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Phonemic Awareness: Where Do I Start?

The Why:

I was shocked when I read that phonemic awareness is the most common source of reading difficulties. What!?!  Why in the world was I never taught about this in college?  Luckily, it has now become quite a hot topic in education, and for good reason.  Before we get into the how of phonemic awareness, let's clear up a few terms that are often confused. First of all, this:
(Image from
I often hear teachers use the terms phonics and phonemic awareness interchangeably, but they are two separate things.  Phonemic awareness activities are oral and can be done blind-folded...they involve an awareness of the individual sounds in a word.  When you tie those sounds with print (letters)....then it becomes phonics.

Another term that is often confused is phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.
Phonological awareness is the umbrella term for the knowledge of sounds in spoken language.  Phonemic awareness is a subset skill and is the highest level of phonological awareness.  It is critical that we explicitly teach to the phoneme level and David Kilpatrick talks about why in his book, Equipped for Reading Success (best $50 I've ever spent!).  Even within the subset of phonemic awareness, there are several levels.  We often stop at the skills of blending and segmenting phonemes, but it's crucial that we get students to the level of automaticity with phoneme manipulation.  Here are some examples that might clear this up (remember these are all auditory):

Blending: You would say the individual sounds and students blend them together to make a word.  You say /s/ /u/ /n/  and student blends those to say the word: sun.

Segmenting:  Now it's the opposite.  You give the student the word and they break it into parts.  You say, "Tell me all the sounds in the word black."  Student says: /b/ /l/ /a/ /k/.

Manipulating: You say, "Say the word stop."  Student repeats, "Stop." You say, "Now change the sound /t/ to /l/. What's the new word?" Student says "Slop."

We want students to be able to manipulate quickly...within 2 seconds.  The problem is that many programs stop at blending/segmenting.  Even our DIBELS assessment doesn't test manipulation, but it's critical that we get our students there in order for them to become successful readers. It's very common to think of this as a kindergarten skill, but if you look at this table from Kilpatrick's book, you can see that many of these skills are not mastered until much later:

Here are some other quotes from David Kilpatrick's book that really stood out to me:
And then my favorite:
I mean, how exciting is that?  That is why I love teaching kindergarten...I can make sure these little students get on the right track from the beginning. What an amazing and powerful gift that I can give them! I can prevent any reading difficulties that may happen in the future.  I've personally seen what happens if we don't get them on the right track...and remediation is so much more difficult than prevention.

The How:

So let's get into how we teach this. I teach phonological awareness both whole group and small group, allowing my students to get a double dose of this critical skill.

Whole Group

One of the first phonological awareness tasks we learn in kindergarten is syllable awareness.  I love chants and songs, so here is how we practice syllables:
I say, "Class, what's a syllable?"  And the students respond, "How many beats are in a word."  Then I give them a word, we clap it, and count the syllables.

Here is the song I use for blending.  I didn't make these up...I heard another teacher use them (on YouTube...I will try to find who it was) and fell in love! My students love them!
And the song for segmenting is a class fave:

For whole group, I LOVE using Heggerty's Phonemic Awareness program. Have you heard of it?  It's a very comprehensive and systematic program. I love that everything is there, ready for me to use, and I know that I'm going to cover everything I need to in a year. It tells me exactly what to do for each day and I don't need to do anything to prep...I just pull out the book and go.  A lesson takes about 10 minutes (usually shorter if you keep a good pace) and it's the first thing we do in my classroom each day.  I like to interject the songs I showed above as I do it.  If you find the lessons are taking longer than 10 minutes, I'd recommend that you pick up your pace.  -This keeps it more fun and exciting for the students too.
Here's a quick video of me doing a straight Heggerty lesson, with none of my extra songs included.  The only thing that is not shown in this video is the phonics warm-up...which should only add about 1-2 minutes.

Small Group

It's important to hit phonemic awareness in your small group instruction too. This is where you can really scaffold for those students who need it.  One resource I love for small groups, is David Kilpatrick's 1-minute drills.  These are included in his book, Equipped for Reading Success, and they literally only take one minute.  I also love that all levels are included in his book, from kindergarten to total mastery (whether that is in 3rd grade or adulthood).
When a student is struggling with a phonemic awareness task, pull out some manipulatives to help them.  We love using slinkies to help us stretch out a word.  Elkonin boxes with bingo chips or cars and tracks are all fun ways to help students segment a word.  Using hand motions (as I did in the videos above) are also a way to lend support.  The goal is to eventually pull away from all of these, and for students to be able to do them automatically (within 2 seconds) without any of these supports.  Anytime I introduce a new level of difficulty with a student, I end up needing to pull out a manipulative of some sort.  After a couple lessons, I am usually able to put the manipulative away and do it without.  Once they can do the task with ease and within 2 seconds, we move on to the next level and the manipulatives come out again.

If you find the student is still having a hard time, even with a manipulative, you may need to go back a skill or two.  For example, if a child is struggling to blend 3 phonemes (/c/ /a/ /t/ = cat), go back to the onset-rime level (/c/  /-at/ = cat).  If he/she still can't blend onset/rime, go to the syllable level (pa  per = paper).  If syllables are tricky, compound words are a little easier (cup  cake = cupcake). 

The important thing is that you teach phonemic awareness explicitly and with lots of opportunities for practice. Remember to give your students a double dose by teaching both whole group and small group, scaffolding where needed. I hope that is helpful!  Questions?  Leave a comment below or email me through the contact form!


  1. Great information! I love how you presented it. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for writing this! Your clarity and enthusiasm is infectious. Thank you for sharing the videos and explicit examples. I am eager to share your article with my teacher friends and colleagues keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you so much, Kristen!

  3. Thanks for sharing! I do Heggerty lessons, too! I think those songs are from the Green Alligators video clips on Youtube;)

    1. Thank you! I'd never heard of the Green Alligators clip, so it wasn't there. -But it's definitely a cute video!

  4. Great article! I also use Heggerty! You mentioned a 2 minute Phonics warm - you use a specific curriculum or book to teach the 2 minutes Phonics warm - up?

    1. Thank you! Heggerty has a phonics warm up included...I just usually do a variation of it. I teach my students an action with each letter. -So some days we chant the alphabet and go through all our actions and other days we do the flash cards as fast as we can.

  5. Goodness how I wish you had been my girl's kindergarten teacher, she's 10 and after many years of struggling, her speech therapist has started teaching her all of what you mention, she's slowly making progress and I really hope she can catch up in time. Thankyou for explaining this in a way that makes it easy to understand.

    1. Oh, thank you for your kind words! I hope your daughter is doing well! Good luck!

  6. Very nicely explained. I shared on my Facebook tutoring page, Nancy Bart Tutoring.

  7. Thank you! This is clearly what I missed with my 9yo and why she struggles, and will be helpful with my 6yo now also. Very grateful you took the time to walk through all of this.


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