Watching children learn to read is a true wonder. Sounds and words are suddenly perceived on an entirely new and sophisticated level and this process is one that must make parents, teachers, and therapists marvel at the miracle that is the human brain. Recent research indicates that learning to read is actually preceded by a set of earlier skills referred to collectively as "phonemic awareness." Beginning at around age four, children begin to develop an awareness of individual sounds (phonemes) and are able to manipulate these units to form words, change words, or take words apart. Below are some simple and fun ways to facilitate children's phonemic awareness skills while also keeping them entertained on long walks, long lines, or car rides without any preparation or materials. These activities are also effective therapeutic interventions for children struggling to decode or children at risk for reading difficulties based on other developmental delays.

  1. Start and End Game: Choose a simple category that your child is familiar with, such as foods, places, animals, or names. Begin by giving any word (e.g., CAT). Have your child identify the final letter of the word (T) and then think of a word that begins with that letter (TIGER). Continue taking turns until you run out of words for your category. When playing this game with children who have not yet learned basic phonics rules, it is important to remember to use words that do not have silent final letters or atypical spelling patterns (for example, children can hear the final sound in words like cat, dog, or bird, but will have difficulty identifying the final letter of apple, candy, or grape unless they are already familiar with these spelling rules or know them as sight words).
  2. A, My Name is: Beginning with the letter A and then continuing sequentially through the alphabet, help the child come up with appropriate names and words beginning with each letter to complete the following sentences:(Example): A, my name is Alison and my husband's name is Andy. We live in Alaska and we sell apples.
  3. Back-writing: Using just your finger, trace a letter on the child's back. Have the child identify the letter and give a word that starts with that letter. Take turns with your child, letting him/her write on your back too. Use of capital letters is suggested since these tend to more familiar to children and are generally easier to identify than lowercase letters.
  4. Silly Songs: Choose a familiar song with just several lines (e.g. Happy Birthday). Choose a letter and then sing the song with that letter replacing all initial word sounds in the song (e.g., "Bappy birthday bo bou, Bappy birthday bo bou, Bappy birthday bear B____, Bappy birthday bo bou!').
  5. Who's That? Say a familiar name with the first sound missing (e.g., "ennifer"). Have the child guess the name you are trying to say, then let the child take a turn doing the same.

Watch your child develop an appreciation of letters, sounds, and the wonderful things we can do with this knowledge!