8 ways to build phonological awareness in grade-schoolers

At a glance

  • Phonological awareness is a key skill for beginning readers.

  • Phonological awareness isn’t taught in all classrooms. This is especially true for older grades.

  • Parents and caregivers can advocate for phonological awareness support at school and practice these skills at home.

Phonological awareness skills — including phonemic awareness — play a big role in learning to read. Grade-schoolers with reading issues often have weakness in this area. Trouble hearing the different sounds in words (phonemes) makes it hard for kids to words and make sense of letters when they read.

If your child seems to be having trouble with phonological awareness, there are many ways you can help. Here are eight ideas to get you started.

1. Ask and advocate.

Phonological awareness isn’t taught in all classrooms. This is especially true for older grades. So if your child has difficulty doing things like rhyming, noticing words that start with the same sound, or blending sounds together to make words, talk to the classroom teacher.

Find out if phonological or phonemic awareness skills are taught in your child’s class. If they are not, ask if extra support is available. It’s also a good idea to ask that your child’s phonological awareness skills be tested. This will help you know exactly what to practice at home.

2. Make it routine.

Once you know what specific skills your child needs to work on, you can practice them during everyday activities. For instance, on a car ride or neighborhood walk, try a twist on the game, “I spy with my little eye.”

Take turns pointing out things you see, but break the mystery words into individual sounds (phonemes). Use this game to help your child practice putting sounds together (blending) and taking words apart (segmenting.)

For blending, you can say, “I see a h-aw-k.” Then your child has to blend the sounds to guess your word — hawk. (Remember: Say only the sounds in the word — not the letters.) Keep the words short, moving from two to three to four phonemes depending on your child’s skill level.

You can switch roles and use the game to help your child practice segmenting. Have your child choose a mystery word and break it into individual phonemes for you to guess. For example, a child who picks the word bike would say, “I see a b-i-k.” You would then blend the separate sounds together to guess the word.

Keep in mind that segmenting will be more difficult than blending, so encourage your child to choose short words of only three to four phonemes. If this activity seems too hard or frustrating, let it go. It’s important to keep things fun. You want your child to stay motivated to keep practicing with you.

3. Tap into your child’s senses.

Use objects your child can see and touch to stand for sounds in words. For instance, line up three blocks of different colors — red, yellow, blue. As you say the individual sounds in a word, point to one of the blocks.

For example, to sound out the word back, point to the red block and say b. Then point to the yellow block for the middle sound, a, and to the blue block for the last sound, k. Then have your child slide a finger across the blocks while blending the sounds together: b-a-k. (You can also do this by moving beads along a string.)

To make the activity more challenging, have your child take away a block and tell you what parts of the word are left. (This is known as manipulation.)

4. Get moving.

Movement can really drive home learning, and phoneme sports is a great approach. In phoneme baseball, give your “batter” a word with two to four phonemes (like upcat or last). When a player separates a word into its individual sounds, it’s time to take a base.

Does your child enjoy playing basketball? Then head to the nearest hoop and play a version of “horse.” This works best with four-phoneme words like p-o-n-y. Each basket earns one sound in the word. The first player to collect all four phonemes wins.

5. Adapt your board games.

Take a board game that uses dice and replace them with picture cards. To move around the board, each player has to look at a picture — of a dog, for instance — and break that word apart into d-o-g. For words with three sounds, the player moves three spaces; four sounds, four spaces; and so on.

6. Go online.

You can find tons of info on phonemic awareness activities online. Check out ideas from Understood founding partner Reading Rockets and on Pinterest. For a fresh supply of practice words, search for the term CVC word list. CVC stands for consonant, vowel, consonant — these are short words like batpit, and pop that are great for helping kids work on blending and segmenting.

7. Connect the skills.

Look for ways to connect phonemic awareness activities to the work your child is doing in school. At home, your child’s vocabulary or spelling lists can serve as helpful practice material. Ask your child to name the phonemes from the beginning, middle, and end of each word. You can also encourage vocabulary practice by giving your child about the first and last sounds in each word.

8. Check out some apps.

There are many apps and websites with games that focus on sound awareness. PBS Kids has online games that target phonemic and phonics skills. HearBuilder Phonological Awareness is an app that helps kids focus on skills including rhyming, phoneme blending, and segmentation.

As you try out these activities, remember to use words at the right reading level. Your child’s teacher can help with this. Make sure your child is having fun with the activity. And keep it short, with an emphasis on making your child feel successful.

Key takeaways

  • To become fluent readers, grade-schoolers need to be able to recognize and work with the sounds in words.

  • It is helpful to involve the senses in skillbuilding activities.

  • Families can include phonological awareness activities in everyday routines.


Explore related topics

Read next