Phonemic Awareness! Yeah!

Kindergarten is a complicated place, and never is it more complicated than in September.

I sat with a little boy today and it went like this:

Me: “Let’s practice stretching out some words. I’m writing about dogs. Help me stretch out the word dog. D–ooooo-g”

Kid: “Dog.”

“Great. Now stretch it. Say it slowly. D-d-d-oooooooooooooo-g-g-g. Now you try.

Kid: “Turtle.”

Me: ??

Kid: “Turtle cat! Hahahahahaha!”

And it continued on from there. Sigh.

Aside from a lot of silliness involving “Turtle-cat,” I was reminded today that many of our kindergarteners need a lot of support with phonemic awareness. When we ask kids to “stretch out a word and say the sounds,” a lot of them have no idea how to do that, yet we often gloss over the “stretching out” part and emphasize the part where we “find a letter that makes that sound.”

What is phonological awareness? What’s phonemic awareness? What’s the difference?

In a nutshell, phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds. It has nothing to do with knowing which letters make the sounds. It’s being able to actually hear the sounds. For example, to some kids, the words “chip” and “ship” and “slip” pretty much sound the same. Phonological awareness is also about being able to manipulate the sounds, like saying the word “dog” and then being able to say it without the /d/ –> “og.”

Phonological awareness includes clapping out syllables, rhyming words, and deciding whether or not two words have the same beginning or ending sound. Phonological awareness also includes phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is being able to hear the smallest units of sound (phonemes), or individual sounds in words. It’s being able to segment “dog” into /d/o/g.  (In case you were wondering, after much playing around with words, my kindergarten friend above was not yet ready to segment the sounds in “dog.”)

What is phonics?

Put simply, phonics has to do with knowing which letter or group of letters correlate with the sounds. Occasionally, adults assume there is no need to do much phonological or phonemic awareness work if kids know a lot of letter names and letter sounds. However, contrary to that belief, many kids know letter names, and know a sound for each letter (phonics), but actually do still have trouble hearing and manipulating individual sounds in words (phonemic awareness).

How do I know if kids need help with phonemic awareness?

Many schools give an assessment to all kindergarteners, such as the PASS, or Marie Clay’s ‘Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words’ assessments. If your school doesn’t use something like this, you might informally assess during word study, or writing workshop by asking students to stretch out words, clap out syllables, and manipulate words in different ways. The great thing about these assessments are that the same activities that assess are often activities that also help teach!

Here are a few favorite phonemic awareness activities for assessing and teaching phonemic awareness:

Leaving Out A Sound

Try playing with words by asking children to take out parts. Start with leaving out syllables, and move on to leaving out an initial or ending sound. Just say the words aloud to work on phonemic awareness–don’t write them unless you want to also work on phonics.

Say rainbow. Now say rainbow again, but leave out bow.

Say writer. Now say writer again, but leave out er.

Say friendship. Now say friendship again but leave out ship.

Say dog but don’t say the /d/.

Say hot but don’t say the /h/.

Say sad but don’t say the /d/.


  1. Show kids how to point or make a dot where each word will go before they write a sentence. Pointing or making a dot one word at a time, helps kids hear each word in the sentence (phonological awareness). Believe it or not, somekidsarehearingsentencesasonebiglongstringofsounds. Can you imagine what that must be like for them? Before diving into stretching out the individual sounds in an individual word, they may need some help hearing the words inside their sentences.
  2. Clapping out syllables in longer words is a great first step for practicing segmenting sounds in words. But-ter-fly. Tramp-o-line. Gym-nas-i-um (phonological awareness).
  3. Play with onsets and rimes, by saying the first part of the word, and asking the child to fill in or change the rest of the word. You could say the onset (everything before the first vowel), and they say the rime (everything after the first vowel.) The name game song is a great way to do this work:  “Katie Katie bo baitie Banana fanna foe faitie. Me my moe matie. Katie!” (phonological awareness).


Beginning, Middle, and Ending Sounds

Elkonin boxes (or “sound boxes” as they are commonly called) are a helpful tool for teaching children how to identify and segment each phoneme (separate sound) they hear.

Start by making the boxes. Here are what Elkonin boxes for CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words look like. One box for each sound:

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Then demonstrate saying the word slowly, and pushing a counter into a square for each sound (a coin, a unifix cube, tile, or any small object will do). Don’t write any letters unless you want to also work on phonics. Then give the kiddos a turn! Use the words “beginning sound” “middle sound” and “ending sound” consistently. For many kids, the concept of the “beginning” sound will be completely new.


Sometimes colleagues tell me that they feel intimidated or uneasy about setting out to teach phonemic awareness, because it all feels so technical. Even the terminology is tricky: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics… I like to think of teaching phonemic awareness as being just like kindergarteners themselves–complicated indeed, but also a lot of fun.