When you think about the first steps in teaching young children to read, you likely think about starting with the letters- their names and their sounds. Teaching the ABCs can start any time a preschooler is ready, but there are actually a couple of other things we can do before Kindergarten to set the stage for literacy development: read aloud to your child every day, and teach them phonological awareness skills.
As previously mentioned, in order to learn to read and write, children must understand that their spoken words are made up of speech sounds. This is called phonological awareness, and children who have a good grasp of this concept have an easier time learning to read and spell.
Rhyming is an early phonological awareness skill. When preschoolers notice that “bat” and “hat” and “splat” are rhymes, they are learning about the sounds of words. Phonological awareness skills start simple and get more complicated. On the more complex end, children learn that words have individual sounds (or phonemes), for example, “peek” is made up of three sounds: “p + ee + k.” These sounds are like building blocks: they can be separated, they can be combined, and they can be moved around. In “peek” you can swap the “k” for “l” and suddenly you get “peel.” In “skip” if you delete the “k” you get “sip.” Words with complex structures, like consonant blends (as in “stamps”), are trickier to manipulate.
The progression of phonological awareness skills:
This all may seem very obvious to grown-ups, but some children actually have a hard time grasping the concept of phonological awareness. Whether it’s easy or difficult for a child to master it, phonological awareness should be taught in the preschool and early elementary years. What can parents do to help? Well, that depends on the age of the child.
- 3-year-olds: Read rhyming books and point out the words that rhyme. You can point out the printed rhyming words, but really the focus should be on having the child listen to how the words sound. Two of my favourite rhyming books are Green Eggs & Ham by Dr. Seuss and Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw. You can also begin to segment words into syllables: clap syllables in words, for example, do 3 claps as you say “di…no…saur.” Three-year-olds can’t necessarily do rhyming or syllable segmentation on their own, but they will be able to do it along with you.
- 4-year-olds: Keep reading those rhyming books! Try to get your child to detect rhymes (“Do cat and bat rhyme?” “Do cat and dog rhyme?”), produce rhymes (“What rhymes with big?”), and clap/count the syllables in spoken words. If these are tricky, you can give big hints. “What rhymes with big? It’s an animal that oinks! That’s right, big and pig rhyme. Say them with me!” You can do these things while reading together, or at any other time. Driving in the car is a great time to play word games. Also, you can introduce alliteration: talk about how some words start with the same sound. A classic book for this is Dr. Seuss’s ABC which I still recall hearing on my dad’s lap as a young child.
- 5-year-olds: In addition to all of the above, try to get your child to figure out the first sound in a spoken word, and to figure out which words have the same first sounds (like soup, salad, sandwich all start with “sss”). You can play “odd one out”- figure out which word doesn’t have the same first sound (like chicken, cheese, pizza, chips). You can also teach your 5-year-old to figure out the number of sounds in a word, by using your fingers or little blocks to count the sounds. Start with simple words and have fun doing it together. And then if you’re really up for a wild time, there’s Shirley Ellis’s Name Game song and Raffi’s Apples and Bananas song, which are great to introduce sound manipulation (adding, deleting, swapping sounds).
- 6-year-olds+: At this point, things really get fun. Children should get really good at blending sounds to make words, segmenting words into sounds, and manipulating sounds (delete “k” in clap and you get lap). Puns are an excellent way to work on this: How do turtles call each other? On their shell phones! Talk about why it’s funny- the “sss” in cell was swapped for a “sh”, making shell. Time for corny knock-knock jokes and puns!
And what if your child goes to preschool or school in another language? Phonological awareness skills are transferable between languages! If your family, like mine, speaks one language at home while children are learning another language at school, no problem! Phonological awareness is crucial for any language that uses an alphabetic writing system. Working on it in your home language will help the child’s reading and writing in the school language, too.
If your child seems to have a hard time learning phonological awareness skills, it’s not necessarily cause for worry, but it would be a good idea to monitor literacy development. The excellent website Reading Rockets has a guide that shows the age by which 80-90% of children have mastered particular skills. If your preschool-aged child is experiencing difficulty with phonological awareness, as well as other language difficulties (such as speech production, vocabulary and grammar development), then it’s likely a good idea to consult a speech-language pathologist. If your school-aged child seems to have trouble with phonological awareness, learning the letter names/sounds, and reading and spelling, it would be worthwhile to consult an SLP experienced in literacy difficulties.