Get ready for sounds!

Last week we looked at how to prepare kids to be ready for learning literacy when they begin school. A child's understanding of sounds, sound patterns and the links between sounds and letters is a vital part of this process. It can be a real challenge for some children, especially if they have speech and language issues, developmental delays, a history of ear problems or a preference for visual learning.

There are lots of fun, simple things that can be done in the time before starting school that can help kids be ready to pick up literacy skills more easily.

If you have a child who is already at school, but not progressing as well as you hoped these ideas will help them too.

Phonological Awareness is the ability to hear and understand sounds and sound patterns within words. A child’s phonological awareness abilities at preschool have been identified as the biggest predictor of early literacy development. This skill relates strongly to phonics. Phonics is the ability to link sounds and letters and develops from phonological awareness. Today we will look at developing early phonological awareness skills to help children be ready to get the most out of phonics lessons at school.

How is phonological awareness different to phonics? Phonics is understanding sound-letter relationships e.g. A is for apple or s says /s/ whereas phonological awareness is about understanding the sound structure of words, e.g. hit and pit rhyme, cap has three sounds and elephant has three syllables.

How do phonological awareness skills develop? Children begin to learn these skills during the preschool years. Early skills include understanding rhyme, syllables and beginning sounds.

Hearing rhyme often begins through story books and nursery rhymes. Having an understanding of rhyme involves:

  • Identifying Rhyme – being able to recognise if two words rhyme, e.g. “Do big and wig rhyme?”
  • Producing Rhyme – being able to give a word that rhymes with another word. Young children often enjoy playing with rhyme, e.g. “cheese please” and “funny bunny.”

Segmenting words into syllables involves being able to break up a word into the “big beats.” This is often done by clapping out the beats in words.

Identifying the first, last and middle sounds in words develops next, with identifying beginning sounds usually developing in the preschool years. “What does hat start with?” or “What sound can you hear at the end of duck?”

Blending sounds to form words and segmenting words into sounds develops soon after children begin school and have formal literacy teaching. “What does m-u-g say?” "c-a-t" makes cat. Blending and segmenting involves identifying the sounds that can be heard in a word rather than identifying how the word is spelled with letters. For example, the sounds in the word sheep are sh-ee-p.

Manipulating sounds in words develops as children become more skilled with phonological awareness. This includes:

  • Changing sounds in words, e.g. changing the last sound in ‘pet’ to make ‘pen.’
  • Re-ordering sounds in words, e.g. re-ordering the sounds in ‘pan’ to make ‘nap.’
  • Removing sounds in words, e.g. ‘spoon’ without the ‘p’ says ‘soon.’

Why is phonological awareness so important? Children who have good phonological awareness skills develop an understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds more readily. For example, c-a-t says cat and this can be written with the letters c (see) a (ay) t (tee). Children who are better readers in the first years of schooling are generally those children who entered school with good sound awareness.

Developing awareness of syllables. The ability to break a word in to syllables enables a reader/speller to break bigger, unfamiliar words into smaller more manageable chunks. The following activities can help children develop skills in segmenting words into syllables:

Feely Bag Place a range of objects (or pictures) with words with varying amounts of syllables into a bag. Have your child pull out one item at a time and clap out the number of syllables as they say the word.

Clapping out words Clap out the names of people and items you can see around the room, words from a story book or words from flash cards.

Syllable Lotto Make a set of lotto cards each with six or eight different pictures of common objects whose names have one, two or three syllables. Make a pack of 24-36 cards with the numbers 1, 2 or 3. Provide each child with one lotto card and six or eight counters or blank cards which can be used to cover their pictures. Read the number cards and if a child has a picture on their lotto board with the same number of syllables, they can cover it with a counter or blank card. The winner is the first to cover all the pictures on their lotto board. You can dowload an animal syllable lotto to play here.

Happy Families Make a pack of picture cards consisting of cards which have one, two or three syllables. Shuffle the cards and deal out seven cards to each player placing the rest of the pack face down on the table. Players attempt to make a ‘set’ of four cards with the same number of syllables. The first player asks any other player for a picture which has the same number of syllables as one of their cards. The player continues to ask any player for cards until a player cannot provide such a card. The player then takes a card from the pack on the table and discards one from their hand. The turn then passes to the player on the right. As each player collects complete ‘set’ of four cards they are placed face down on the table in front of them. The player with the most ‘sets’ at the end of the game is the winner. You can use the cards from your animal lotto to play this game too. Just use the animal cards and remove one of each of the 1, 2 and 3 pictures so that you have six sets of four cards.

Developing rhyming. Rhyming is a basic phonological awareness skill that assists children with learning to read and spell. When children are able to recognise and use rhyme their knowledge of words grows hugely. For example, if a child knows that ‘cat’ is spelled as such, and they can recognise the rhyme and change the beginning sounds, they are now able to spell the word ‘hat’. When reading they can recognise patterns in words and read new words because they are able to decode those patterns. There are lots of ways to develop a child’s ability to hear and use rhyme. Children will be able to hear and recognise it first, and then learn to produce rhyme themselves later. Try these activities:

Read books that emphasize rhyming words. Nursery rhymes, Dr Seuss and other rhyming books work well. Part the way through the book you may be able to stop before finishing the sentence and see if your child can guess the word.If they can’t guess you can offer them a choice. E.g. Do you think ‘house’ sounds a bit the same as ‘boy’ or ‘mouse’?

Make up ‘silly rhymes’ and feel free to make up words as well. For example, let’s make up words that rhyme with ‘crocodile’- “propodile, trocodile, golocodile”

Throw a ball to your child making up rhyming words as you throw the ball back and forth e.g. (adult) mat (child) cat (adult) rat (child) sat etc.

Provide CD's with rhyming poems, and ryhming songs to listen to. Listen with them and talk about the words that “sound the same on the end”

Recite rhymes or stories your child knows well that has rhyming words. Leave out the second rhyming word and have your child “help you” to finish it.

Collect rhyming word pictures from magazines or print them from the internet etc. Lay them all on the floor and then put them together in piles of words that rhyme.

Make up your own story books at home using rhyming words e.g. The frog on the log was chased by a dog. Have the child draw the pictures with you and talk about all the words that rhyme.

Sing ‘silly songs’ that rhyme with your child’s name e.g. Tommy, bo bommy, fo fommy, Tommy. Then have your child try it for other people’s names.

Always remember to keep it fun and don’t be frightened to get a little silly with it.

Here are some game ideas to help develop children’s ability to hear sounds at the beginnings of words. There is no magic trick to teaching children to hear sounds. Children need lots of chances to listen and hear and even more chances to practice.

Choose pairs of items that start with different sounds. Choose carefully so that words start with a consonant and then a vowel (e.g. cat, dog, leg) and not with words that start with 2 consonants (e.g. frog, clock, snail). Take turns to remove items from the bag and attempt to collect the matching pair e.g. car-cat, dog-doll, goat-girl. The person with the most matching pairs is the winner.

Play “I spy” e.g. [adult] “ I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with a ‘c’. [child] cat! This is a great game to play in the car, turning a short drive to the shops into a mini therapy session.

Play the “Sound Bucket Game”. Use a bucket to collect as many things as you can that start with a chosen sound. For this game to be useful try to select a sound where you can see lots of easy to find items that will fit in the bucket. To modify this slightly you could play this packing up items at home. E.g. “let’s put all the things that start with a ‘b’ in the toy box first!

Play memory with a difference. Make picture cards by cutting out pictures from magazines, or printing off the internet (talk about the beginning sounds as you do this together to). Find pairs that match because they have the same beginning sound.

Download some more games to develop beginning phonological awareness skills here.

Children with speech and language delays have extra challenges learning to read and write. Getting support for this as early as possible can reduce the impact of these difficulties on the development of literacy. To find out more about how Talking Matters can help with your child's speech, language and literacy follow the links.

If you are a local professional who is committed to helping kids develop their full potential in literacy and language skills you may be interested in our upcoming workshops Based on the work of Diana Rigg of "Promoting Literacy Development". Diana is a special educator and speech pathologist who has developed a range of language and literacy programs and resources for preschool and primary aged children. Parents are welcome at the workshops too! Find out more here.

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