Building a Strong Foundation for Reading Success in Young Children


As an educator that specializes in teaching students with learning differences I am often asked by parents of young children, “How can I ensure that my child will be a successful reader and speller?” While a number of factors play a role in this effort, one of the most important is to build their phonological awareness, which is the basic foundation upon which all reading and spelling skills are built. It is a child’s awareness of the oral language segments (syllables and sounds) that comprise words, and scientific research indicates that without this crucial underpinning literacy skill children will struggle to achieve reading and spelling success.

Beginning to strengthen a child’s phonological awareness can happen quite early—it is an auditory skill that should be part of their literacy instruction in pre-school, pre-kindergarten, and kindergarten classrooms. Additionally, there are simple tasks that can be practiced at home.

Several skills fall under the umbrella of phonological awareness. They include rhyming; segmentation of sentences, syllables, and sounds; sound isolation; deletion of syllables and sounds; substitution of sounds; and blending sounds and syllables. Below is a description of each area and how to exercise these skills with your child.

The ability to recognize when words rhyme, and the ability to produce rhymes, is a skill that young children usually come by rather easily. For example, if you asked, “Cat, pat—do these words rhyme?” Your child should respond, “yes.” If you asked, “Flip, cot—do these words rhyme?” The response would be, “no.” You can do this activity in the car, waiting in line at a store, or at the dinner table. Tell your child that you are going to say two words and ask if they rhyme. Alternatively, tell your child that you are going to say a word and you want them to tell you a word that rhymes with it. It can be a made up word if they want. For instance, if you say, “tell me a word that rhymes with bat,” their response may be “rat,” or “tat.” Either one is correct. They are demonstrating their ability to rhyme.

Segmenting sentences, syllables, and sounds is another precursor to reading success. When you perform a segmenting task with your child you are asking them to chunk language into parts. For a sentence you are asking them to name all the separate words; for a multi-syllable word you are asking them to name the syllables; and for a single syllable word you are asking them to name the individual sounds. Tell your child that you are going to play a word game: you will say a sentence, and they need to clap once for each individual word. Say a sentence such as, “summer is my favorite season.” Your child should clap 5 times. Keep sentences limited to a maximum of five words.

The next level of segmentation is to identify the individual syllables in words. Tell your child that you are going to say a word, and they need to clap for each part of the word. For example, you might say the word, “scramble,” and ask your child to clap for each syllable. Lastly, the most challenging task is segmenting a word into its individual sounds. For this task, ask your child to tell you each sound in a given word. It is important to note that some words may have more letters than sounds. One such example is the word, “stash,” which has five letters but only 4 sounds, as the letter combination /sh/ makes only one sound. Segmenting prepares a child to compartmentalize the sounds in words for reading and spelling.

Two other important phonological tasks are deleting syllables or sounds from a given word and substituting sounds in a given word. The former requires a child to listen to a word and repeat it without one of its parts or sounds. Asking your child to say, “kangaroo,” and then to say it again without saying, “roo,” is one such example. Further, you can ask your child to delete a sound from a word and repeat the new word. This is a more complex task. Ask your child to say the word, “meat,” and then to say it again without the /m/ sound, which would result in the word, “eat.”

Once a child can complete deletion activities they can advance to substituting sounds in a given word. This task can be completed with colored blocks, wherein one block represents one sound. When using colored blocks, begin by telling your child that you are going to show them how to make the word, “sun.” Place three different colored blocks in a horizontal line going from left to right to represent the sounds in the word. Next, ask your child to change sun to fun. They would need to recognize that the first sound changed from /s/ to /f/, so they would change the first block to a different color. Continue in the same way until they have made four more changes. This procedure can be done without the visual aid of the blocks as well.

Having the ability to name sounds in isolation is another skill young readers must possess. When given a word orally they should be able to name the initial, middle, and final sounds. If given the word happy, your child should be able to name /h/ as the first sound. It is important to remember that they are naming the sound and not the letter name. It is common for children to have difficulty distinguishing between a letter’s sound and its name. When asking for the middle sound only, provide words with three sounds such as, “moon,” “bait,” or “cub.”

Blending sounds at the syllable and sound level is the final phonological task a child has to master. If given a multi-syllable word in its parts, they should be able to blend it together and say the whole word. For example, say to your child, “flow-er. What is this word?” If they repeat it in parts, ask them to say it faster and model for them how to say the entire word blended together. When preparing for this activity it is important to not exceed four syllables. At the sound level, tell your child that you are going to say the sounds of a word, and they need to guess what the word is. For instance, say /g-a-p/ and ask “What word is this?” Choose words with a maximum of five sounds.

When practicing phonological awareness at home, only plan for a 5-10-minute activity per day and 1-2 areas to concentrate on, such as rhyming and segmentation, or isolation and deletion. As you begin to study phonological awareness with your child start with rhyming. If you suspect that they may have a deficit in this area, testing may be required to determine whether intervention is needed. The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing-2 (CTOPP-2) is an assessment that you can request your school to administer. A child needs to be at least five years old to receive this test.

Ensuring that your child can become a proficient reader and speller is possible with appropriate phonological awareness practice. It is notable that phonological awareness does not always come naturally—some children require direct instruction in this area before they learn the rules that govern the English language. Being proactive will help prevent your child from struggling with literacy skills and assist them in becoming a lifelong adept reader.

Some helpful resources for phonological awareness activities include:

•    Phonemic Awareness in Young Children by Marilyn Adams & Barbara Foorman

•    Purposeful Play for Early Childhood Phonological Awareness by Hallie Yopp & Ruth Helen Yopp

•    Phonemic Awareness Activities for early Reading Success by Wiley Blevins


Beth Dinelli is the Director of Commonwealth Learning Center.