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  • Teresa Newmark, MA, CCC-SLP

From Spoken Language to Literacy (Part II of II)

Hi readers. Welcome back to the wonderful world of phonological awareness. Before I pick up where I left off in my last post, I’d like to revisit the definition of “phonological awareness” and convince you that you should keep reading this rather lengthy post because phonological awareness is super important.

Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of the sound structure of spoken words. This awareness enables an individual to identify and manipulate sounds, syllables, and words. In the last post, we focused on the larger units associated with phonological awareness: words and syllables. In this post, we will begin to divide words into individual sounds (aka phonemes), which are the smallest units of language.

And why should you spend your valuable time reading this post? (And why am I spending my valuable time writing this post?) Simple. Good phonological awareness is one of the best predictors of success in the area of literacy. So, whether you are a teacher, a parent, a speech therapist, or just an interested citizen looking for a little knowledge, I promise you that this is an interesting and important topic.

So, without further ado, I give you the final steps to mastering phonological awareness.

Step 3: Awareness of Onset and Rime

In the previous post, we talked about awareness of words and syllables. The next step on the road to phonological awareness is breaking syllables into sounds, and this is first introduced with onsets and rimes. Many syllables consist of an onset and a rime (and yes, I am spelling “rime” correctly). The onset is the initial consonant or consonants, and the rime is the vowel plus any consonant sounds that come after it. In mat, /m/ is the onset, and “at” is the rime. Onset and rime awareness are typically mastered between five and six years of age. Awareness of onset and rime helps children learn about word families and word patterns.

Encouraging Awareness of Onsets and Rimes

  • Play “Odd Man Out”: recite a list of words ending in the same rime but include one that does not fit the pattern

  • Play “Find the Pair”: recite a list containing two words that share the same rime

  • Use alphabet refrigerator magnets or bathtub foam letters to create a rime like “at”. Take turns adding an onset to the rime to create different words. Add a “c” for cat, “m” for mat, etc…

  • Underline a shared rime in one color

  • Highlight onsets and rimes by reading books with rhyme, assonance (vowel sound repetition), and alliteration. A few good examples include Tog the Dog by Jacqui Hawkins, and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket by Dr. Seuss

  • And finally, ask your child’s kindergarten teacher what he or she suggests. Many kindergarten teachers are masters of onset-rime awareness.

Step 4: Sound Isolation

Sound isolation builds on knowledge of onset and rime. It involves identifying the beginning, middle, and ending sounds in words. Remember, we are talking about sounds here, NOT letters. So if I were to ask you the first sound in chair, you would say /ch/. The ability to isolate sounds is typically mastered by age six.

Encouraging the Ability to Isolate Sounds in a Word

  • Help children understand the concept of individual speech sounds by associating one sound with one thing. For instance, the sound /s/ can be associated with a snake, the sound /sh/ can be associated with the hand gesture for being quiet. Some professionals call these “sound personalities”.

  • Use books with alliteration (see original post) in order to emphasize a certain sound.

  • Ask questions: “What is the beginning sound in chair?” “What is the ending sound in mitten? “What sound do you hear in the middle of cat?”

Step 5: Phoneme Blending

First of all, what is a phoneme again? A phoneme is the smallest unit of language. It is essentially a single sound. The sound /s/ is a phoneme. The sounds /t/ and /sh/ are phonemes. Phoneme blending is, in some ways, the exact opposite of sound isolation. Instead of isolating words into sounds, here we are taking the individual spoken sounds of words and then blending them together to form a word. At this point, you can start to see even more clearly how good phonological awareness is going to lead to improved literacy. Children typically begin by blending initial sounds to the remainder of a word (an onset to a rime). This is followed by blending syllables of a word together and then blending isolated phonemes into a word. Phoneme blending is typically mastered by age six.

Encouraging the Ability to Blend Phonemes

  • Model blending an initial sound onto a word by using the jingle, “It starts with /n/ and it ends with ight, put it together, and it says night.” When they have the idea, children can supply the final word themselves.

  • Use a child’s name in this same activity: “It starts with /m/ and it ends with addy, put it together, and it says, Maddy.”

  • To make the game a little bit easier, limit the words to a certain context, such as objects in the room or words in a song.

  • When your child becomes more proficient, turn the table and ask them to pick a word and supply the jingle so that you can guess.

  • Once initial sound blending is mastered, try syllable blending. Present the syllables of a word slowly with a pause in between the syllables (e.g. bum — ble – bee). Have your child guess what word you are saying. One way to do this is by playing the game “What’s in the bag?” in which you present the name of the object in the bag syllable-by-syllable and ask your child to guess the word of the object in the bag. Your child will know if he or she is right when you take the object out of the bag.

  • Another idea is to invent a character that has a funny way of talking. For instance, you may have a puppet named Barry who speaks in long separate syllables. Play a game where the child can guess what word Barry is saying.

  • Once syllable blending is mastered, try phoneme blending. Phoneme blending can also be practiced using the guessing games described above with the bag and the puppet.

Step 6: Phoneme Segmentation

This skill builds on the skill of sound isolation. Here children themselves can identify each individual sound (phoneme) heard in a word. Another element of phoneme segmentation is the ability to count the sounds in a word (in the same way that we counted syllables earlier on). Predictably, simpler syllables without consonant clusters (m-a-t) are segmented before those with clusters (m-a-s-t). Phoneme segmentation is typically mastered between the ages of six and seven.

Encouraging the Ability to Segment Phonemes

  • Ask your child to say the individual sounds in a word: “What sounds do you hear in the word “mast”? The child would answer “/m/ /a/ /s/ /t/.”

  • Ask your child to count the sounds in a word.

  • Use manipulatives, such as blocks. Encourage your child to move one block forward for each sound recited.

  • Have your child tap or clap out the sounds in a word.

Step 7: Phoneme manipulation

Once children are able to segment words into phonemes, it is time to work on the skill of phoneme manipulation, which includes phoneme substitution (e.g. when you change the /m/ in mat to a /p/, you get pat) and sound deletion (“Say mat. Then say it again without the /m/). Again, we are working here with sounds, not letters. When a sound is presented for substitution or deletion, the sound itself is always said, not the letter. Learning to manipulate sounds is a long process that can extend all the way to the age of nine. By seven, children have typically mastered phoneme substitution and deletion of initial and final sounds. By eight, children can typically delete sounds within consonant clusters, or blends, in the initial position (e.g., “say trap. Now say trap without the /t/”). By nine, they can typically delete blends in the medial or final positions.

Encouraging the Ability to Manipulate Phonemes

  • Ask your child to substitute phonemes as in the example above (e.g. “Change the /m/ in mail to /n/ and what do you have? Nail.” Then, “Change the /o/ in phone to /uh/ and what do you have? Fun.”) See?

  • Have your child delete phonemes (e.g. “Say seat. Say it again, without the /s/.” “Say save. Say it again, without the /v/.”)

  • Once children are able to delete sounds at the beginning and end of words (ie. the initial and final position), they will start being able to delete sounds in blends. Ask them questions as above: “What is snake without the /s/?)

  • Finally, children will be able to delete blends in the middle or at the end of words (e.g. “Say spoon. Say it again without the /p/”. “Say sink. Say it again without the /k/”.

  • Encourage your child to make up secret code languages that involve sound manipulation. A perfect example of this would be Pig Latin, where the rule is to move the first sound in a word to the end of the word and then add the sound “ay” (e.g. big becomes “igbay”).

And what better way to end a post than with Pig Latin. Congratulations, you now have the understanding and knowledge to better help your little reader-in-training succeed. When we started, your child was not even talking, and yet the groundwork was being set for later literacy. And now look at your child—reading, writing, and talking in secret code.

In my next blog, I am going to switch gears to answer this question that a number of folks have asked me recently: When my child mispronounces a word, when and how should I correct him or her? Stay tuned for a succinct answer and brief explanation.

Thanks for reading!



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