The activities in this article develop rhyme awareness and the phonemic awareness skills of (1) identifying beginning sounds, (2) segmenting or separating words into individual sounds, and (3) blending individual sounds into words. We have not included rhyme awareness in our list of phonemic awareness skills because rhyme awareness calls for noticing bundles of sounds. Listening for several sounds is a less detailed analysis of spoken language than listening for individual sounds.
Rhyme awareness can be a helpful jumping-off point for developing phonemic awareness for some beginning readers. Because identifying rhyme asks the child to listen for sounds inside words, it may introduce the child to the basic idea that a word can be divided into parts, albeit somewhat large sound parts. The letters that represent spoken rhymes are called rimes. An is an example of a written rime. The an in man and pan (the written rime) corresponds to the rhyming sound of /an/ in /man/ and /can/. Knowing the letters that represent beginning and rhyming sounds makes it possible for some children to read and spell words that contain these sounds. While rhyme awareness can be a helpful stepping-stone to phonemic awareness, it does not necessarily result in greater awareness of individual sounds (Macmillan, 2002), unless we teach children to identify the separate sounds in rhymes (/at/ = /a/–/t/) (Ehri & Robbins, 1992).
Beginning-sound awareness is the first real step toward becoming aware of all the sounds in words. Awareness of beginning sounds is less taxing than segmenting and blending and, therefore, is usually the first phonemic awareness skill children develop. Children who are aware of beginning sounds can identify the beginning sounds in words and identify words that begin alike. For instance, kindergarteners who are aware of beginning sounds will tell you, their teacher, that /bat/ begins with a /b/, that /bat/ and /bug/ begin alike, and that /bat/ and /sit/ do not begin alike.
Rhyme awareness and beginning-sound awareness develop at about the same time (National Reading Panel, 2000). This makes sense when we consider how the child identifies rhyming words. In order to determine that /pig/ and /big/ rhyme, the child must isolate the rhyme from the other sounds in these words. In our example the child would separate the beginning sounds (/p/ and /b/) from the rhyme (/ig/). Consequently, the child who is aware of rhyming sounds is also aware of beginning sounds. The child who is aware of beginning sounds and knows letter–sound associations can use this knowledge along with picture clues and context clues to make an informed guess about a word’s identity. For example, on seeing moon the child thinks of the sound m represents, looks at the picture for confirmatory clues, and thinks about meaning. This is the first step toward building a reading vocabulary through the use of phonemic awareness and phonics. You will be a more effective teacher when you encourage this practice.
Segmenting and blending are the most important phonemic awareness skills. Segmenting is separating words into individual sounds (/pig/ consists of /p/, /i/, and /g/). Skill at segmenting develops in a predictable sequence. The child becomes aware of beginning sounds first (/pig/ begins with /p/), followed by awareness of ending sounds (/pig/ ends with /g/), and finally awareness of middle sounds (/i/ is the middle sound in /pig/). Identifying middle sounds is more difficult than identifying beginning and ending sounds. Consequently, the children in your classroom who are skilled at isolating beginning and ending sounds may need more practice to develop the skill of isolating middle sounds.
Blending is combining sounds to form words, such as blending /s/ + /a/ + /t/ to pronounce /sat/. Children use blending when they sound out a new word. For instance, in sounding out pan the beginning reader first associates a sound with each letter (p = /p/, a = /a/, n = /n/) and then blends the sounds into a familiar word (/p/ + /a/ + /n/= /pan/). Success at using phonics depends on blending the sounds together and, of course, on checking to make sure that pan makes sense in the reading context.
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