Phonemic awareness activities will help your child to learn to analyze and manipulate individual sounds in words.  Phonemic awareness is the ability to count the number of sounds; identify the beginning, middle and ending sounds; and segment, blend, add and delete sounds in words.

To understand why phonemic awareness is so crucial to your child’s reading development, read my post, “Phonemic Awareness – The Most Important Pre-Reading Skill.”

Now for some fantastic phonemic awareness activities that work…

1. ALPHABET SOUND TUBS – I really like the ones made by Lakeshore Learning.  The objects are sorted by beginning letter.  For example, the A tub includes apple, acorn and alligator.  The objects provide great practice for identifying beginning sounds.  However, if you wanted to practice identifying ending sounds, you could find multiple objects from various tubs ending with the sound /n/, such as sign, cone and sun.  I also like adding objects and toys to the tubs to expand the activity.

This phonemic awareness activity highlights identifying the beginning and ending sounds in words.

2.  PICTURE SORTS – Google beginning consonant sounds picture sorts, ending consonant sounds picture sorts or middle vowel sounds picture sorts, and you will find a plethora of materials fit for contrasting phonemes within words.  A couple of things to remember:

  1. Start with single syllable words.  Words with only three sounds, such as cat or bus are best.
  2. Contrasting beginning sounds is easiest.  Once that is mastered, move onto contrasting ending sounds.  Contrasting middle vowel sounds is the most difficult.
  3. Start by contrasting only two sounds.  Contrast at most four sounds at one time.

You can do this task with the objects in your alphabet sounds tubs, as well.

This phonemic awareness activity highlights identifying the beginning and ending sounds in words.

3.  ELKONIN BOXES – The Read Rocket website offers instructions how to use Elkonin boxes and the Lanternfish provides a ton of Elkonin boxes templates to download.  Since our goal is to develop phonemic awareness, which deals with sounds within a spoken word, not letters, I would recommend using counters (e.g. pennies or unifix cubes) instead of letters.  For example, when presented with the sheep template below, I would slide one counter in the first box while saying the sound /sh/, one counter in the second box while saying the sound /ee/, and one counter in the third box while saying the sound /p/.  After segmenting the sounds, blend them together to form the word, sheep.

Elkonin box

An Elkonin box template for the word, sheep. There are three boxes for the three phonemes, /sh/, /ee/ and /p/.

This phonemic awareness activity highlights counting, segmenting and blending sounds in words.

4.  USING KINESTHETIC MOVEMENT TO SEGMENT SOUNDS WITHIN WORDS – Start with consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) word families that produce a lot of words, such as –ap, –ed, –ip and –ot.  Work with only one word family at a time, such as –ap, which includes the words cap, gaplap, map, nap, sap and tap.  Pass a ball back and forth between two (or more) people.  When you catch the ball, you say the next sound in the word.  Over three tosses, the word cap sounds like /c/, /a/, /p/.  By working within the same word family, you will only need to change the beginning sound.  In lieu of tossing a ball, you could stomp your foot or clap your hands for each sound, or phoneme.

5.  COMMUNICATE IN SEGMENTED PHONEMES – Start with single syllable words you use frequently, like car, bike, school, bed, ball, dog, etc.  Also use your child’s name, even if it has more than one syllable.  Say things like:

  1. It’s time for /b/ /e/ /d/.
  2. Do you want to /b/ /igh/ /k/ to /s/ /k/ /oo/ /l/ today?
  3. Let’s play catch with the /d/ /o/ /g/.
  4. /S/ /a/ /l/ /ee/, where is your brother?

At first, you may have to blend the sounds to form the word for the child, but with repetition, his ear will be able to hear the word among the segmented sounds.

This phonemic awareness activity highlights blending sounds in words.

Other amazing resources for phonemic awareness activities

I really find value in many of Heidi Butkus’ recommended phonemic awareness activities.  I specifically like the Segmentation Sliders (similar to the Elkonin boxes) and the Puppets speaking in segmented sounds and alliteration, both on page 3.  Sound blending bingo, songs and eliciting a physical response on page 4 are exceptional, too.

I like the Sound Segmentation Pictures at  You can use them with Elkonin boxes or Segmentation Sliders to segment sounds in words.  You can hand your child a fly swatter and have him whack the swatter as he segments each sound within the word.

How phonemic awareness activities evolve into reading and spelling activities

Before your child knows a lot about letters, he can know a lot about sounds, especially if you incorporate phonological awareness activities, such as rhyming and syllabication, and phonemic awareness activities into your everyday life.  But at some point, your child is going to recognize letters and develop alphabetic knowledge (linking letters to their sounds).  With a growing awareness of letters, your child’s phonemic awareness will likely grow exponentially.  This is the time to start incorporating letters into the phonemic awareness activities described above.  It will help develop his reading and spelling skills.

Parents: In your own experience, which activities mentioned above were best for developing phonemic awareness before your child developed much alphabetic knowledge?




There is SO much research showing that having strong phonemic awareness skills predicts future reading success.  Want an analogy?  Phonemic awareness is the foundation of reading success.  Just like a house cannot be built on a weak foundation, a strong reader rarely develops without phonemic awareness.

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to analyze and manipulate individual sounds in words.  It is the ability to count the number of sounds; identify the beginning, middle and ending sounds; and segment, blend, add and delete sounds in words.  It is a more advanced sub-category of phonological awareness, which includes the skills of rhyming and syllabication.

phonemic awareness picture sort

A picture sort, examining the beginning sounds b, m, r and s. Notice there are no letters/words involved. This is an exceptional activity to develop phonemic awareness in pre-emergent and emergent readers.

The facts regarding phonemic awareness and reading success are cut and dry so it feels right to share them in list form.

1.  Development of phonemic awareness leads to improved reading ability.

2.  Poor readers at all ages are less phonemically aware than same-age good readers (Shaywitz, 1996).

3.  Children with poor phonemic awareness have trouble learning letter-sound relationships (aka alphabetic knowledge) and how to spell (Griffin, 1991; Juel, Griffith & Gough, 1986).

4.  Children who have poor phonemic awareness (and are consequently poor readers) in first grade typically remain poor readers in fourth grade (Juel, 1988).

5.  The more advanced forms of phonemic awareness (e.g. segmenting sounds) are more predictive of reading ability than simpler forms of phonological awareness, such as rhyming (Nation & Hulme, 1997).

6.  Instruction in reading is essential for the most advanced forms of phonemic awareness to develop.  In other words, knowing the letters and their sounds, make learning how to segment and blend sounds in words easier.

7.  In studies, phonemic awareness training in kindergarten and first-grade produces better readers and spellers, both at the completion the training period, as well as years down the road (Lungberg, Frost & Peterson, 1988).

8.  Phonemic awareness training with a component of discussion as to the importance of phonemic awareness and its application in reading is more effective than simply a “skill and drill” approach (Cunningham, 1990).

9.  Reading increases phonemic awareness, but reading is unlikely without a degree of phonemic awareness (Goswami & Bryant, 1990).  So the ideal instructional path is to develop some phonemic awareness, use it to develop reading skills, and then in turn develop even stronger phonemic awareness skills.

10.  When parents teach their children letters and their sounds (alphabetic knowledge), the children’s phonemic awareness improves (Crain-Thoreson & Dale, 1992).

Parents: For activity suggestions to develop phonemic awareness, check out my post, Activities to Build Phonemic Awareness.

Parents, what activities and strategies do you use at home to help your child develop phonemic awareness?  What has resulted in the most positive growth?  Please share your story.


Crain-Thoreson, C., & Dale, P. S.  (1992).  Do early talkers become early readers? Linguistic precocity, preschool language and emergent literacy.  Developmental Psychology, 28, 421-429.

Cunningham, A. E.  (1990).  Explicit versus implicit instruction in phonemic awareness.  Journal of Experimental Psychology50, 429-444.

Goswami, U., & Bryant, P. E.  (1990).  Phonological skills and learning to read.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Griffith, P. L.  (1991).  Phonemic awareness helps first graders invent spellings and third graders remember correct spellings.  Journal of Reading Behavior, 23, 215-233.

Juel, C.  (1988).  Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 417-447.

Juel, C., Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B.  (1986).  Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 243-255.

Lundberg, I., Frost, J., & Peterson, O.  (1988).  Effects of an extensive program for stimulating phonological awareness in preschool children.  Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 263-284.

Nation, K., & Hulme, C.  (1997).  Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills.  Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 154-167.

Shaywitz, S. E.  (1996).  Dyslexia.  Scientific American, 275(5), 98-104.






Phonological awareness does not involve the written word.  Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate parts of SPOKEN words.  (This is the hardest aspect to understand.  Take a minute to wrap your head around it.)

If you need a little more context to make sense of it …

Imagine a pre-K class in which the teacher, Ms. Teacher, asks her class a series of questions.  Furthermore, Ms. Teacher and her class are walking outside on their way to the playground.  Key piece of information: When letters are placed within the symbol /   /, it indicates the spoken form of the word.  Since we are discussing phonological awareness, we are only working with the spoken word.

Ms. Teacher: How many syllables are in the word cupcake?  Harry: 2

Ms. Teacher: What is the first syllable in the word fortunate?  Galen: /for/

Ms. Teacher: What is a word that rhymes with sweet?  Nina: feet

Ms. Teacher: Do face and race rhyme?  Kim: Yes

Ms. Teacher: Do boy and blag rhyme? (Note: it is fine to work with nonsense words like blag.)  Tony: No

Ms. Teacher:  What word is formed when I put together the parts /b/ and /ug/?  Isla: bug

Ms. Teacher: The word skimp has two parts.  What is the ending part or rime? Giacomo: /imp/

Ms. Teacher: What is the onset or beginning part of skimp? Lucia: /sk/

Ms. Teacher and her students practiced phonological awareness skills while walking.  They were simply talking.  NO WRITTEN WORDS.

Given that the students are in a pre-K classroom and likely ages 4-5, most of them are likely still pre-emergent or emergent readers.  A few are beginning readers.  See Developmental Stages of Literacy for more information.  That means that the majority of the students are only reading a few words.  All of the students are better speakers than readers.  The students practice analyzing the architecture of the spoken word without ever needing to see anything in print.

The phonological awareness skills that Ms. Teacher’s students practiced dealt with rhyming, syllabication and onset-rime.  Onset-rime is more difficult than rhyming and syllabication.

Why Phonological Awareness Skills are Important

Phonemic awareness is a part of phonological awareness.  It is a more advanced form of phonological awareness.  It again deals with the spoken word, but analyzes and manipulates the smallest unit of spoken sound called a phoneme.  Phonemic awareness, along with an understanding of letter-sound relationships, is necessary for developing proficient beginning reading skills (Ehri et al., 2001; National Reading Panel, 2000).  The phonological awareness skills that Ms. Teacher’s students practiced are a precursor to the more advanced phonemic awareness skills that contribute greatly to beginning reading skills.

Parents:  Like Ms. Teacher, you can help your child to develop better phonological awareness in your home, on a walk, in the car, etc.  Click here to learn more about Rhyming, Syllabication and Onset-Rime and recommended activities to promote phonological awareness.


Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Willows, D.M., Shuster, B.V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001).  Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis.  Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250-287.

National Reading Panel. (2000).  Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.