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Phonemic Awareness: Prereading Activities For Students Who Are Struggling

With a student who is having great problems even learning the first letters and sounds and blending them together or having lots of trouble even progressing past the first couple of lessons, it is the author's advice to put away the reading books and do phonological awareness training techniques orally. Phonological awareness training should be playful and engaging as well as deliberate and purposeful. This is what the author does:

  1. Play the secret language game: tell the student that you are going to say a word in a secret language and he or she is going to tell you what the word is. Say, "this is an animal, /ra/---/t/. What is it?" Then the next step would be to blend /r/---/at/, and finally /r/--/a/--/t/. You will need to refer to the video tape to make sure that you are saying the sounds correctly. You can tell the student to press or squeeze the sounds together. Start with words with only two or three phonemes (sounds) and if your student is having trouble, say the sounds closer together until he figures out the word. (Also, check out the section on Special Word Attack Strategies for Blending in the teachers manual.

    Eventually the student should be able to blend the sounds together to make three and four phoneme words. Using the students' names, your name or what's for lunch can be fun. As the student gets better at this skill, slowly lengthen the time between sounds until the sounds are about one second apart. It is useful to teach the finger tapping technique (explained under word reading) to aid students in blending sounds together. This is the same technique for blending that they will be using to sound out words in the program except that you are not using letter names at this point. It is best to start with letter sounds that you can stretch out which will be easier for the student (m, n, s ,sh, l, r, f, and z). By the time your student can blend three and four phoneme words with ease, he will be ready to start to work in the reading books.

  2. Work with beginning segmenting skills by asking questions like: "Tell me an animal that starts with /d/", or "What sound does your name begin with?" Focus on one sound like the sound of /s/. Then say a word and if it has this sound in it, the student can jump in the air or clap his hands. With a group of students, you can assign them each a sound and then have them jump or clap if you say a word with that sound in it. Use blocks to segment the sounds in words (these are called Elkonin boxes after the Russian scientist who invented the technique).

    An Elkonin box card
    Create Elkonin boxes like the one in the illustration out of pictures from old workbooks, magazines or your own drawings. Give the student three blocks or other manipulatives all of the same color or type (because we are not differentiating between vowels and consonants at this point) and have him tell you the three sounds as he moves the counters into the three boxes from left to right. You will have to model this technique at first and will probably have to stretch out the sounds in words as you say them when the student is having trouble. The student moves a block up into the space (see illustration) for the first sound while saying it and then does the same thing for the remaining sounds. Start with words with two or three sounds. Words with consonant sounds that can be stretched out like in "mom" and "man" and "nut", will be easier for the beginner. Many commercial phonemic awareness programs have ready made "Elkonin Boxes", but they are easy to make yourself. By the time the student can segment three and four phoneme words, he will be ready to start reading in the reading books. Phoneme segmentation is the best predictor of early reading success. Using manipulatives to represent each sound (rather than each letter) makes the task concrete and multisensory.

  3. Read books that emphasize rhyming and/or word play. Read a rhyming story (Dr. Suess books work well for children) and stop before the rhyming word so the student can guess the word. Play word games with your student, like finding what rhymes with "elephant" - pelephant, gelephant, telephant, etc. Say a word out loud and throw a ball to a student who says a word or nonword that rhymes with the word and throws the ball back. An easy and fun activity is called "balking tackwards." In this game students transpose the first letters of two words, i.e. "hotdog" would become "dothog", "reading class" would become "cleading rass", and "pea soup" would become "sea poop." Teach "Pig Latin" if you want. Pig Latin turns out to be a good predictor of early reading success.

When your students can segment and blend three and four phoneme words, it's time to get the books back out and start reading.

A great book for ideas on phonological awareness training is Phoneme Awareness in Young Children (Adams 1998 - #880-638-3775).

Another wonderful book that has good teaching strategies and is written for parents is Straight Talk About Reading (Hall and Moats 1999). You can also suggest that the parents of your students get this book.

Send comments, suggestions, or questions to: Ken Morgan at or (505) 254-0533
Copyright Morgan Dynamic Phonics, Inc., 3811 Hannett Ave NE, Albuquerque NM 87110
Updated: April 17, 2009