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Playing with sounds: Phonological awareness prepares kids for reading

Reading is vital to a child’s ability to learn and be successful in school. Many skills like vocabulary, comprehension and print awareness support children’s reading abilities. However, one set of skills—phonological awareness—is particularly important and has been found to directly impact children’s reading success in kindergarten and beyond (Phillips, Menchetti & Lonigan 2008).

Strong phonological awareness does not develop naturally. Instead, children develop this skill through intentional teaching and opportunities to practice new skills. A lack of phonological awareness has been directly correlated to children having difficulty in acquiring reading skills, which is why focusing on these skills prior to reading instruction is critical. Read on for tips on developing phonological awareness in the children in your care.

It’s all about sounds

The Arizona Department of Education defines phonological awareness as “the ability to work explicitly with the sounds of language.” Phonological awareness includes recognizing and working with rhyme, alliteration, blending, segmenting and beginning and ending sounds. Understanding the idea that language consists of words, which are comprised of distinct sounds, helps children unlock the code of written language when learning to read.

Assess individual children

Effective teaching involves observing children to assess their understanding and skills, then providing instruction and supports to help them reach the next level. Since phonological awareness relies on the ability to hear and distinguish sounds, it’s critical that children are screened for hearing. Visit firstthingsfirst.org  using the Find Programs search tool to identify opportunities for hearing screening in your region. After inputting your zip code in the tool, select “developmental & sensory screenings” from the child health & development category.

Introduce infants to the world of sounds

As an infant caregiver, your role in developing the skills necessary for phonological awareness involves providing experiences with a variety of sounds. Infants enjoy having “conversations” with caregivers; hearing you vary the pitch, rate and volume of your voice helps them gain awareness of the different sounds of language. Sing songs and recite nursery rhymes with babies during play, diapering and feeding. Go outdoors and listen to nature’s sounds. Point out and describe the sounds in the environment and respond when baby starts to notice these sounds. Follow an infant’s cues and continue while they show interest through their gaze and by reaching. When a baby turns away or begins to fuss, switch things up or provide a change of scenery.

Guide toddlers in exploring rhythm, rhyme and repetition

Toddlers gain independence and benefit from opportunities to explore and discover sounds in a hands-on way. As you read books and sing songs with toddlers, they will begin to communicate their preferences to you. Sing a toddler’s favorite songs and repeat their favorite nursery rhymes throughout the day. Repetition helps children recognize and remember the concept of rhyme and the sounds of language. Engage in verbal play, such as making up rhymes with children’s names, singing simple silly songs and doing fingerplays. Provide musical instruments and explore ways to make sounds with everyday objects (drumming on different surfaces and talking about the differences in sound). Talk about concepts of rhythm and sound such as fast and slow, quiet and loud during these activities.

Plan games to play with preschoolers

A scope and sequence of instruction should be developed when planning lessons. The scope identifies the skills you will work on, and the sequence identifies the order these are introduced and practiced. The Arizona Early Learning Standards (AZELS) provides indicators of phonological awareness within the Emergent Literacy strand of the Language and Literacy standard. These provide a clear scope of concepts, although it is up to you to identify the sequence using your curriculum, lesson plans, and what you know about the children in your care.

In addition to verbal play, exploration with music, sounds and nursery rhymes, preschoolers benefit from exposure to language games.  Teaching through games with individual and small groups of children has been shown to be most effective. Introduce games such as rhyming basket, the name game, compound word puzzles, ball toss segmenting, and beginning sound bingo to focus children on these skills. Invite individual or small groups of children to play for short periods during free play or center time.

When planning games, limit the format to one game per session so children spend a short amount of time learning how to play, and more time working on new skills. Keep the pace quick enough to keep children’s attention but not too fast for them to keep up. Repetition is important; encourage interested children to repeat their favorite language games as this provides the necessary practice to refine new skills.

As you play, observe and adjust.  Children who struggle with a new task benefit from support through hints and nonverbal cues. As children master new skills, adjust games to the right level of challenge. Providing visuals such as pictures during word tasks engages children and limits the memory component of the game, allowing children to focus their mental energy on the language skills required.

As you tailor your approach to the individual children in your care, have fun playing with sounds and words through intentional activities. Children will pick up on your enthusiasm and gain important foundational skills along the way.

Resources around the web

Explore these resources to help you plan engaging and effective activities to support phonological awareness.

Arizona’s Infant and Toddler Developmental Guidelines provide the first part of the continuum of early learning guidelines. They provide a framework for understanding and communicating developmentally appropriate expectations for young children. The Language Development and Communication domain defines components of language development, including indicators and examples of emerging language development and caregiver strategies to support healthy development.

Arizona’s Early Learning Standards (4th Edition) provides a framework for planning quality learning experiences for children 3 to 5 years of age. Ideas for integrating mathematics and approaches to learning within language and literacy activities are provided.  An alignment matrix shows the continuum of skill development from the infant and toddler stages, through early childhood and the Arizona Kindergarten Standards.

First Things First provides a wealth of information for families and caregivers. Visit the Literacy page for videos, tips and information about literacy development and information about Read on Arizona.

NAEYC provides a host of articles and resources for early childhood educators and families. The article Phonological Awareness is Child’s Play provides tips for preschool teachers and examples of these activities.

Read On Arizona is a statewide, public/private partnership of agencies, philanthropic organizations and community stakeholders committed to creating an effective continuum of services to improve language and literacy outcomes for Arizona’s young children. Information, tips and video resources are available for educators and families.

Scholastic provides a list of games and activities to support phonological awareness with preschoolers.

Nemours Reading BrightStart offers tips and activities for building phonological awareness, as well as a free online questionnaire for families. Customized tips and next steps are provided to help families support their child’s development following the questionnaire.