The Elusive Phoneme

By Marilyn Jager Adams, Barbara R. Foorman, Ingvar Lundberg, Terri Beeler

"Whether performed silently or aloud," Marilyn Adams recently wrote, "reading an alphabetic script with fluency and reflective comprehension incontrovertibly depends on...remarkably rich and over­ learned knowledge of the language's spellings and spelling-speech mappings....[But] despite myriad proposals to make it easier, alphabetic instruction has been dogged by one problem: Many students find it extremely difficult to induce the words from the code, no matter how they are drilled on the individual letters and sounds."

However, she continued, research has now delivered on this fundamental problem: "Research has finally yielded an answer to the question of why learning to use the alphabetic principle is difficult for so many The impasse lies in the perceptual and conceptual elusiveness of the phonemes."

What is this elusive element, the phoneme? Why has the lack of phonemic awareness blocked the doorway to reading for large numbers of children? And how might we remedy this situation?

We now have good answers to these questions, and we are extremely pleased to be able to share with our readers the following commentary and sample lessons from a new book, Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum. This curriculum is an example of what we desperately  need more of research-based theory translated into field­ tested materials that teachers can confidently and successfully use in the classroom.

Walking through the fifty-one suggested lessons in this curriculum, as I have, gives one a window into how children can be brought, step by step, to under­ stand the architecture of their language, and how such understanding prepares them for the most critical academic undertaking of their lives: the mastery of reading and writing. Indeed, one finishes these exercises with a tremendous feeling of optimism, a sense that every child who is successfully led through themno matter the spareness of that child's home environmentwill glide ever so more easily into mastery of the alphabetic code and the door to literacy that it wedges open.

Phonemic Awareness in Young Children is divided into seven sets of multiple lessons (plus appendices filled with numerous additional activities and sup­port materials):

  • Listening Games: To sharpen children's ability to attend selectively to sounds;
  • Rhyming: To use rhyme to introduce the children to the sounds of words;
  • Words and Sentences: To develop children's awareness that language is made up of strings of words;
  • Awareness of Syllables: To develop the ability to analyze words into separate syllables and to synthesize words from a string of separate syllables;
  • Initial and Final Sounds: To show the children that words contain phonemes and to introduce them to how phonemes sound and feel when spoken in isolation;
  • Phonemes: To develop the ability to analyze words into a sequence of separate phonemes and to synthesize words from a sequence of separate phonemes;
  • Introducing Letters and Spellings: To introduce the relation of letters to speech sounds.

To give you a flavor of how this curriculum  can help  children  grasp  the  sound-based  building blocks of their language, we have chosen two lessons from the very first set of activities (Chapter 3), in which children are introduced to the art of listening actively, attentively, and analytically; one lesson from the chapter that teaches children that words are made of strings of smaller units of speech-syllables; three lessons from "Initial and Final Sounds," which introduces the children to the nature and  existence of phonemes; and two lessons from the chapter entitled "Phonemes," which builds on the previous work.

Keep in mind that these activities focus on the structure of spoken language and are preliminary to phonics, instruction. Their purpose is to lay the groundwork, prepare the soil, get children ready for instruction in phonics and spelling. Indeed, as the authors note, "Educators...have found that attending to children's phonemic awareness removes phonics from the realm of drill and skill and makes it learn­ able and interesting to their students."

The activities in this curriculum were originally developed for use with kindergarten children, but the pace and complexity can be adjusted for use in first grade and special education. The authors recommend that fifteen to twenty minutes per day be de­ voted to phonemic awareness activities. Of course, as with all instruction, some students may need more intensive support than others.

Phonemic awareness is not a magic bullet. We know there is no single magic bullet for mastering the complex task of reading. But—while  research must continue to refine our knowledge and practice in all aspects of phonological processing—there is now widespread consensus that we have zeroed  in on an important piece of the puzzle. On behalf of all the children for whom the lack of phonemic aware­ ness has been such a stumbling block in learning to read, we must act.

– Editor

The Nature and Importance of Phonemic Awareness

Before children can make any sense of the alphabetic principle, they must understand that those sounds that are paired with the letters are one and the same as the sounds of speech. For those of us who al­ready know how to read and write, this realization seems very basic, almost transparent. Nevertheless, research shows that the very notion that spoken language is made up of sequences of these little sounds does not come naturally or easily to human beings.

The small units of speech that correspond to letters of an alphabetic writing system are called phonemes. Thus, the awareness that language is composed of these small sounds is termed phonemic awareness. Research indicates that, without direct instructional support, phonemic awareness eludes roughly 25 per­ cent of middle-class first graders and substantially more of those who come from less literacy-rich back­ grounds. Furthermore, these children evidence serious difficulty in learning to read and write (see Adams, 1990, for a review).

Why is awareness of phonemes so difficult? The problem, in large measure, is that people do not attend to the sounds of phonemes as they produce or listen to speech. Instead, they process the phonemes automatically, directing their active attention to the meaning and force of the utterance as a whole. The challenge, therefore, is to find ways to get children to no­ tice the phonemes, to discover their existence and separability. Fortunately, many of the activities involving rhyme, rhythm, listening, and sounds that have long been enjoyed with preschool-age children are ideally suited for this purpose. In fact, with this goal in mind, all such activities can be used more effectively toward helping children to develop phonemic awareness.

The purpose of this book is to provide concrete activities that stimulate the development of phonemic awareness in the preschool or elementary classroom. It is based on a program originally developed and validated by Lundberg, Frost, and Petersen (1988) in Sweden and Denmark. After translating and adapting it for U.S. classrooms, we field tested it with kindergarten students and teachers in two schools receiving Title I funds. We, too, found that kindergartners developed the ability to analyze words into sounds significantly more quickly than kindergartners who did not have this program (Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, & Fletcher, 1997; Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1997). This ability to analyze words into sounds is exactly the skill that promotes successful reading in first grade (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte 1994).

What Research Says about Phonemic Awareness

Although a number of different types of linguistic awareness are, in one way or another, presupposed in the dialogues and activities of beginning reading instruction, preschool-age children's awareness of phonemes—of the speech sounds that correspond roughly to individual letters—has been shown to hold singular predictive power, statistically accounting for as much as 50 percent of the variance in their reading proficiency at the end of first grade (Blachman, 1991; Juel, 1991; Stanovich, 1986; Wagner et al., 1994). Furthermore, faced with an alphabetic script, a child's level of phonemic awareness on entering school is widely held to be the strongest single determinant of the success that she or he will experience in learning to read—or, conversely, the likelihood that she or he will fail (Adams, 1990; Stanovich, 1986).

Measures of preschool-age children's level of phone­mic awareness strongly predict their future success in learning to read; this has been demonstrated not only among English students but also among Swedish (Lundberg, Olofsson, & Wall, 1980); Norwegian (Høien, Lundberg, Stanovich, & Bjaalid, 1995); Spanish (deManrique & Gramigna, 1984); French (Alegria, Pignot, & Morais, 1982); Italian (Cossu, Shankweiler, Liberman, Tola, & Katz, 1988); Portuguese (Cardoso-Martins, 1995); and Russian students (Elkonin, 1973). Measures of schoolchildren's ability to attend to and manipulate phonemes strongly correlate with their reading success through the twelfth grade (Calfee, Lindamood, & Lindamood, 1973). Poorly developed phonemic aware­ ness distinguishes economically disadvantaged preschoolers from their more advantaged peers (Wallach, Wallach, Dozier, & Kaplan, 1977) and has been shown to be characteristic of adults with literacy problem in the United States (Liberman, Rubin, Duques, & Carlisle, 1985); Portugal (Morais, Cary,Alegria, & Bertelson, 1979); England (Marcel, 1980); and Australia (Byrne & Ledez, 1983). Indeed, among readers of alphabetic languages, those who are successful invariably have phonemic awareness, whereas those who lack phonemic awareness are invariably struggling (Foorman, Francis, Beeler, et al., 1997; Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Winikates, & Mehta, 1997; Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, et al., 1997; Stanovich, 1986; Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985).

Knowing that so many children lack phonemic awareness and that phonemic awareness is critical to learning to read and write an alphabetic script, we begin to see the importance of making a place for its instruction. In fact, research clearly shows that phone­ mic awareness can be developed through instruction, and, furthermore, that doing so significantly accelerates children's subsequent reading and writing achievement (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Blachman, Ball, Black, &Tangel, 1994; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991, 1993, 1995; Castle, Riach, & Nicholson, 1994; Cunningham, 1990; Lundberg et al., 1988; Wallach &Wallach, 1979; Williams, 1980).

About the Structure of Language

In order to build phonemic awareness in all children, classroom teachers should know a little about the structure of language, especially phonology. Phonology is the study of the unconscious rules governing speech-sound production. In contrast, phonetics is the study of the way in which speech sounds are articulated, and phonics is the system by which symbols represent sounds in an alphabetic writing sys­tem.

Phonological rules constrain speech-sound production for biological and environmental reasons. Biological constraints are due to the limitations of human articulatory-motor production. For example, humans are not able to produce the high-frequency vocalizations of whales. Other constraints on our ability to produce speech have to do with the way our brains classify and perceive the minimal units of sound that make a difference to meaning-the units we call phonemes.

The differences between the sounds of two phonemes are often very subtle: Compare /b/ with /p/. Yet, these subtle differences in sound can signal dramatic differences in meaning: Compare bat with pat. Fortunately, because phonemes are the basic building blocks of spoken language, babies become attuned to the phonemes of their native language in the first few months of life. However, this sensitivity to the sounds of the phonemes and the differences between them is not conscious. It is deeply embedded in the subattentional machinery of the language system.

Phonemes are also the units of speech that are represented by the letters of an alphabetic language. Thus, developing readers must learn to separate these sounds, one from another, and to categorize them in a way that permits understanding of how words are spelled. It is this sort of explicit, reflective knowledge that falls under the rubric of phonemic awareness. Conscious awareness of phonemes is distinct from the built-in sensitivity that supports speech production and reception. Unfortunately, phonemic awareness is not easy to establish.

Part of the difficulty in acquiring phonemic awareness is that, from word to word and speaker to speaker, the sound of any given phoneme can vary considerably. These sorts of variations in spoken form that do not indicate a difference in meaning are referred to as allophones of a phoneme. For example, in the northern part of the United States, the pronunciation of grease typically rhymes with peace, whereas in parts of the south, it rhymes with sneeze. Similarly, the pronunciations of the vowels vary greatly across regions, dialects, and individuals. Alternatively, variations in spoken form sometimes eliminate phonetic distinctions between phonemes. Thus, for some people, the words pin and pen are pronounced differently with distinct medial sounds corresponding to their distinct vowels. For other people, however, these words are phonetically indistinguishable, leaving context as the only clue to meaning. Indeed, because of variations in the language, even linguists find it difficult to say exactly how many phonemes there are in English; answers vary from forty­ four to fifty-two.

It is also important to note that phonemes are not spoken as separate units. Rather, they are co-articulated; that is, when we speak, we fuse the phonemes together into a syllabic unit. For example, when we say bark aloud, we do not produce four distinct phonemes: /b/, /a/, /r/, /k/. Instead, our pronunciation of the initial consonant is influenced by the medial vowel, and the medial vowel is influenced by the consonants before and after it. Thus, we talk about r-controlled vowels like the "ar" in bark. Similarly, we speak of nasalized vowels before nasal consonants, such as in the words and, went, and gym. Because these vowels are assimilated into the following consonant in speech, most children have special difficulty representing them as distinct phonemes in reading and spelling, such that, for example, went might be read or spelled as W-E-T.

Consonants as well as vowels are affected by co-articulation. Consider /t/ and /d/. Say the words write and ride. The /t/ and /d/ sound distinct in these two words. However, now say writer and rider. Now the medial /t/ and /d/ phonemes are reduced to a common phoneme (called a tongue flap). Not surprisingly, children are likely to spell writer as R+D-R. Furthermore, /t/ and /d/ are affected by /r/ in consonant blends. Pronounce the following pairs of words: tuck­ truck; task-trash; dunk-drunk; dagger-dragon. Children notice the change in /t/ and /d/ when followed by /r/ and represent the phonetic detail with spellings of C-H-R-A-N for train and J-R-A-G-N for dragon.

The phonological awareness activities in this curriculum ask children to listen to the sameness, difference, number, and order of speech sounds. As the previous examples illustrate, such activities can become difficult when the phonetic level of speech does not relate cleanly or directly to the phonemic level. Yet, it is ultimately the phonemic level we are after because it is awareness of phonemes that allows children to understand how the alphabet works—an understanding that is essential to learning to read and spell.

For more information on phonology, we recommend Fromkin and Rodman (1993) and Parker and Riley (1994). For more information on how phonology relates to the teaching and learning of reading and spelling, we recommend Hull (1985), Moats (1995), and Treiman (1993). For more information on how to work with children who have extreme difficulty with speech-sound production, we recommend Lindamood and Lindamood (1975). For further information or assistance in working with these children, we add that speech-language pathologists can be very helpful. Their training provides them with in-depth understanding of phonology as well as expressive and receptive syntax (i.e., the rule system by which words may be ordered in phrases and sentences).

About This Curriculum

The design and sequence of the activities in this book are intended to help children acquire a sense of the architecture of their language and the nature of its building blocks. Thus, across chapters, the children's attention is focused and refocused on smaller and smaller parts, on layers within layers of the language. Gradually, they are led to notice how stories are built from sentences, sentences from words, words from syllables, and syllables themselves from a relatively  small set  of  basic speech elements—phonemes. The children are led to see how, within each layer, the parts can be broken apart, separately spoken, and put back together. They are led to see that if the parts are omitted, substituted, or rearranged, then the whole is altered in sound and meaning. They are, in short, led to appreciate the structure of the system.

But that's not all. Over the course of all this structural play, the children also learn how to focus on the parts themselves; this is particularly important at the level of the phonemes. As the children practice synthesizing words from phonemes and analyzing phonemes from words, they are also practicing hearing and saying the phonemes over and over, both in isolation and in context. They are becoming generally familiar with how the different phonemes sound and how they are articulated. They are becoming comfortable with hearing and feeling the identity and distinguishing characteristics of each phoneme, whether spoken in isolation or in the beginning, middle, or end of a variety of words.

Research shows that once children have mastered phonemic awareness in this way, useful knowledge of the alphabetic principle generally follows with remark­ able ease-and no wonder: Having learned to attend to and think about the structure of language in this way, the alphabetic principle makes sense. All that's left to make it usable is knowledge of the particular letters by which each sound is represented.

Finally, a note is in order about the adaptations and adjustments that we made in putting together this version of the program. While we made a number of modifications, the most important is the addition of a whole new chapter (Introducing Letters and Spellings). The original program involved oral language play only. As such, the reading/writing advantage evidenced by Lundberg et al.'s (1988) young students offered strong validation of the advantages of training phonological awareness, per se. Yet, the rea­ son for training phonological awareness at all is to make spelling-sound correspondences more learnable when they are taught. In keeping with this philosophy, several more recent studies have demonstrated that the impact of phonemic awareness training on early reading and writing is enhanced still further when spelling-sound correspondences are developed alongside speech-sound correspondences (Ball & Blachman, 1990; Blachman et al., 1994; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991, 1993, 1995; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994). It is important to note that doing so does not amount to a reversion to conventional phonics, for the letter-sound correspondences are not presented for rote memorization in and of themselves. Instead, they are built into the phonemic awareness activities in a way that ensures that the children's growing appreciation of the phonemic structure of the language will yield a confident, productive under­ standing of the logic of its written representation.


Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Alegria, J., Pignot, E., & Morais, J. (1982). Phonetic analysis of speech and memory codes in beginning readers.  Memory and Cognition, JO, 451-456.

Ball, E.W, & Blachman, B.A. (1991). Does phoneme segmentation training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 49-66.

Blachman, B.A. (1991). Getting ready to read: Learning how print maps to speech. In J.F. Kavanagh (Ed.), The language continuum: From infancy to literacy (pp. 41-62). Timonium, MD: York Press.

Blachman, B.A., Ball, E.W, Black, R.S., & Tangel, D.M. (1994). Kindergarten teachers develop phoneme awareness in low­ income, inner-city classrooms: Does it make a difference? Reading and Writing, 6, 1-18.

Bradley, L., & Bryant, P.E. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read: A causal connection. Nature, 301, 419-421.

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1991). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 451-455.

Byrne, B., &  Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1993). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children: A 1-year follow-up. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 104-111.

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1995). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children: A 2- and 3- year follow-up and a new preschool trial. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 488-503.

Byrne, B., & Ledez, J. (1983). Phonological awareness in reading disabled adults. Australian Journal of Psychology, 35, 185- 197.

Calfee, R.C., Lindamood, P.E., & Lindamood, C.H. (1973). Acoustic-phonetic skills and reading: Kindergarten through 12th grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 64, 293-298.

Cardoso-Martins, C. (1995). Sensitivity to rhymes, syllables, and phonemes in literacy acquisition in Portuguese. Reading Re­search Quarterly, 30, 808-828.

Castle, J.M., Riach, J., & Nicholson, T. (1994). Getting off to a better start in reading and spelling: The effects of phonemic awareness instruction within a whole-language program. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 350-359.

Cossu, G., Shankweiler, D., Liberman, I.Y., Tola, G., & Katz, L. (1988). Awareness of phonological segments and reading ability in Italian children. Applied Psycholinguistics, 9, 1-16.

Cunningham, A.E. (1990). Explicit versus implicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50, 429-444.

deManrique, A.M.B., & Gramigna, S. (1984). La segmentacion fonologica y silabica en niños de preescolar y primer grado [The phonological segmentation of syllables in nine first-year preschoolers]. Lectura y Vida, 5, 4-13.

Elkonin, D.B. (1973). U.S.S.R. In J. Downing (Ed.), Comparative reading (pp. 551-579). New York: Macmillan.

Foorman, B.R., Francis, D.J., Beeler, T., Winikates, D., & Fletcher, J.M. (1997). Early interventions for children with reading problems: Study designs and preliminary findings. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 8, 63-71.

Foorman, B.R., Francis, D.J., Fletcher,J.M., Winikates, D., & Mehta,P. (1997). Early interventions for children with reading problems. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1(3), 255-276.

Foorman, B.R., Francis, D.J., Shaywitz, S.E., Shaywitz, B.A., & Fletcher,J.M. (1997).The case for early reading interventions. In B. Blachman (Ed.), Foundations of reading acquisition and dyslexia: Implications for early intervention (pp. 243- 264). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fromkin, V., & Rodman, R. (1993). An introduction to language (4th ed.). NewYork: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Hatcher, P.J., Hulme, C., & Ellis, A.W (1994). Ameliorating early reading failure by integrating the teaching of reading and phonological skills: The phonological linkage hypothesis. Child Development, 65, 41-57.

Høien, T., Lundberg, I., Stanovich, K.E., & Bjaalid, I. (1995). Components of phonological awareness. Reading and Writing, 7, 171-188.

Hull, M. (1985). Phonics for the teacher of reading (4th ed.). Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Juel, C. (1991). Beginning reading. In R. Barr, M.L. Kami!, P.B. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 2,pp. 759-788). New York: Longman.

Liberman, I.Y, Rubin, H., Duques, S., & Carlisle,]. (1985). Linguistic abilities and spelling proficiency in kindergartners and adult poor spellers. In D.B. Gray &J.F. Kavanagh (Eds.),Biobehavioral measures of dyslexia (pp. 163-176).Timonium, MD: York Press.

Lindamood, C., & Lindamood, P. (1975). The A.D.D. Program: Auditory Discrimination in Depth. Austin,TX: PRO-ED.

Lundberg, I., Frost,]., & Petersen, O.P. (1988). Effects of an extensive program for stimulating phonological awareness in preschool children. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 264- 284.

Lundberg, I., Olofsson, A., & Wall, S. (1980). Reading and spelling skills in the first school years predicted from phonemic awareness skills in kindergarten. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 21, 159-173.

Marcel, A. (1980). Phonological awareness and phonological representation: Investigation of a specific spelling problem. In U. Frith (Ed.), Cognitive processes in spelling (pp. 373-403). New York: Academic Press.

Moats, L.C. (1995). Spelling: Development, disability, and instruction. Timonium, MD: York Press.

Morais, J., Cary, L.,Alegria, J., & Bertelson, P. (1979). Does aware­ ness of speech as a sequence of phonemes arise spontaneously? Cognition, 7, 323-331.

Parker, F., & Riley, K. (1994). Linguistics for non-linguists: A primer with exercises (2nd ed.). Needham, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406.

Treiman, R. (1993). Beginning to spell: A study of first grade children. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tunmer, W.E., & Nesdale, A.R. (1985). Phonemic segmentation skill and beginning reading. Journal of Educational Psychol­ ogy, 77, 417-427.

Wagner, R.,Torgesen, J.K., & Rashotte, C.A. (1994). Development of reading-related phonological processing abilities: New evidence of bidirectional causality from a latent variable longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology: 30, 73-87.

Wallach, L., Wallach, M.A., Dozier, M.G., & Kaplan, N.E. (1977). Poor children learning to read do not have trouble with auditory discrimination but do have trouble with phoneme recognition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 36-39.

Wallach, M.A., & Wallach, L. (1979). Helping disadvantaged children learn to read by teaching them phoneme identification skills. In L.A. Resnick & P.A. Weaver (Eds.), Theory and practice of early reading (Vol. 3, pp. 227-259). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Williams, J.P. (1980).Teaching decoding with a special emphasis on phoneme analysis and phoneme blending. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 1-15.


From Chapter 3: Listening Games



To develop the memory and attentional abilities for thinking about sequences of sounds and the language for discussing them.

Materials needed

Objects that make interesting, distinctive sounds. Some examples follow:

banging on wall/table/lap blowing

blowing a whistle

blowing nose clapping

clicking with tongue closing purse

coloring hard on paper

coughing crumpling paper cutting with a knife

cutting with scissors dropping (various things) drumming with fingers eating an apple

folding paper hammering hopping

noisy chewing

opening window or drawer pouring liquid

ringing a bell

rubbing hands together scratching

sharpening a pencil slamming a book smashing crackers snapping fingers stamping

stirring with teaspoon tearing paper tiptoeing

turning on computer walking

whistling  writing on board

writing with a pencil


In this game, the children are challenged first to identify single sounds and then to identify each one of a sequence of sounds. Both will be very important in the language games to come. The children are to cover their eyes with their hands while you make a familiar noise such as closing the door, sneezing, or playing a key on the piano. By listening carefully and without peeking, the children are to try to identify the noise.

Once the children have caught on to the game, make two noises, one after the other. Without peeking, the children are to guess the two sounds in sequence saying,

"There were two sounds. First we heard a ______, and  then we heard a______."

After the children have become quite good with pairs of noises, produce series of more than two for them to identify and report in sequence. Again, complete sentences should be encouraged.

Remember that, to give every child the opportunity to participate mentally in these games, it is important to discourage all children from calling out their answers until they are asked to do so. In addition, both to support full participation and to allow assessment of individual students, it is helpful to switch unpredictably between inviting a response from the whole group and from individual children of your designation.

Note: Because of the importance of the skill exercised through this game, invest special care in noting every child's progress and difficulties. Extra opportunities should be created to work with children who are having trouble with the concept of sequences or in expressing their responses.


  • With the children's eyes closed, make a series of sounds. Then repeat the sequence, but omit one of the sounds. The children must identify the sound that has been omitted from the second sequence.
  • Invite the children to make sounds for their classmates to guess.
  • These games also offer good opportunities to review, exercise, and evaluate children's use of ordinal terms, such as first, second, third, middle, last. It is worth ensuring that every student gains comfortable, receptive, and expressive command of these terms.

From Chapter 3: Listening Games



To develop the children's ability to attend to differences between what they expect to hear and what they actually hear.

Materials needed

Book of familiar stories or poems.


Invite the children to sit down and close their eyes so that they can concentrate on what they will hear. Then recite or read aloud a familiar story or poem to the children but, once in a while, by changing its words or wording, change its sense to nonsense. The children's challenge is to detect such changes whenever they occur. When they do, encourage them to explain what was wrong. As the game is replayed in more subtle variations across the year, it will also serve usefully to sharpen the children's awareness of the phonology, words, syntax, and semantics of language.

As illustrated in the following list, you can change any text in more or less subtle ways at a number of different levels including phonemes, words, grammar, and meaning. Because of this, the game can be profitably and enjoyably revisited again and again throughout the year. Even so, in initial plays of the game, it is important that the changes result in violations of the sense, meaning, and wording of the text that are relatively obvious. Following are some examples of the "nonsense" that can be created within familiar poems and rhymes:

Reverse words:

Song a sing of sixpence

Substitute words:

Baa baa purple sheep

Twinkle, twinkle little car

Swap word order:

Humpty Dumpty wall on a sat

Jack fell down and crown his broke

Swap word parts:

One, two, shuckle my boo

I'm a tittle leapot

The eensy weensy spider went up the spouter wat.

Switch order of events:

One, two, buckle my shoe Five, six, pick up sticks

Little Miss Muffet, eating a tuffet

Sat on her curds and whey

Goldilocks went inside and knocked on the door.

The first little piggy built himself a house of bricks.

Note: Don't forget to switch unpredictably between asking the whole group or individual children to respond.

From Chapter 6: Awareness of Syllables



To introduce the children to the nature of syllables by leading them to clap and count the syllables in their own names.


When you first introduce this activity, model it by using several names of contrasting lengths. Pronounce the first name of one of the children in the classroom syllable by syllable while clapping it out before inviting the children to say and clap the name along with you. After each name has been clapped, ask "How many syllables did you hear?'' Once the children have caught on, ask each child to clap and count the sylla­bles in his or her own name. Don't forget last names, too! It is easy to continue clap­ ping other words and to count the syllables in each. When doing the activity for the first time, model each child's name by pronouncing it, clapping it, and then having all of the children clap it together. After each name has been clapped by all of the children, ask "How many syllables did you hear?" If a name has many syllables, you may need to let children count the syllables as they are clapping.


  • Ask the children to clap and count the syllables of their first and last names to­ gether.
  • After determining the number of syllables in a name, ask the children to hold two fingers horizontally under their chins, so they can feel the chin drop for each syllable. To maximize this effect, encourage the children to elongate or stretch each syllable.
  • As follows, this activity can be done to a rhythmic chant, such as "Bippity, Bippity Bumble Bee":

Bippity, bippity bumble bee, Tell me what your name should be.

(Point to a child; that child responds by giving his name. Class repeats name out loud.

Continue with one of the following:)

1. "Clap it!" (Children repeat name, enunciating and clapping to each syllable.)

2. "Whisper it!" (Children whisper each syllable while clapping.)

3. "Silent!" (Children repeat name, silently enunciating syllables with mouth movement.)

From Chapter 7: Initial and Final Sounds



To extend the children's awareness of initial phonemes by asking them to compare, contrast, and eventually identify the initial sounds of a variety of words.

Materials needed

Picture cards


This game should be played as an extension of Activity 7B: Different Words, Same Initial Phoneme. Spread a few pictures out in the middle of the circle. Then ask the children to find those pictures whose names start with the initial sound on which they have just been working. As each picture is found, the child is to say its name and initial phoneme as be ore (e.g., f-f-f-f-ish, /f-f-f-f/,fish).


  • As the children become more comfortable with the game, spread out pictures from two different sets, asking the children to identify the name and initial phoneme of each picture and to sort them into two piles accordingly.
  • Pass pictures out to the children; each must identify the initial phoneme of her or his picture and put it in the corresponding pile. This game works well with small groups.
  • Sound-tration: Pass pictures of objects or animals to the children, naming each picture and placing it face down on the table or carpet. Children take turns flipping pairs of pictures right side up and deciding if the initial sounds of the pictures' names are the same. If the initial sounds match, the child selects another pair; other­ wise, another child takes a turn. This game works well with small groups.

From Chapter 7: Initial and Final Sounds




To help the children to separate the sounds of words from their meanings.


By showing the children that if the initial phoneme of a word is removed a totally different word may result, this activity further helps children to separate the sounds of words from their meanings. With the children seated in a circle, explain that some­ times when you take a sound away from a word, you end up with a totally different word. To give the children an example, say 'f-:f-f-ear,' elongating the initial consonant, and have the children repeat. Then say"ear,' and have the children repeat. Ask the children if they can determine which sound has been taken away and  repeat the words for them (i.e., f-:f-:f-f-ear...ear.. f-:f-:f-f ..ear...ear).

In this way, the children are challenged to attend to the initial phonemes of words even as they come to realize that the presence or absence of the initial phoneme results in two different words. Across days, gradually work up from the easier initial consonants to harder ones. Sample word lists are provided at the end of the chapter.

Note: Most children can identify the "hidden word" but have a great deal of difficulty in identifying what is taken away. Children may also be inclined to produce rhyming words rather than to focus on initial sounds. With this in mind, take care not to flip back and forth between the activities involving rhyming and initial sounds.

From Chapter 7: Initial and Final Sounds




To introduce the children to the challenge of synthesizing words from their separate phonemes.


Seat the children in a circle, and begin by explaining that sometimes a new word can be made by adding a sound to a word. As an example, say "ox," and have the children repeat it. Then ask what will happen if they add a new sound to the beginning of the word such as f-f-f-f-f: 'f-f-f-f-f ..ox, f-f-f-f .. ox, f-f-f-f-ox." The children say''fox!" You should then explain, "We put a new sound on the beginning, and we have a new word!"

Until the children catch on, you should provide solid guidance, asking the children to say the word parts with you in unison (e.g.,"ice...m-m-m-m ... mice"). Again, it is appropriate to work up gradually, across days, from the easier initial consonants to harder ones and, only after the latter are reasonably well established, to consonant blends (e.g., mile-smile).


  • Invite the children to use each word of a pair in a sentence to emphasize the difference in their meanings.
  • When the children are good at this, play it with 71: Spider's Web.

From Chapter 8: Phonemes



To introduce the children to the challenges of analyzing words into phonemes and of synthesizing words from phonemes.

Materials needed


Two-phoneme word cards


The two-sound games serve to introduce the procedure and logic of the more diffi­cult phonemic analysis and synthesis activities that follow. In addition, two-sound words provide an unfettered medium for giving children practice with the sounds of the various phonemes, both in isolation and as blended together in phonologically minimal words. In view of this, it is more helpful to revisit them as needed by individ­ uals or by the group than to dwell too long in any given session. Because of their foundational importance, however, it is critical that every child grasp this concept be­ fore moving on to the more advanced activities.

On the first day, it is sufficient to do analysis only. On subsequent days, begin with analysis and shift to synthesis. Similarly, for the first few days, it is wise to separate play with initial consonant words from play with final consonant  words for clarity. Once the children have caught on, the two types of words should be freely intermixed. Fi­nally, because the short vowels are so much more variable and less distinctive in both sound and articulation, their introduction should be deferred until the children are reasonably comfortable with long-vowel words. Again, to clarify the children's image of the phonemes and to support their ability to distinguish them one from another, it is valuable to ask them to feel how their mouths change position with each sound or to look at their mouths in a mirror while saying the words. In addition, as in all of the phonemic awareness activities, it is important to ensure that the students are familiar with each word used in these exercises. If you suspect  that any of your students are not, it is wise to review the word's meaning and usage.

Note: To play these games, each of the children should have two blocks. In addition, you should have two blocks of your own and a set of pictures of two-phoneme words. Also, before beginning, it is important to have read the introduction to this chapter.


A child picks a card and names what it depicts. For this example, let us assume that the child chooses a picture of a hair bow. You would repeat the word, but slowly and with a clear pause (about a half-second interval) between its two phonemes (e.g., “b...ō”).Then all of the children should repeat the word in this same manner, “b... ō.”

To show that the word bow consists of two separate sounds, the teacher now places blocks in two different colors underneath the picture as she enunciates the sound represented by each.

The children then repeat the word sound by sound while representing the sounds of the word, left to right, with their own blocks. The children should repeat the sounds while pointing to the respective blocks and then the word, pausing slightly less between phonemes with each repetition. (e.g., "b....ō..., bow, b...ō...bow, b...ō, bow, b-ō. bow”).


This game is just the reverse of the analysis game and likewise requires that you model the procedure before turning it over to the children.

Choose a picture and place it face down so the children cannot see it. Then name the picture, phoneme by phoneme (e.g., "b…ō”), while placing the blocks beneath the picture. While pointing to their own blocks, the children must repeat the phonemes over and over and faster and faster as they did in the analysis game. When they believe they know the identity of the picture, they should raise their hands. The teacher may then ask the group or any individual to name the picture. After resolving any disagreements, the picture is held up for all to see.

After modeling several words in this way, pass the challenge to the children. For each new picture, help them agree on its name and give them time to analyze it on their own. To gain a good sense of who is and is not catching on, ask one or more individuals to share his or her solution to each word. Then the whole group should re­peat the solution together, voicing the separate phonemes of the  word as they point to their corresponding blocks.


  • Extend the exercise to unpictured words. At the outset of each analysis challenge, be sure to use each word in a sentence for the sake of clarity (e.g.,"Chew. Please chew your food before you swallow it. Chew."). Similarly, ask the children to use each word in a sentence as part of the wrap-up of each synthesis challenge.
  • Later, this game can be used to teach the alphabetic principle by replacing the colored blocks with letter tokens. If you choose to do so, however, bear in mind that to convey the essential logic of the alphabetic principle, it is best that all words include one letter for each sound, left to right. With this in mind, avoid words with silent letters or digraphs. Use only short vowel words and, among those, only those that are spelled with two letters (e.g., in and am are fine, but not edge or itch).

Note: All of the words in the following lists consist of only two phonemes. Nevertheless, due to the vagaries of English, the spellings of many involve more than two letters. For this reason, showing the words' spellings will only confuse the issue for now. The following are examples of two-sound words with initial consonants and long vowels:













































row /rō/

sew /sō/







The following are examples of two-sound words with final consonant sounds and long vowels:


The following are examples of two-sound words with final consonat sounds and short vowels:


From Chapter 8:



To reinforce students' ability to synthesize words from their separate phonemes.


This activity is analogous to that presented in 6E:Troll Talk I: Syllables, except that the troll describes his treats phoneme by phoneme instead of syllable by syllable. Every­ one sits in a circle, and the teacher tells a tale:

Once upon a time, there was a kind, little troll who loved to give people presents. The only catch was that the troll always wanted people  to  know what their present was before giving it to them. The problem was that the little troll had a very strange way of talking. If he was going to tell a child that the present was a bike, he would say "b...i...k." Not until the child has guessed what the pre­ sent was would he be completely happy. Now I will pretend to be the troll. I will name a surprise for one of you. When you figure out what it is, it will be your turn.

Choose one child and pronounce the name of a present, phoneme by phoneme. When the child guesses the word, she or he is to name a present for somebody else. Work up from short (two- and three-sound) words to longer ones as children become more adept at hearing the sounds. It is best to limit the game to only four or five children on any given day or it becomes a bit long. Examples of gifts include the following:


Note: If the students are not familiar with trolls, then substitute another person or creature from folklore such as a leprechaun, unicorn, or elf.


  • Each child gets from one to three "secret" pictures. They may now give the things in the pictures as "presents," one thing at a time, to another child, by sounding out the word. The child who receives the present has to guess what it is before she or he can have the picture.

Marilyn Jager Adams is visiting scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, massachusetts. Barbara R. Foorman is professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. Ingvar Lundberg is professor in the department of psychology at Göteborg University in Sweden. Terri Beeler is assistant professor of urban education at the University of Houston's downtown campus. This article and the classroom activities that follow are drawn from the authors' book Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum, copyright © by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. Reprinted with permission. The book may be ordered directly by writing the publisher (P.O. Box 10624, Baltimore, MD 21285-0624) or by visiting their website ( The price is $24.95. Free shipping and handling with prepayment. Ask for stock #3211.

American Educator, Spring/Summer 1998
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