Our Littlest Learners Have Big Learning to Do!

Our Littlest Learners Have Big Learning to Do!

Our Littlest Learners Have Big Learning to Do!

Discover ways to help chidren develop phonemic awareness!

What’s the difference between hat and cat?  Are you thinking…one says “meow?” What about hog and dog?  Hmmmm…most of us would walk a dog, but not a hog?  True…but my answer to both riddles is this: the difference is one phoneme!

What’s a phoneme?  It is the smallest unit of sound in our language.  So each of our pairs of words differ by one sound at the start of the word.  Seems simple, right?  Not really.   Our youngest learners must develop the ability to hear the difference in those sounds before they can ever read print.  They must develop phonemic awareness.  Hearing and playing with language will have critical implications once reading instruction begins.  Stanovich lauded the importance of the ability to hear the sounds of our language (1993/1994) when he posited that phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of reading acquisition.  Juel’s research (2006) found that “children who struggled with learning to read words had entered the first grade with little phonemic awareness and were slow to acquire it.  Poor readers had, as a group, less phonemic awareness at the end of the first grade than average and good readers had at the beginning of first grade” (p.410).  As well, the National Early Literacy Panel’s (2008) findings reiterate the “ability to distinguish sounds within auditory language” as “an important predictor of later literacy achievement, expanding on earlier N[ational] R[eading] P[anel] findings” (p. viii).  It seems, then, that this powerful skill has big rewards for our littlest learners.

Getting Started
How can you help children develop phonemic awareness?  And, how can you make this fun?  We know when children are engaged in joyful activities their attention is held and the instruction can move their understandings along.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Begin with students’ names.  What sounds do you hear in your own name?  Whose names start with the same sound?  Do any of our names rhyme?
  • Sort by beginning sounds.  Identify buckets or baskets with single letters, such as “b” and “p.”  Distribute pictures or real objects (book, pen, pencil, bag) to the students and have them take turns “sorting” into the correct container.  As students become more aware of the sounds you can use blends (fl, st) or digraphs (sh, ch) for sorting.
  • Read aloud poems.  This is one of the easiest ways to hear the language.  The rhyme and rhythm of poetry lends itself to “paying attention” to language (Fresch & Harrison, 2013).   What words did the poet use to make it rhyme?   What words are similar at the end (cat, hat) and which are the same at the start (shop, shoe)?  Poems provide a perfect format for manipulating the sounds…add letters, take them away, change them, stretch them…all are wonderful ways to help your students hear and play with the sounds of our language!

Fresch, M.J. & Harrison, D.L. (2013). Learning through Poetry. Huntington Beach, CA.: Shell Education.

Juel, C. (2006). The impact of early school experiences on initial reading. In D.K. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.) Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol. 2. (pp. 410-426). New York: Guilford.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Stanovich, K.E. (December 1993/January 1994). Romance and reason. The Reading Teacher, 47 (4), 280-291.

Your Turn!
We’d love to hear from you!  What are your best practices for supporting student development of phonemic awareness?  Share your ideas in the comments section.



Author bio

Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D.

Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D.

Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D., began as a 3rd-grade teacher in Kent, Ohio. Throughout her career, she taught adult literacy at the University of Akron, reading methods at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), and teacher education at Deakin University and The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Mary Jo also taught at The Ohio State University for 20 years prior to retiring in 2015. She is now professor emeritus and an active literacy consultant and author. Mary Jo has authored and edited many articles, books, and teacher resources. Her latest book, Strategies for Effective Balanced Literacy, shares a variety of lessons and ideas to support literacy instruction in today’s classrooms.