Long before a child learns to read, we can predict and influence which level of reading they will be capable of. We can observe their vocabulary use, ability to name letters, and how well they are at attributing sounds to letters (Curious about speech disorders? Learn more here). The ability to recognize and attribute sounds to letters is referred to as phonological awareness.
Phonological awareness refers to the brain’s ability to recognize and process phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that make up verbal speech. For example, if you have the phonemes /m/, /a/, and /p/, and you put sounds together, you have the word “map.”
Children who have a high level of ability to sound out words tend to be earlier readers and have an easier time developing overall literacy. A large amount of brain power goes into phonological awareness including listening, comprehension, memory, oral motor abilities, and biofeedback (the ability to listen to one’s own verbal productions and adjust as needed for accuracy).
Helping to stimulate phonological awareness for your child can give them a good foundation for future reading, spelling, and even speaking. Simple strategies you can do at home will ensure that you’ve provided the best environment for future literacy.
Read Books to Your Child Everyday (Yes, every single day, beginning in infancy)
Researchers have told us for decades that children—even infants—who are read to by parents on a regular basis perform better in academics, have advanced intellectual development, and are more likely to read for pleasure as they get older. This habit can never begin to early. Your toddler may prefer to roam around the room while you read aloud, but even this early exposure will benefit them once they are able to sit still on your lap.
Although all of this may be obvious by now, it’s easy to get caught up in daily life and find yourself out of energy by the time bedtime comes around. If keeping a schedule for reading to your child is a challenge, try to change the routine. Start getting ready for bed 30 minutes early to allow extra time for baths or brushing teeth. If the morning is less chaotic, or if you find that you have a few minutes in the afternoon to cuddle up with a book, make that a special tradition for you and your child. The timing is not as important as doing it consistently, and creating an enjoyable environment for a child to develop interest in reading.
The Reading Rockets website has a huge amount of information related to phonological awareness and a list of books that are written to emphasize speech sounds, rhyming, syllables and alliteration.
Count Syllables (Ages 2+)
Being able to recognize syllables and the numbers of syllables in words is a skill that lends well to early literacy. Children can start to do this as early as the toddler years with songs and nursery rhymes. Pick words with one syllable to start such as “cat.” When you say the word, clap along with the syllable. Then try two-syllable words like “baseball.” The clapping will help your child recognize the syllables and learn to count them.
Rhyme (Ages 4+)
When I’m in the car or waiting with my two young children somewhere like the doctor’s office or check-out counter, we play a rhyming game to pass the time (and unbeknownst to them, to also work on phonemic awareness!). I start by saying a word and the kids try to say a word that rhymes with it. Then we switch and they get to pick the word while I guess a word that rhymes with it. When they don’t get it right, don’t be afraid to say so. I usually say, “That’s close, but no. How about...” They don’t seem to mind making mistakes and they benefit from a direct, honest approach to learning.
Another great way to practice rhyming is singing songs. We like to practice vowel sounds by singing the Apples and Bananas song. You can find a fun video of it here.
Exercise Individual Sounds (Ages 4+)
Now you now know that phonemes are the smallest segment of sounds in speech. Improving knowledge of these sounds can help children identify how they go together to make words.
You can play many games and modify them so that you focus entirely on speech sounds. For example, try the I spy game and say, “I spy something that begins with the sound /sh/.” Or use old magazines to cut out all the items that begin with the sound /th/. If a child is having difficulty making the correct sounds, repeat the corrected sound as a model and let them try one more time. If they still don’t get it, let it go. As always, if you suspect your child is struggling with speech or language issues, be sure to talk to your physician or school for a referral.
Sound Addition and Deletion (Ages 5+)
This activity can be more challenging than the others. Adding or deleting sounds from a word requires multiple manipulations of sounds. Take care not to over-stress your child with too much information too quickly. With careful observation, you’ll know when your child is ready to move onto the next level of difficulty.
Sound addition practice can be carried out by presenting your child with a word such as “pot” and asking them to add a sound to make a new word. An answer could be the /s/ sound, which would make the new word “spot” or, if added to the ending, “pots.” Conversely, sound deletion involves removing a sound from a word. Present a word to your child such as “boat” and ask them to remove the /b/ sound. The answer would then be “oat.”
For a more challenging version of these exercises, the sounds can be added to or deleted from the middle of a word. For example, removing the /b/ sound from the word “table” leaves the word “tale.”
Auditory Feedback and Stimulation Programs (Ages 3+)
A child may benefit from hearing their own voice while speaking. There are devices designed to both amplify one’s voice and improve the brain’s ability to process the information. Forbrain bone conduction headphones are one example. The headphones can be used with the assistance of a therapist and at home with a parent.
Teaching your child about phonological awareness is the number one thing you can do to help develop their reading, writing, and spelling skills. This awareness is the basis of understanding our alphabetic code (the rules we follow when using the alphabet), the relationship between sounds and words, and how we can manipulate these sounds to understand and create language. It’s never too early to start integrating activities that will give your child the best opportunity to develop literacy.