Originally Sent: 4/9/2015

HSLDA Homeschooling a Struggling Learner

April 9, 2015


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Looking Beyond Phonics

By Krisa Winn
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

We receive many phone calls from parents who are worried about their child’s progress—or lack thereof—in the area of reading. Usually, these children have had two or more years of phonics instruction and yet they are struggling to read. Although phonics instruction is an essential component of effectively teaching a child to read, there are other aspects that are just as important. In 2000, the National Reading Panel identified what is commonly known as the “Five Pillars” of effective reading instruction. Those pillars are: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. In this newsletter, I’d like to offer some ideas you can use, no matter what reading program you are currently using, to help develop one of the first pillars of effective reading instruction—phonemic awareness. First, let’s define each of these important pillars.

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Krisa Winn Learn more about our special needs consultants. Krisa Winn
  • Phonemic awareness—the knowledge that spoken words can be broken apart into smaller segments of sound known as phonemes.
  • Phonics—the knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent phonemes, and that these sounds are blended together to form written words. Readers who are skilled in phonics can sound out words they haven’t seen before, without first having to memorize them.
  • Fluency—the ability to recognize words easily, read with greater speed, accuracy, and expression, and to better understand what is read. Children gain fluency by practicing reading until the process becomes automatic.
  • Vocabulary—teaching new words, either as they appear in text, or by introducing new words separately.
  • Comprehension—techniques for helping individuals to understand what they read. Such techniques involve having students summarize what they’ve read, to gain a better understanding of the material. NRP (2000)

More on Phonemic Awareness

Very often, when we think about reading, we think of it as a visual process. However, reading is also an auditory process. From the definition provided above, we can see that phonemic awareness has less to do with identifying the letters that are seen and more to do with processing and ‘playing’ with the sounds that are heard. So, you may be wondering, “What exactly is phonemic awareness and how do I know if my child has a firm foundation in that area?” I’m glad you asked! A child with strong phonemic awareness will be able to

  • Identify if whole words are the same. For example: Are these words the same? Red, Rid?
  • Rhyme and demonstrate that ability in the following ways: determine if two words rhyme and supply or generate a word that rhymes with another word, e.g., What rhymes with cat?
  • Break words into syllables and be able to say how many syllables they hear in a word.
  • Manipulate sounds in words. For instance, the child will be able listen to the smallest parts of the word in isolation—/c/ /a/ /t/—and be able to blend them together to say the whole word: cat.
  • Identify the sound heard at the beginning, the end, and in the middle of a word.
  • Break a word into its onset and rime and then manipulate or interchange the beginning sound to make a new word. For instance: Change the /h/ in hat to /c/.

If you are unsure of your child’s phonemic awareness, consider creating a phonemic awareness “test.” Simply write out several questions for each of the categories listed above. Put the test in written form, for the sake of documenting your child’s responses. Remember, phonemic awareness doesn’t involve paper and pencil. If the idea of creating your own assessment tool seems overwhelming, there are excellent resources that you can purchase commercially. Phonemic Awareness by Jo Fitzpatrick, available from Creative Teaching Press, includes a phonemic awareness inventory that is simple to administer.

Strategies to develop phonemic awareness


This skill comes fairly easily for most students, however, I have noticed that some children get confused with one syllable words and sometimes get ‘lost’ with words that have more than one syllable. Whenever I teach syllabication, I start with the child’s name and other familiar words. I also have the child do motions. For the first syllable, the child touches his head. For the second, he touches his shoulders. For the third syllable, the student touches his waist, etc. I do this so that a distinction is made between hearing the syllables in words and hearing the sounds in words. For young children, or others who may be struggling learners, these two skills are often confused.


It is easier for most students to identify or tell you if two words rhyme, than it is for them to quickly give you five or six words that rhyme with each other. So, I suggest solidifying the identification of rhyming words before expecting mastery of the more difficult skill of supplying rhyming words. There are many ways to change up the way in which you have your child respond to, “Do these words rhyme?” You can have them say yes or no, have them show a thumbs up or thumbs down, or have them use a yes or no sign in response to your question. When your child correctly tells you that two words rhyme; say something like, “Yes, mad and glad rhyme. They sound alike at the end.” In doing so, you are explicitly teaching your student what it actually means to rhyme. Some children think that “sad” and “mad” are rhyming words because they tell how someone feels; or that “bee” and “tree” rhyme because they are things you see outside. It is important to not assume that your child understands the concept of rhyming simply because you’ve given good examples of rhyming words.

Read books that rhyme. These types of books are usually a lot of fun. Recently, we read, Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw. My girls loved it! They begged to read it again, which was great because the second time we read it, I left off a rhyming word and gave them the opportunity to supply it. This was an easy way to practice generating rhyming words.

Play games involving rhyming words. There are many commercial games such as rhyming puzzles, gameboards with rhyming pieces, object sorts for rhyming words and many more. One of the places I love to shop for items like these is the Lakeshore Learning website.

Manipulating sounds in words

One of the fun activities I used to do in my classroom to help us practice this skill was to use a puppet as my assistant. The puppet would break the word into isolated phonemes and my students would blend the phonemes into a whole word again. I usually gave my puppet a silly accent and personality. My students loved puppets and were much more engaged with the activity when it was done in a novel way.

To practice identifying beginning sounds in words, consider playing the familiar ‘list game’ where your child starts the list, and you add to it, and so on. For instance, “My grandma went to the store and bought: donuts, dolls, daffodils and dip.” Try singing, “Old MacDonald,” but instead of singing the animal sound, sing the sound heard at the beginning of the animal’s name.

Play a version of “I Spy,” but instead of looking for something, your child has to manipulate sounds in his or her head. This is what you do: Say, “I’m thinking of a word that ends in /ud/ and begins with /m/. What is it?”


These are simple suggestions and there are many more that can be employed regardless of what reading program you are currently using. One good place to gather additional teaching strategies for phonemic awareness is the PALS website. They have a resources tab that lists various skills and suggested activities for grades PreK–3.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, phonemic awareness is an early skill in literacy development. For typically developing children, the skills involved in phonemic awareness are usually established right away. For our children who are struggling learners, that may or may not be the case. Once your child enters first or second grade, there is more emphasis on phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary, and rightly so. However, if your student never mastered phonemic awareness, now is the time to address this very important pillar of reading.


National Reading Panel


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