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Phonological awareness: Learning the sounds in words

Being able to hear and make sense of the sounds that make up words is called phonological awareness. This includes:
  • rhyming (e.g., cat and bat)
  • beginning and ending sounds—words may begin or end with the same sound (e.g., pig and pen, mat and mitt)
  • breaking up words (this is called segmenting)—words can be divided into syllables or “chunks” (e.g., cowboy = cow-boy, butterfly = but-ter-fly) or sounds (e.g. fun = f-u-n, cat = c-a-t)
  • blending—syllables and sounds can be combined to make words (e.g., el-e-phant = elephant, b-a-t = bat)
  • letter and sound associations—linking letters to the sound the letter makes and the name of the letter (buh = b = the letter “B”)

Your child doesn’t have to learn how to talk perfectly before they learn how to read. Many children who have speech problems can learn to read. Once your child learns to hear the sounds in language they can use this skill to read and spell.

​​​​​What can I do to help my child hear the sounds in words?

Your child will need training and practice to learn to hear the sounds in words. Activities to help your child to hear the sounds will also help your child learn how to read. Below are some activities to try with your child.

  • Play alphabet games. Sing the alphabet song when you play with alphabet books, blocks, and magnetic letters. Say letters as you go up and down stairs or push your child on a swing. You can buy A-B-C, dot-to-dot, and letter play workbooks, games, and puzzles at most toy stores. There are many computer games that teach children letters. Your child can play with these toys even when you can’t play along.
  • Read stories and draw attention to sounds as you read. Look for nursery rhymes, books, and songs that emphasize sounds, such as Dr. Seuss books, Mother Goose rhymes, and the song “Willoughby Wallaby Woo” by Raffi.
  • Play games using rhymes. Play “I Spy” (a game where you find something by looking at it and the other person has to guess what it is) and ask your child to spy an object that rhymes with a given word (e.g., “I spy something that rhymes with fall.”). To make the game a little harder, ask your child to choose words with the same beginning or ending sounds. Emphasize the sound, not the letter name (e.g., “I Spy something that starts with the ‘ssss’ sound,” could mean cereal, salt, or snow)
  • Count the syllables or sounds. Ask your child to tap, clap, or use some kind of rhythm instrument (e.g., a drum) when they say or hear each word in a sentence, each syllable in a word, or each sound in a word. Ask your child to tell you how many sounds they hear in a word (e.g., ask, “How many sounds do you hear in back? There are 3 sounds—b-a-ck.”).
  • Stretch out the sounds in a word. For example, say “sss-uuu-nnn” and ask your child to say the word “sun.”
  • Break up the sounds or syllables in words and ask your child to put them together. For example, say, “P plus ickle. What word is that?” (pickle). “M plus ilk. What word is that?” (milk).
  • Ask your child to fill in missing syllables and sounds in words. For example, say “Hambur_____. What word am I trying to say? What part was missing?” or “Ham_urger, What word am I trying to say? What sound was missing?” (hamburger).
  • Ask your child to repeat words with more than two syllables. For example, “De-cem-ber,” “Ham-bur-ger,” or “ma-ca-ro-ni.”
  • When you’re in the car with your child, look for signs or words that have a certain letter or sound. For example, look for things that have the “s” sound, such as STOP, SCHOOL ZONE, Smith​ Street.
  • Practice taking sounds away from words. For example, ask your child, “What word would be left if you take the buh (B) sound away from bat?” (at).
  • Give your child pencils, crayons, markers, and paper, and encourage them to use them. Help your child learn how to write their name and other important words or phrases. Over time, you can help your child learn to write more letters and words. Younger children can also practice making letters and words with playdough or in sand or snow.​​​

Where to go get help

For more information about how speech-language pathologists and audiologists can help, contact:

  • Your doctor, public health nurse, or other health provider
  • Your local health centre

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