Upper School Blog: Phonemic Awareness

If you have a pet at home, or perhaps encounter a bird on your daily walk, listen closely next time you hear its "woof", "meow", or "tweet".... Elsewhere in the world these same onomatopeias might be described as "blaf", "yaong", and "piu piu". 

Why is it so challenging to imitate animal sounds accurately, even after spending time observing them? Because our developing brains are oriented toward human behavior—especially the Absorbent Mind of childhood, as Maria Montessori called it—even those who grow up on farms with equal contact between people and animals will walk and talk like the former. For many thousands of years, our brains have been wired to learn the spoken languages of our caregivers. In fact, most children will master as many languages as they are exposed to in the early stages of life, a process which can seem almost magical. 

As Montessori children hear each year in the Great Stories, written systems of communication are a much more recent invention. It makes sense, then, that we need more direct support in order to read and write. Before we can recognize or produce words with automaticity, we must map and store letter-sound correspondences. A key prerequisite to this is phonemic awareness: the ability to notice and manipulate the individual sounds that are blended together in spoken words. 

For example, if we were learning to write "frog", we'd need to be aware of the /fr/ blend at the beginning, short /o/ sound in the middle, and hard /g/ at the end before identifying that these sounds can be represented by the letters f, r, o, and g. 

One way phonemic awareness is strengthened at Aidan is through the Sound Game, in which a child thinks of or retrieves objects with a particular beginning, ending, or middle sound. Here are some ideas for playful at-home practice: 

  • Zoom out. Before focusing on individual sounds, bring awareness to the other ways we segment language, such as words and syllables. Involve gross motor movements here by saying a sentence and doing, for example, one jumping jack or one crunch per word. (Remember, the focus here is auditory, so these activities do not involve letters or symbols, but invoking other senses can help learning stick.)
  • Emphasize rhyme. Poetry and music can direct our attention to rhyming words, and in familiar read alouds you might pause and leave space for children to chime in with the missing rhymes.
  • Highlight alliteration. "Lenny likes lasagna for lunch" is not only fun to say; it can also bring awareness to the repeated initial /l/. Many books include alliteration in the title and elsewhere, and you can point these out when you notice them. 
  • Slow down. This kind of listening can be difficult when it is new, but if you repeat and stretch sounds out they become easier to identify. For example, saying "sssssssssnake" or "/s/ /s/ /s/ snake" highlights the beginning sound. Scaffolds like these should be removed over time to help children build independence.
  • Ask questions. As always, once you model for children that the language they use every day is made up of special sounds, you can help them practice by asking questions. Riddles are useful here, especially if they incorporate multiple skills. "What is the opposite of night? It starts with /d/ and rhymes with say" invites the responder to consider initial sound, rhyme, and vocabulary. 

I hope you are excited to experiment with phonemic awareness at home! Please do not hesitate to reach out if you would like more specific recommendations or have any questions.


Emily Navarro, Literacy Specialist

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