Before your child begins to read, he is learning about the way letters and sounds work together to form words. Phonemic awareness and phonics are the first steps a child makes in the journey of beginning to read, but for many, the terms can be confusing and intimidating. So just what are phonemic awareness and phonics, and how can you help your child master these important early learning skills?

Phonemic Awareness

Whether he is aware of it or not, by listening to and playing around with the sounds in language, your child is building an important foundation for learning to read. These playful processes are a part of phonemic awareness, which research has found to be the best predictor of reading success in young children.

“If your child has phonemic awareness, he or she understands that words are made up of sounds (phonemes) and that those sounds can be grouped together, moved, and changed,” says Carolea Williams, publisher for Teach Bright. “Since phonemic awareness activities deal with sounds only, they require no reading or writing, making them perfect for preschool-age children.”

Throughout the day there are many opportunities to point out words that begin with the same sound. Just making your child aware of sounds in words is one of the first steps in reading. Try a few of these simple phonemic awareness activities and give your child a jump start at becoming a super reader:

  • Food Fun. While eating a meal, say the names of two foods that start with the same sounds and one that doesn’t. For example, tacos, tomatoes and rice. Ask your child to identify the word that does not sound the same at the beginning. You may have to over-emphasize the beginning sound until they get the hang of it, and realize it will take time and practice for them to start recognizing the sounds on their own. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to point out similar sounds as you go through the day. There are lots of words that can be matched, in the grocery store, at preschool, in the bedroom, in the kitchen and in the backyard.
  • Make a Match. Say a simple word, such as "cat". Have your child think of a word (or several words) that start with the same initial sound. This is a great game to play while waiting in lines.
  • Seek a Sound. Say a word out loud and have your child go on a hunt for something that starts with the same sound from around the house. For example, if you say the word "tiger", your child might find a toothbrush, table, tomato or trash can. To simplify this activity, just give your child the initial sound /t/ instead of the word tiger.
  • Rhyme Time. Although rhyming is not officially phonemic awareness, it is part of the bigger piece called phonological awareness and is a wonderful early learning tool. You can make up rhyming words as you climb the stairs, one word for each step until you reach the top. (The words can be real or nonsense, it makes no difference as long as they rhyme). And reading books that have rhyming text is a wonderful tool for letting your child hear the similar sounds in words! Read a few of these as a start and find a few of your own: Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson (Margaret K. McElderry, 2002), Who Will Tuck Me in Tonight? By Carol Roth (North-South Books, 2006), Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney (Viking Juvenile, 2005), The Fat Cat Sat on the Mat by Nurit Karlin (Harper Collins, 1998), or anything by Dr. Seuss.

Phonics

Unlike phonemic awareness, phonics activities add printed letters into the mix. “Phonics activities connect sounds with letters. If you play a sound matching game and then tell your child what letter represents each matching sound, you have added a phonics lesson to the activity,” says Williams. “For example, if your child recognizes that the words 'monkey' and 'mop' both begin with the /m/ sound, you can print the letter m and tell your child that that letter makes the /m/ sound.”

After your child gets the hang of listening for and identifying the sounds in words, you can add the written letter to make it into a phonics activity. Try a few of these fun first phonics activities to boost your child’s reading readiness:

  • Fridge Phonics. Use the magnetic letters on your fridge for some wonderful, hands-on phonics activities. Have your child gather a handful of letters and search for items that begin with each. While you are cooking dinner, he can bring his letter and item pairs for you to see.
  • I Spy. While you are out and about, play a game of phonics I Spy. Bring along your magnetic letters or letters written on scraps of paper. The first player draws a letter and then finds something that begins with that letter. For example, “I spy with my little eye, something that starts with T.” If the other players need more help, you can give additional clues about color, size, shape or add more phonics clues, like the letter it ends with.
  • The “Write” Stuff. As your child begins to write, he may use letters to represent words. For example, if you child makes a flower and the writes an FR, this is a good thing! Your child has mastered the alphabetic principle, which is the understanding that letters are symbols used to represent speech sounds. Don’t worry about spelling; just encourage him to continue to write the sounds he hears, a perfect phonics lesson!
  • Alphabet Books. There are many wonderful alphabet books in print. These books give children the opportunity to both see and hear the letters and sounds in the alphabet and are wonderful additions to your home library. Here are a few classics: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. (Beach Lane Books, 2000), Alphabet Mystery by Audrey Wood (Blue Sky Press, 2003), Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming (Henry Holt and Co., 2006), Eating the Alphabet: Fruits & Vegetables from A to Z by Lois Ehlert (Voyager Books, 1993), Dr. Seuss's ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book! by Dr. Seuss (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1996).

Research indicates that your child’s success as a reader is largely dependent upon his ability to identify and manipulate sounds before he begins to read. A little bit of time and energy invested in phonemic awareness and phonics activities will yield great returns as your child begins to read. So go ahead and play around with sounds and letters - you and your child will be glad you did!

More preschool phonics activities: