can be done in a very multisensory manner using counters or cubes.


Stage 2: Blending of phonemes


Sound synthesis or sound blending is one of the easiest phoneme awareness tasks for children to perform (Yopp, 1988.) Syllables can be blended, and blending an initial sound onto the remainder of a word can be done at the onset-rime stage, before blending isolated phonemes to form a word. Blending /f/, /a/, and /t/ to make “fat”, for example. Some children may find this easier than identifying phonemes within a word, so be prepared to switch these activities.


Stage 3: Segmentation of phonemes


When we segment, we isolate the sounds in spoken words by pronouncing them separately in order.  Yopp also stated that segmenting the sounds in words is one of the more difficult simple phonemic tasks for children to perform. Use manipulatives such as counters or cubes to help children break words into the phonemes. 


Phoneme differentiation with cubes


For example, the teacher demonstrates by pronouncing the whole word such as ‘pat’, and then puts a cube in front of the child as they say each phoneme.  The child then repeats the whole word and taps each cube as they vocalize the phonemes. Complete the process by having them sweep their hand across the cubes and say the whole word one more time. 


Once the child masters the process, you can speed things up by saying a word and having them pull down each cube as they vocalize the phonenes, before sweeping and speaking the whole word. 


The next activities deal with manipulation of phonemes. Dr. David Kilpatrick’s book, Equipped for Reading Success, includes tables of 1-minute phoneme manipulation exercises increasing in difficulty from  basic to advanced. These utilize all the skills developed above.


As children become more automatic, you can dispense with the counters, but be ready to use them again if they experience difficulties as you move them through stages 4-7 below. 


David Kilpatrick has some excellent ideas in Chapter 8 of his book to help children overcome any hurdles they might experience. 


NOTE that it isn’t enough that children simply complete all these activities, they must practice until they are automatic and unconscious. 


Stage 4: Deletion of phonemes


For example, “Say ‘sit.’ Now say it again without the /s/.” The child should be able to immediately say, ”it.”


Though it may not be obvious to experienced readers, deletion of phonemes within blends is significantly harder. For example, “Say ‘blend.’ Now say it again without the /l/.”


Be ready to bring back the counters or cubes when children find these activities problematic.


Stage 5: Addition of phonemes


For example, “Say ‘at.’  Now say it again, but add /b/ to the beginning.” The child should say, “bat.”


Stage 6: Substitution of phonemes


For example, “Say ‘fat.’ Now change the /f/ to /k/.” The child should say “cat.”


Stage 7: Reversal of phonemes


Finally, David Kilpatrick includes an optional advanced level that covers reversal activities. 


For example, “Say ‘mop.’ Now say ‘mop’ backwards.” The child should say “pom.” 


It bears repeating: Phonemic awareness is crucial to reading, and the other skills of phonological awareness are the foundation for phonemic awareness.


David Kilpatrick tells us that unless students master the skills at the phoneme level, you will not see the desired effect on reading. He goes on to say:


 “I have evaluated hundreds of students who have good syllable and onset-rime skills yet were weak readers because they had not mastered phoneme-level skills. To be a fluent reader, a student must be thoroughly competent at the phoneme level. More precisely, one must display phonemic proficiency, which is best demonstrated via instant responses to advanced phoneme activities of phoneme deletion and/or substitution. 

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I’ll finish with a quote from Marilyn Jager Adams’ book, “Beginning to Read:” 


The evidence is compelling: Toward the goal of efficient and effective reading instruction, explicit training of phonemic awareness is invaluable.




1. David A.Kilpatrick, Ph.D. Equipped for Reading Success

2. Marilyn Jager Adams Beginning to Read

3. Edwin S Ellis, How Now Brown Cow: Phonemic Awareness Activities

4. Marica K. Henry Unlocking Literacy 




Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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