Spoken language has sound, from the strings of utterances that we call sentences to the discrete, specific sounds (phonemes) that make up every word. It’s vital that young students become aware of the sounds of language and skillful in their analysis and manipulation, and so today’s post looks at phonology – the study (and teaching) of language sounds.
Phonology and phonological awareness
To begin, let’s be clear on terms. Phonological and phonemic are not synonymous. Rather, phonological is the more encompassing term. Think of it as a big bookshelf labeled “the general awareness of the sound structures of speech.” This bookshelf is divided into sections that include, moving from the largest sound units of speech to the smallest, whole words (sunset), syllables (sun and set), onsets and rimes (s-un and s-et), and phonemes (s-u-n-s-e-t). Students who are phonologically aware can hear and count the number of words in a spoken sentence, as well as the number of syllables in a word. They can also produce rhymes and alliterations, such as Henny Penny and Peter Piper, as well as segment words into their onsets and rimes, such as P-eter and P-iper.
Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness; it occupies a small but very important space on the big bookshelf. Students with advanced phonological awareness are phonemically aware. This means they not only understands that words are an amalgamation of discrete sounds, but they can also hear individual sounds within any given word, segment these sounds from a whole word, blend them together to create a spoken word, and even create a new word by manipulating, subtracting, or adding sounds.
Some languages are made up of over 100 discrete phonemes. Others, like Hawaiian, have fewer than 15. The English language has 44. To discriminate between these sounds, produce them, and manipulate them, a student doesn’t need to see anything at all and so phonological and phonemic activities can be done in in the dark. In a purely phonological activity, no text is involved. But skillful teaching is!
Activities that move students down the bookshelf
There are many activities for teaching phonology, from the word level to the discrete sound level (phonemes). To move students along the shelf, let’s start with two that draw attention to the macro levels of spoken language: understanding that sentences contain words and understanding words have syllables. In the next biweekly post, we’ll move to the micro level: words are made of discrete sounds called phonemes.
Word level: Hoppy Kangaroo
Hoppy Kangaroo helps students in preK and early kindergarten hear and count the number of words in a sentence. Hoppy jumps each time a word is said. If a sentence has four words – The cake is tasty – Hoppy jumps four times. Notice we are not talking about syllables (tasty has two). Rather, the emphasis is on recognizing words, the largest blobs of sounds in language.
If you happen to have a kangaroo hand puppet, great. But my Hoppy is a simple piece of clip-art, colored and attached to a ruler. Student kangaroos are the same art, scaled smaller and taped to popsicle sticks.
To teach, directly and explicitly tell students that sentences are made of words. Then introduce Hoppy however you like. Say Hoppy only jumps when whole words are spoken. Next, say a sentence, such as “I like grapes.” I think it’s best to start with sentences that have only single-syllable words. Have students say the sentence with you and maybe even on their own (I Say, We Say, You Say). As you hold Hoppy, repeat the sentence once more and this time make her hop each time a word is said: “I (hop) like (hop) grapes.” Finally, repeat the sentence once more and have your students count the number of time Hoppy hops. Click here to see a vid of Hoppy in action.
Take the activity to a more advanced level by saying sentences with more words, first four and then five. Bring in some two-syllable words but remember: Hoppy hops on words, not syllables. For preschool and early kindergarten children, six to seven words might be a lot to count but see how far you can go.
An even more advanced form of Hoppy Kangaroo is to put him out to pasture. Tell the kids that Hoppy is away, perhaps having breakfast at the IHOP (know you’re acronyms!). Then say a sentence at a slow to medium tempo and allow students to count the words without the kangaroo.
To connect this activity to text without having to use spelled out words, use the Magic Line. I'll give more on the Magic Line in an upcoming post.
Syllable level: Hands Together, Apart, and Away
Advanced phonemic skills include adding, subtracting, and substituting phonemes to make new words out of existing words. Set the stage for this skill by teaching children to add and subtract the larger sound chunks of syllables. Deleting one word of a compound word eases them into this concept; replacing the deleted word with a different word, thus forming a new compound word, takes the skill to the next level. To help children better understand how deletions and additions work, use the hands together, apart, and away activity.
To model this multi-sensory activity, turn your back to your students and present the back of your hands to preserve “reading left to right.” With your hands together, thumb touching thumb, say, “Daylight.” Pull your hands apart and say the compound words as separate words: “Day, light.”
Next, put your hands back together and say, “Daylight.” Then, ask your students to say daylight without day. Model taking away your left hand and gently shaking your right. If they don’t know the remaining word, say, “Light.”
Next, as your students to say daylight without light, taking away your right hand and gently shaking your left. If they don’t know the word, say, “Day.” The pictures from my recently published book show a first grader doing the activity. Click this link to see a video of me demonstrating Hands Together, Apart and Away.
As with Hoppy Kangaroo, a more advanced form of Hands Together, Apart, and Away is to do the activity without using hands! Once kids can accomplish this with a 2-syllable compound word, go to three syllable words. At this point, unless you are an octopus, you simply cannot use your hands to segment syllables. Have students say a three-syllable word like December. Then ask them to say the word with a syllable deleted. For example, “Say December without the De.” (Cember) Or say, “Say December without the last syllable.” (Decem).” Or ask them, “What is the first syllable? What is the last syllable?”
In two weeks, phonemes!
In my next blog I’ll describe Stretch, Tap, and Zap, which move children farther down the bookshelf by teaching them to hear and then segment the phonemes that make up words.
The activities described in this blog (as well as many others) can be found in my new book, How To Prevent Reading Difficulties, PreK-3: Proactive Practices for Teaching Young Children to Read. Click these links to the preview the book at Corwin or Amazon.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.