11 Simple, Joyful Ways to Boost Phonemic Awareness in Kindergarten

Blog heading shows a photo of picture cards in a pocket chart. The text says: 11 Simple, Joyful Ways to Boost Phonemic Awareness in Kindergarten.

I remember when I first learned about phonemic awareness in kindergarten. 

It was early in my career and I had read an article in The Reading Teacher about the importance of phonemic awareness skills for early readers. I couldn’t wait to try some of the activities in the arcticle.

Many of the tasks were set up like games or playful activities, which got my students hooked! I quickly learned that teaching phonemic awareness skills can be quick, simple and fun – for both kids and teachers.

I’ll share of few of my favorite activities with you. But first, some background information for those who are new to this concept.

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and play with (manipulate) the sounds in words. As students develop phonemic awareness skills, they realize that words are made up of sequences of sounds.

Phonemic awareness refers specifically to hearing sounds in words, not the ability to sound out words when looking at the letters. Phonemic awareness activities can be done without using letters, although there is evidence that phonemic awareness skills develop faster when attached to print.

What is an example of phonemic awareness for kindergarten?

Students use phonemic awareness skills when they do any of the following:

  • name the first (or last, or middle) sound in a word
  • break a word into parts (aka segmenting), such as breaking “hit” into /h/ /i/ /t/
  • blending sounds together to identify the word, for example blending /sh/ /o/ /p/ to create “shop”
  • adding a sound to the beginning of a word to create a new word, such as adding /p/ to “an” to make “pan”
  • removing a sound from a word, to create a new word, like saying “chin” without /ch/ to make “in”
  • changing a sound in a word to make a new word, for instance, changing the /p/ in “pan” to /r/, making ran.

It should be noted that any of these tasks can be done with sounds at the middle or end of a word, as well as at the beginning.

Students typically develop the following phonemic awareness skills in kindergarten:

  • first sound
  • segmenting 3-4 sounds
  • blending 3-4 sounds
  • adding a sound 
  • sometimes removing and changing sounds

Other skills continue to develop through first and second grade.

You can find free phonemic awareness assessments online. Two common ones are the PAST (Kilpatrick) and the Heggerty assessments. 

The PAST starts with syllable level skills (phonological awareness) for preschool and early kindergarten. It also includes skills that are typically developed through 3rd grade.

The Heggerty assessments are broken down more specifically by grade level. There are options for pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and primary. You do need to share an email address to access the Heggerty assessments.

Why is phonemic awareness important in kindergarten?

As you can tell from the tasks above, phonemic awareness is closely related to reading and spelling. In order to sound out words, students need to be able to blend sounds together.

To be able to spell words, they need to hear the sounds in the word, then learn to match those sounds with letters or spelling patterns.

Adding, removing or changing sounds in words (more advanced skills) help students develop skills for solving new words. For instance, if a child can read “ice” when they come to the word “slice” they can add /s/ /l/ to the beginning of “ice” to figure out the word. This flexibility helps solve words more efficiently on the run.

How do you teach phonemic awareness in kindergarten?

Phonemic awareness skills are developed by playing with words. Some children develop these skills faster than others. If you are teaching an entire class of young readers (or an individual child who has weak phonemic awareness skills), it’s important to explicitly teach the skills.

The great news is that teaching phonemic awareness skills can be quick and fun! The National Reading Panel suggests that students need about 14-18 hours of instruction in phonemic awareness skills.

This means about 10-15 minutes a day for half of the kindergarten year. 

Many phonemic awareness activities feel fun and playful for students. The fast pace and game-like structure keeps them engaged in learning.

Below are a few of fun phonemic awareness activities for kindergarten.

What’s the Sound? (Naming the 1st Sounds in a Word)

Say 3 words that start with the same sound (ex: nest, nose, nine.) (Or show and name three picture cards that start with the same sound.)  

For students who are new to the task, demonstrate how you can hear the same sound (/n/) at the beginning of all three words.

For instance: “Nest starts with /n/.” Or “When I say ‘nest,’ the first sound my mouth makes is /n/. You try it.”

Once they are ready to practice the skill, have the students repeat the 3 words, then identify what sound they all start with.

You can also use this structured activity to practice identifying the middle or ending sound in a word.

Sound Sorts (Naming the 1st Sounds in a Word)

Grab a set of picture cards and find several pairs that start the same (ex: banana-balloon, doctor-dinosaur, hat-heart). 

Place one card from each pair in a pocket chart, naming the picture (ex: banana, doctor, hat). Show the remaining cards, one at a time. Have the students repeat the word and name the first sound. Then have students match them to the picture that starts the same.

Alternatively, find several pictures that start with the same two sounds (ex: /p/ and /t/). Students can help sort them into two columns in the pocket chart.

Photo of an activity for phonemic awareness in kindergarten. There are 6 picture cards in a pocket chart. The picture cards are sorted by first sound (police, pig, pear; tie, turtle, turkey).

This activity can also be used to focus on ending or middle sounds.

Don’t have time to make your own picture cards? I already made some for phonemic awareness picture cards, to save you time! The set includes pictures for beginning and ending sounds (as well as syllables and rhyming words, for when you work on those skills.) Grab the pre-made cards here.

Which Doesn’t Belong? (Naming the 1st Sounds in a Word)

Create sets of 3-4 picture cards, with all but one starting with the same sound.

Present each set of cards and encourage students to find the one that doesn’t match. (To make this easier, you could first focus on finding the 2-3 that start the same.)

Photo of 4 picture cards in a pocket chart. Three pictures start with the same sound (police, pig, pizza) and one starts with a different sound (tie.)

Again, as students’ skills develop, this activity can also be used with ending and middle sounds.

I Spy (Naming the 1st Sounds in a Word)

In a twist on the classic game, tell students the first sound of the item you spy in the room. For instance, “I spy with my little eye, something that starts with /d/.” Students need to find things starting with /d/, such as door or desk, until they identify the one you have in mind.

You can simplify this game by placing 10-20 picture cards in the pocket chart or objects on a table. This narrows the items the students need to consider.

This is also a fun game for a small group of students to play with each other.

It also makes a great sponge activity if you have an extra minute!

What’s My Word? (Blending)

This task will work on blending parts/sounds into words. Tell students that you are going to say the parts/sounds in a word and they have to figure out the word by putting the parts/sounds together. Make it fun by acting like your word is a big mystery!

It is easiest to work with word parts, before advancing to blending the individual sounds in words.

Easiest: (by syllable): 

  • cup-cake
  • ta-ble
  • af-ter

Slightly Harder: (first sound/s, the rest of the word): 

  • p-at
  • b-ug
  • fl-ip 

Harder: (sound by sound): 

  • /p/ /ĭ/ /g/
  • /f/ /ǎ/ /n/
  • /w/ /ĭ/ /sh/
  • /f/ /l/ /ǎ/ /g/

Note: As you change to more challenging tasks with “What’s My Word?”, it may be helpful to provide a visual support. For example, place the following picture cards in the pocket chart: pig, fox, dog (or pig, pop, pear for a bit more challenge). Then say the sounds in one of those words for students to blend.

Touch It (Blending)

This phonemic awareness game is easy to play on the run. It’s perfect for those moments when you show up 2 minutes early for recess (OK, I hear that happens to some people, even though I’ve never experienced it!)

To play, tell students they are going to touch the part of the body you name, but you’re going to say the word in parts.

For example: “Touch your /n/ /ē/ (knee.)”

There are so many body parts that work well for this game: head, nose, cheek, chin, lip, leg, foot, toe, hip…

Stretch It Out (Segmenting)

Explain to children that you have a challenge for them. You’re going to say a word and they have to break it into the sounds they hear.

For instance, when you say “rice” they should say /r/ /ī/ /s/.

It is sometimes helpful to have students use their hands to create a “stretching” motion as they do this. 

Have them place their hands together (as fists, or like they are holding a rubber band.)

If it is too challenging for students to separate all the sounds in a word, use larger word parts. For instance, tell me the parts in:

  • sandwich (sand-wich): compound words
  • under (un-der): 2-syllable words

Or have them break words into the first sound (onset) and last part (rime). For example:

  • fish: f-ish
  • like: l-ike
  • plan: pl-an

(Technical note: officially, the onset is the part of a one-syllable word that comes before the vowel. The rime is the rest of the word, starting with the vowel sound. Students don’t need to understand these terms, and could possibly be confused by them.)

Segment with Cubes (Segmenting)

This activity might work best with a small group, to better manage the cubes.

Give each child a stack of three connecting cubes or blocks. Say a word, like “pit.” Students repeat the word, then move one cube/block to the left for each sound in the word. (It’s never too early to emphasize directionality of print.)

As students’ skills develop, you can move to words with 4 sounds. If students need the task to be easier, use words with two sounds (such as: me, at, am.)

Tap it (Segmenting)

Say a word (or show a picture). Students repeat the word and tap for each sound in the word.

You can be creative about the tapping. Your students might tap:

  • one finger on the table (or one finger per sound, moving from the pointer finger to the pinky)
  • fingers on their legs
  • fingers on their noses
  • hands on the floor
  • hands on the table (quietly)
  • toes on the floor
A phonemic awareness picture card showing  a log.

Mystery Word (Adding a Sound)

This is similar to “What’s My Word?”

Have students say a short word, such as “at.” Then have them say “at,” but add /b/ to the front. The new word is “bat.”

If you are stumped a bit for words to use, think about word families:

  • at (bat, sat, fat…)
  • an (man, ran, fan…)
  • in (win, bin, fin…)
  • it (sit, fit, lit…)
  • and (band, sand, hand…)
  • end (send, bend, lend…)

Mystery Word 2 (Subtracting a Sound)

Using the same kinds of words as above, have students say the whole word, then say it without the first sound to make a new word.

You would tell them “Say ‘bat.’ Now say ‘bat,’ but don’t say /b/.” Be super mysterious about it –  and surprised when they figure it out!

This is often a tricky task for kids. If your students are having a hard time with it, here’s a little tip:

Have them whisper the first sound, then say the rest out loud. So with “bat,” they would whisper /b/ and say “at” loudly.

You will probably have to model this and have students echo you for several days. But it will start to click.

Soon they can transition to saying the first sound “in their head” and the rest out loud. They will be well on their way with this phonemic awareness task!

A Few Final Words about Phonemic Awareness in Kindergarten

Basic phonemic awareness skills for kindergarteners can be developed in a relatively short amount of time. Just 10-15 minutes of whole class work for part of the year should get most of your students where they need to be.

A few students may need some additional support, ideally in small groups or individually. Avoid confusion by going back to tasks that are easy for the students in the group, then moving toward more advanced skills.

Remember that the tasks related to isolation, adding or subtracting sounds can be at the beginning or end of a word (and sometimes in the middle.)

Keep in mind that phonemic awareness skills are not technically connected to print. They are all auditory tasks.

Some evidence suggests that tying phonemic awareness to print may help it develop faster. Some easy ways to do that include:

  • adding letter cards with picture sorts (sort by Mm or Tt)
  • with initial sound tasks (like I Spy), rely primarily on oral sounds, but take a minute to connect each sound to the printed letter at the end of each round
  • once students understand the basic tasks of blending and segmenting, add letters; students could blend or segment orally, then read or write the printed word
  • use a whiteboard to demonstrate how you can erase a letter at the beginning of a word to create a new word (bat – at)

Finally, keep it fun! Practicing phonemic awareness skills can either feel like drudgery or like a game. Use the fun activities described in this post to make it feel engaging for your students. Engagement helps learning stick!

Want to spice up other parts of your reading day? Check out this blog post about fun reading activities for kindergarten (and other young learners.)

Pinterest pin image showing a photo of picture cards in a pocket chart. The text says: 11 Simple, Joyful Ways to Boost Phonemic Awareness in Kindergarten.

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