Many children struggling to learn to read have a core deficit in phonemic awareness. Intervention focus for phonemic awareness uses an informal phonological awareness assessment to determine student current skill attainment and provides instruction and practice with feedback to build more advanced skills, moving from more basic skills such as segmenting and blending phonemes in a word to more advanced skills such as substituting medial vowel sounds. It can be helpful to use visual scaffolds to anchor the sounds students are working with during interventions. Hand motions, Elkonin boxes, and manipulatives (such as tokens or letter tiles) are popular supports.
What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is “the ability to be aware of and consciously think about individual speech sounds (phonemes) in spoken words” (International Dyslexia Association, 2022, p. 1). Phonemic awareness allows a learner to isolate, blend, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. This understanding builds the foundation for phonics, improves students’ word reading, and helps them learn to spell.
Blending involves putting sounds together. Beginning readers use letter-sound skills to say each sound in a word ("/m/, /a/, /p/), and then blend the sounds together to read the word (map).
Segmenting involves pulling sounds apart in spoken words ("fish – /f/, /i/, /sh/"). To spell a word, students must break the word down into its individual sounds and select letters that represent the sounds.
Manipulation involves changing individual phonemes (sounds) in a word. Manipulating sounds is the most difficult of all phonemic awareness tasks.
Explicit Intervention in Phonemic Awareness
Self-Reflection: What intervention strategies and practices do you use to build students' phonemic awareness?
Preparing to Implement the Intervention
Administer a phonological awareness assessment to determine skill attainment and needs. Once focus skills have been identified, plan explicit instructional routines, such as those presented in the video, that model the task and allow for students’ meaningful practice with target phonemic awareness skills using the “I do, we do, you do” model for instruction. Manipulatives, such as tokens or letter tiles, can serve as visual representations of the phonemes. Remember to connect phonemic awareness intervention with phonics instruction whenever possible to facilitate quicker progress in reading.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why should I focus on phonemic awareness?
The point of developing a student’s phonemic awareness skills is so they can more efficiently read and spell words. Phoneme-level skills contribute directly to the development of reading skills.
I work with a student who cannot rhyme or identify syllables. Should I intervene here?
Although there are some benefits to learning rhyme and syllables, acquiring these skills has no measurable impact on reading and does not facilitate growth in using phonemes. Mastery of rhyming and syllables is not necessary before moving on to teach basic phoneme awareness.
Should students practice phonemic awareness with or without letters?
Teaching children to manipulate phonemes using letters is the most effective way to develop phonemic awareness and the method most likely to transfer to word reading. As soon as students know a small handful of letters, incorporating those letters into phonemic awareness instruction will build phoneme awareness and decoding skills better than instruction without letters.
Resources for Phonemic Awareness Interventions
Elkonin boxes are a great way to develop student’s phonemic awareness. Students can count the individual sounds called phonemes in each word first, and then they move a chip into each box to represent each sound.
Before starting phonemic awareness intervention, ensure that you and students are articulating sounds correctly. For example, the first sound in 'dog' is /d/ not /duh/.
Students benefit from watching your mouth position as you articulate and teach individual phonemes. You can describe how the sound is formed by the lips, tongue, and teeth. Students can also watch their own mouths making the sounds with hand mirrors.
The University of Florida Literacy Institute's Virtual Teaching Resource Hub features activities to assist teachers to teach phonemic awareness skills using technology.
Use this lesson plan from the National Center on Intensive Intervention to help students practice blending phonemes into words.
Use this lesson plan from the National Center on Intensive Intervention to help students learn to segment words into individual phonemes.
This toolkit from the National Center on Improving Literacy includes many resources on how to support the development of phonemic awareness.
Understand the essential features of speech sounds through animations, videos, and audio samples. English Sounds of Speech is especially useful for English Learners.
Additional Learning Opportunities
Watch Shifting to Structured Literacy: Phonemic Awareness presented by Dr. Jan Hasbrouck.
Watch Understanding the Role of Phonemic Proficiency in Boosting Reading Skills in Struggling Readers presented by Dr. David Kilpatrick.
Access Module #2 – Phonological Awareness developed by Student Achievement Partners. Guidelines for teaching phonological awareness and concrete recommendations for practice are explored in the course video and accompanying handouts.