How do I teach my child phonemic awareness to help him read? | Ask Mrs. Brooke

Joy Brooke - Contributed
Joy Brooke
— image credit: Contributed

Dear Mrs. Brooke,

I struggle with teaching my 5 year old to read. He is able to sound out the letters but he struggles with putting the sounds together to form the words. I feel like we’re at a roadblock and I don’t know how to help him over it.

Thank you, Leah Chambers

Dear Leah,

This is a great topic and one that many parents struggle with. Trust me, you are not alone and I know you can help your child over this roadblock.

In fact, think of it more as a hurdle that he will eventually jump over, for this is just the beginning of an exciting time.

Remember that like everything, reading is developmental as well. He will begin to read on his own time, in his own way.

This said, there are still many things you can do as a parent to help him along the way. Below are a few I will suggest:

1) Have fun! View this more as a game you are going to figure out how to play or a maze you are going to get through together. If you get frustrated, your child will get frustrated.

2) It sounds like your child has a solid foundation on his letter sounds, which is fantastic. You have definitely read to him, played letter sound games with him, and taught him the basic phonetic sounds – so celebrate this and praise him!

3) Blending these sounds together is the next step and can be quite more complicated as this task involves him using “phonemic awareness.” Phonemic awareness is quite different from “phonics.”

Phonemic awareness is the auditory part of reading – the hearing of the sounds. While most of us think of reading as purely a visual act, it is quite opposite, especially in the beginning.

One must hear the sounds in order to ever start blending sounds together.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. An example of how beginning readers show us they have phonemic awareness is combining or blending the separate sounds of a word to say the word (C-A-T, cat.) and by hearing rhymes.

Here are three games below that I used with my beginning readers and you may try with your son:

I call them the “fast” and “slow” game with my students but they are really called word segmentation and word blending. I recommend playing “The Slow Game” first.

Here is an example of the “SLOW” Game:

You: I am going to say a word slow and you say it fast: C-A-T.

Your son: CAT

No visual words are involved - it is purely auditory. Because of this, you can play these games in the car, grocery shopping, on a walk, etc. Here your son is blending the sounds together so when he does eventually see the word in print he will have already heard it, which is crucial to beginning reading.

The “FAST” Game is just the opposite but involves the segmenting or breaking up of sounds.

You: I am going to say the word fast and you say it slow: TREE.

Your Son: T-R-EE

You can keep points or not, depending on what kind of incentive your child needs to play a game.

Then there is also always the “I spy a word that rhymes with … fly.” This is also a great one. Wherever you are, your child can shout out, “Sky! Tie! Pie! High! Why!” My own son loves this one.

4) In most school districts, your child will most likely be assessed in kindergarten and/or first grade on phonemic awareness because having good phonemic awareness is strongly correlated with good beginning reading.

Many districts in our state, including  the Lake Washington School District, use the DIBELS Assessment three times a year to assess your child’s progress in these fundamental areas. Keep in contact with your child’s teacher on his assessments and  progress, and of course ask for more ideas to help your child in this area if he continues to struggle.

5) Continue to read aloud because the best teachable moments are often in the context of real literature! Reading books that rhyme, singing songs, and sharing poetry all encourage building your son’s phonemic awareness. Stop and model for him words that rhyme, and then stop here and there and see if he can too!

6) Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power of writing to help your child learn to read.

Time and time again, I see children who have difficulty with phonics and blending words together, who learn to read by writing. They have tons of ideas and stories and when given pen and paper they begin sounding out letters and building words!

And, although many educators believe that children learn to read before they learn to write, many disagree with this, and I am one of them. I truly believe that many children learn to write and during this process, learn to read. Your child may be one of these “writers.”

There is definitely a hurdle between that stage where children know their sounds and yet, still are unable to blend them together. Just remember, be patient.

Even if your child isn’t sounding out the words in the book, if they can segment, blend, and rhyme, they have a good solid foundation in phonemic awareness, which means it is just a matter of time before they begin to blend and read the words they see in print.

You know the fine line between pushing him too hard so that he doesn’t land flat on his face, but also being able to help him build the muscle or the “skills” to be able to leap over this hurdle.

As your child’s first and most important teacher always remember to keep reading fun and joyful and I have no doubt you will help him leap to great heights!

Joy Brooke is the first and most important teacher of her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. She resides in downtown Kirkland with her husband and two children. Brooke is a National Board Certified teacher in Literacy: Reading- Language Arts/Early and Middle Childhood, holds a B.A. in Educational Studies and a M.A. in Educational Policy and Management from the University of Oregon. The opinions provided in this column do not reflect that of the LWSD or any other organization she is affiliated. "Like" Ask Mrs. Brooke's Facebook page.

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