Phonics and Phonemic Awareness

May 27, 2018

Contributed by Julie Strahan, MA, elementary school music teacher

Phonics and phonemic awareness are related and both are important building blocks for emerging readers – but how do they work? And what can you do to help develop these skills?


The Basics

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of sounds. For example, cat is composed of three sounds: /k/, /a/, /t/. With practice, children learn to assemble phonemes into words and to break words into phonemes.


Phonics is connecting sounds to the letters of the alphabet. Parents, teachers, and librarians can help teach these basic components using songs, instruments, singing games, fingerplays, poems, and stories filled with rhyme.



Breaking it Down

To practice Phonemic Awareness (PA), take a listening walk or a listening rest. Have children listen to all of the sounds around them and note the subtle differences between a fan and a light buzz, a car or a truck. The better they can differentiate sounds, the better they will make distinctions between similar letter sounds.


Make a list of what you heard. A group of kids can hear so many more sounds than you might expect! Then, take a letter sound, like M, and have a “scavenger hunt” looking for items that start with the same sound – microwave, milk, mailbox, Millie the dog, etc. In this phonemic awareness phase, children begin connecting like sounds but don’t actually name the letter used quite yet.


Isolating the end sounds of words is how you create rhymes – think of words that “end the same” as the word “hat”, or another common short word. Encourage young children to come up with a list of words that sound the same – many books and songs by Raffi give predictive rhymes that kids love to be able to guess what will come next based on the sounds!


Cantata Learning books ALWAYS use rhythm, rhyme, and repetition to support emerging reading skills!


Using Music!

The traditional song “Apples and Bananas” can be used at several stages of language development, but in PA, it can be the way to hear the different vowel sounds when inserted into the middle of a word. If you substitute /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ in the place of the vowel sounds, it creates greater awareness of that middle space.


Phonemes can be easier to identify by repeatedly singing songs like “Frog in the Meadow”, and “Che Che Kooley” (the Ghanaian version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”). Preschoolers love singing about animals and their sounds. Children not yet able to write are able to speak a string of animal sounds, or nonsense sounds, correctly. This, again, helps children understand small parts of words and sounds.


Final Thoughts

Developing phonics is the next step in the reading process. This directly connects the sounds of letter to the physical letter shape. Alphabet books and refrigerator magnets, as well as the ABC song are great reinforcements of the letters. There are many songs and books that connect the letter and the sound, including this one from the Learning Station.


The Alphabet Song from Cantata Learning – part of the Sing-along Songs set


For home practice, help children learn the names of letters. Play the “alphabet game” when on errands or in the car. Have the little ones point out the letter O or E, for example, on signs or license plates as you drive. Once the kids do this well, point out letters in the order of the alphabet!


There is no wrong way to teach children about words and sounds and patterns! Read to them often and provide many opportunities to sing, write, rhyme, and experience WORDS!


I will continue to explore the building blocks of reading in the months to come. If you are interested in my research and sources, please visit my site here.


About the author: Julie Strahan is a mother to 3 young adult children. She and her husband, Frank, live in Minneapolis, MN with their yellow lab, Scout. She now teaches K-5 music in a public school.