Grow a Reader: Phonological Awareness

By Annette Risley

“Willoughby wallaby wee, an elephant sat on me.
Willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on you.
Willoughby wallaby Wustin, an elephant sat on Justin.
Willoughby wallaby Wania, an elephant sat on Tania.”

Raffi may sound like he’s singing nonsense (well, I suppose he really is!), but there’s a method to his silliness. What he is playfully introducing and emphasizing is a pre-reading skill called Phonological Awareness. In other words, the rhyming and alliteration he so wonderfully uses help a child hear and play with the smaller sounds of words, which, in turn, lays the foundation for sounding out words when beginning to read.

Articles and studies like the one found here support the importance of this skill as a stepping stone for literacy. Caregivers can easily incorporate play that builds phonological awareness, as in the following examples:

  1. Make a game of clapping out the syllables of words, starting with the child’s name. Then use stomping feet, shaky eggs, an oatmeal container, etc. to make the game more interesting.
  2. Sing songs, using the same instruments. Most songs break up words into one syllable per note.
  3. When reading a book with rhyming text, emphasize the rhyming words while reading. “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you SEE? I see a red bird looking at ME.”
  4. Play “I Spy” using something that can be seen, then rhyme with a second object name that isn’t necessarily visible. For example, “I spy a chair and a bear” or “I spy a leg and an egg.”
  5. Using a familiar song, substitute another letter at the beginning of each word to emphasize the sound of the letter as well as the alliteration. For example, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” becomes “bed, boulders, bees and boes” or “wed, woulders, wees and woes.”
  6. Tongue twisters!  “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” or “A tidy tiger tied a tighter tie to tidy her tiny tail” or “Granny grows grapes in her garden.”

Just as studies have shown that young children learn best by playing, so Phonological Awareness is learned best by simply having fun and letting the silliness loose! And, of course, read! Children’s books abound with alliteration and rhyme, but here are a few suggestions to get started.

Imaginative and alliterative sentences (Leonard’s lobster loves licking lollipops!) highlight each letter of the alphabet. Encourage your children to make their own silly sentences with their names.

A simple, repeating rhyming pattern combined with an introduction to colors and animals make this a classic for the earliest learner.

The natural rhythm and rhyme of this book encourage foot-stomping and hand-clapping!

Who doesn’t like pretending to jump up and down on the bed with each syllable?

Animals sit on objects that rhyme with their names. What would YOU sit on? Dad on a pad? Mom on a pom-pom?

After reading the book, ask what other words rhyme with a rhyming pattern, such as Sam, ham, etc.

Have your children guess which body part comes next (hint--it rhymes!). If they have trouble, give them a choice of body parts and repeat the rhyming word.

Read through the book once, then point out the rhyming words the second time through. If your children get the hang of it, have them guess what rhyming word comes at the end of the sentence.

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