To support reading at home, turn up the sound

I don’t know about your childhood TV viewing preferences, but for me, there was no greater pleasure than my local PBS lineup: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Reading Rainbow, Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting, and my all-time favorite, Sesame Street. Remember this rhyming game with those lovable monsters? You may have played it with your family at dinner or with your friends on the playground. As an adult, you might have played a similar game with your own child. What you may think of as a fun or even silly game with a preschooler is actually an important foundation of learning to read: listening to and making sense of the sounds of spoken words.

Reading is a complex process and, perhaps surprisingly, much of the process takes place outside of the written page and in the world of sound. In this post, we dig into how activities using sounds can help your child be a better reader. (If you’re an educator who is eager to support families reading at home, please share this post with them!)

What is phonemic awareness and why is it important for reading?

I’m about to use some technical literacy language, so bear with me. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. So, in the word “sun,” there are three sounds or phonemes: /s/ /u/ /n/.  The word “night” also has three phonemes, even though it has five letters, because the /igh/ makes one sound. So, it’s /n/ /igh/ /t/.

Phonemes are about the sounds in words, not about the written letters. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, recognize, and manipulate or change the sounds (phonemes) in a word. Why is phonemic awareness important for reading? As my colleague Cindy Jiban wrote in a recent post directed at teachers, “our word brains love sounds.”

[R]eading research shows that a key building block in a student’s reading success is their phonemic awareness.

Before children ever begin learning to read written words, they are paying attention to and using spoken language. Learning the individual sounds in spoken words is important so that our brains can later connect those sounds to letters, letter patterns, and then whole words when we begin learning to read written words.

You might remember this triangle graphic from the first two blogs in this family series on reading. It’s a way to visualize what it takes to be a good reader. The top piece of the triangle, reading comprehension, is the key goal of the reading process. The two skills needed to reach this goal, and that make up the bottom two pieces of the triangle, are language comprehension and decoding. We talked about language comprehension in the previous post in this series. Phonemic awareness is essential for learning how to decode or turning sets of letters on the page into the sounds they represent.

The simple view of reading

While phonemic awareness might seem obvious to us as adult readers, it isn’t something that develops automatically in children. It’s a skill that requires special instruction from teachers—and families.

How do children show they have phonemic awareness?

Children can show their phonemic awareness through several activities. As an adult reader, the key thing for you to remember is that when you’re working on phonemic awareness, your child should be listening to and pronouncing phonemes based on what they hear, not based on the letters they see on a page (we’ll get to written letters in a future post).

Try out the activities below with your child. I adapted them from Reading Rockets and our reading assessment, MAP® Reading Fluency™. Feel free to replace the provided examples with different or more challenging words. Doing these activities together will give you a good sense of where your child is and where you might start in working on phonemic awareness at home.

  • Recognize which words in a set of words begin with the same sound. Say something like this: “Listen to me say the words ‘sit,’ ‘sun,’ and ‘soft.’ Now you say them. What sound do they all share at the beginning?” (Answer: /s/)
  • Isolate and say the first or last sound in a word. Try something like, “Say the word ‘dog.’ What is the beginning sound of ‘dog’?” (Answer: /d/) Then try, “Say the word ‘book.’ What is the ending sound of ‘book’?” (Answer: /k/)
  • Combine or blend separate sounds in a word to say the word. Try this: “Say the sounds /s/ /u/ /n/. What word do they make when you combine them?” (Answer: “sun”) “Now say the sounds: /n/ /igh/ /t/. What word do they make when you combine them?” (Answer: “night”)
  • Break or segment a word into its separate sounds. Say something like, “Listen to the word ‘cat.’ What sounds are in the word ‘cat’?” (Answer: /c/ /a/ /t/)
  • Substitute sounds in a word. Revisit some of the words you’ve explored together already, and try something like this: “Say the word ‘night.’ Instead of the /n/ sound, say an /l/ sound. What word is it?” (Answer: “light”) “Now say the word ‘lit.’ Instead of the /i/ sound say an /o/ sound. What word is it?” (Answer: “lot”) “Last one! Say the word ‘sun.’ Instead of the sound /n/, say the sound /b/. What word is it?” (Answer: “sub”) This is a harder skill, so it’s okay to be working toward this goal.

How can I help my child who is learning to read?

If your child is learning to read in grades pre-K through 3, there are things you can do at home to support their development of phonemic awareness. Two websites, Reading Rockets and the Regional Educational Laboratory at Florida State University, have a lot of good information about phonemic awareness and activities you can do at home, all supported by research. Reading Rockets has phonemic awareness tips for kids, parents, and teachers. The Regional Educational Laboratory has videos of families and students practicing some of the activities. Just click on your student’s grade level and “Recommendation 2: Linking Sounds to Letters.”

While phonemic awareness might seem obvious to us as adult readers, it isn’t something that develops automatically in children. It’s a skill that requires special instruction from teachers—and families.

If your child is in grade 4 or above, a different approach might be better. There are several reasons why an older kid may have trouble with reading. Some have difficulty hearing the individual sounds in a word, so a good place to start is seeing where they are with phonemic awareness, using the activities listed earlier in this post.

To make the activities more meaningful and relevant for an older kid, you might focus on words from their favorite songs. Remember, with phonemic awareness, the focus is on recognizing sounds within words, and song lyrics provide a perfect opportunity to examine sounds the singers and rappers use.

If you discover that your child is really struggling with phonemic awareness, reach out to their teacher and school for a more in-depth assessment of your child’s reading skills.

A solid foundation

There is a reason Sesame Street has remained a beloved TV hit for more than 50 years—and it’s not just those adorable Muppets. The show has a solid foundation in educational research.

Likewise, reading research shows that a key building block in a student’s reading success is their phonemic awareness. There are lots of (fun!) phonemic awareness activities you and your child can do at home, in the car, while making dinner, or at other times to help strengthen your child’s reading foundation.

In our next post, we zero in on written language and take a closer look at phonics, or teaching students to match sounds to printed letters on the page (or screen). If you haven’t already, please check out our first two blogs in this series: “What families need to know to support their child’s reading” and “All about language comprehension: What it is and how it can help your child read.”

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