The College School

by Andrea Comiez

If I were to ask you what a baby does first–speak, read, or write—I bet your automatic answer would be speak.  In fact, I still remember my amazement the first time my son sing-songed the word “uuuup!” in Costco as he sat in a grocery cart with his arms reaching out.  Indeed, a child starting to speak is one of the most exciting and magical milestones parents experience.  And by the time they enter school, they are expert speakers who can interact with others without much effort.  It is precisely because of this innate ability to talk and communicate that the best reading and writing instruction approaches literacy skills from a speech-to-print mindset.

The term phonemic awareness might not sound as familiar to you as phonics, but it is no less important.  What is phonemic awareness?  It is a person’s ability to identify and manipulate the smallest sounds (also known as “phonemes”) in our language without attaching them to letters.  For example, if you can say which sounds (not letters!) the words hop, harp, and hiccup begin and end with (/h/ and /p/), then you are displaying phonemic awareness!

While preschool, kindergarten, and first grade teachers focus on this foundational skill a lot, most children need more time and practice to master it as they get older.  Nobody would build a house on top of sand.  Likewise, a strong foundation in phonemic awareness will result in solid footing as your child reads and writes more complex tests.  Literacy teachers at The College School incorporate phonemic awareness activities into the school day, and you can also help your child at home by breaking words up into syllables, reading poetry, sharing limericks or riddles, singing along with songs, and playing short sound games.  Below is a sampling of the kinds of one-minute games you can play while driving in the car, waiting in line, or hanging out at home.  You can even let your child come up with challenges for you to dust off and flex your own phonemic awareness muscles!

All of these phonemic awareness activities should be performed orally, not in writing!
(Younger) Say “click.” – Change /l/ to /w/ (quick)*
(Older) Say “flagrant.” – Change /l/ to /r/ (fragrant)

(Younger) Say “quip.” – Take off the /k/ (whip)
(Older) Say, “persuasion.” – Now say “persuasion” but don’t say “per.” (suasion)

(Younger) Break apart the sounds in the word “swished.” (/s/ /w/ /i/ /sh/ /d/)
(Older) Break apart the syllables in the word “fantastic.” (/fan/ /tas/ /tic/)                   

(Younger) What is the last sound your mouth makes when you say “fix”? (/ks/)
(Older) What suffix do the words “condensation” and “imagination” share (/shun/)                                                                                                       

(Younger) Tell me the word that I am saying in this robot voice: /k/ /y/ /oo/ /t/ (cute)
(Older) Tell me the word that I am saying by syllables: /fed/ /er/ /ul/ (federal)

(Younger) Say “white.” – Add /k/ to the beginning. (quite)
(Older) Say “well.”—Add /d/ to the beginning. (dwell)                         

*Slash marks indicate you should say the sound, not the letter.