What sounds do you hear in “dog”?
That is a simple, yet critical, question for children learning to read, write, and spell. Being able to identify the sounds in words, break sounds apart and blend them back together, and move sounds around in words is an important skill, and an early predictor for reading success. Children who can hear and manipulate sounds in words, then connect the sounds to letters, are often beginning to read and write simple words. Children who have difficulty learning to read often need instruction to improve their phonemic awareness skills.
How can you tell if a child has strong phonemic awareness skills? Start with the basics.
Identifying sounds in words is a good place to start. Phoneme identity is the ability to recognize common sounds in different words. For example, ask the child what sound is the same in “bat”, “broom”, and “bed”. The answer is the sound made by the letter b. If a child gives a different answer, model by doing the exercise a few times, then try asking again.
Blending sounds together to make a word is a little harder. Ask your child or student to listen to some sounds. Then, ask what word you are saying. I like to call this the “Robot Game”. For example, pretend to be a robot and say the sounds in the word “dog”. Leave a short space between saying each sound: /d/ /o/ /g/. See if the child can blend the sounds together in their mind, then tell you the word “dog”. I currently have a student who can identify all the letters and the sounds they make, but cannot blend sounds or letters into words. He needs more work in phoneme blending. His current strategy for reading simple books is to visually memorize whole words, which makes reading a tiring and frustrating activity.
Segmenting sounds is the opposite of blending. Good readers and spellers are able to break words into sounds. For example, ask a child, “How many sounds do you hear in dog?” If they have good segmenting skills they should be able to break the word apart into three sounds: /d/ /o/ /g/. Once a child can segment words, and knows which letters represent each sound, they can also spell simple words.
Blending and segmenting skills are part of the reading and writing process. Blending words is a strategy used to help children read unfamiliar words. Segmenting words into individual sounds helps children spell words they haven’t memorized.
Finally, check to see whether your child or student can manipulate sounds by adding and deleting sounds in words. For example, ask what would happen if you add the sound /f/ to the word “or”. Or, ask the opposite: what would happen if you took the sound /f/ off of the word “for”?
Children need to understand that letters have sounds, and words are made up of those sounds. Strong phonemic awareness skills are a critical building block for beginning readers and writers.