“Would you like green eggs and ham? Would you like them, Sam I am?”
“There’s a wocket in my pocket!”
Dr. Seuss was a genius, pulling young children into his colorful, adventurous stories by playing with words. It turns out, the ability to hear sounds in words and manipulate them is one of the most important skills for literacy development. This makes him doubly cool in my book- his stories draw children in with whimsy while simultaneously reinforcing part of the very skill that will allow them to someday read books on their own.
Rhyming is just one component of phonological awareness. It also includes being able to hear individual words within sentences, break apart compound words, segment syllables, blend sounds into words and hear individual sounds within a word. (Moving in difficulty from larger chunks of sounds to the individual sounds and then being able to manipulate those individual sounds.)
With all the focus on learning the names of the letters of the alphabet, one might think this was more important than the sounds in words for literacy development. Amazingly enough, one could technically learn to read without knowing the names of letters. However, if one has difficulty hearing the sounds in words, reading will be incredibly difficult and require special instruction. In fact, the inability or decreased ability to detect sounds in words is a main component of dyslexia. “The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units.”* It is truly the sounds that matter. They provide the foundation.
Two boys on a beach. On a beach! Where’ my ____? (Did you say leech or peach or something else? I say margarita.)
To be able to read a child must be able to assign a particular sound to a letter, and eventually to a group of letters. This is a completely arbitrary task for kids who can’t do this. They either become gifted sight word readers (unusual) or very frustrated (more common). Therefore, a child is typically not ready to read if they can’t hear individual sounds in words. For example, they should be able to discern that the word “cat” is composed of three sounds: /k/ /æ/ /t/. Blended sounds (like /bl/, /dr/, /br/, /sl/, etc…) are harder to break apart and will come later. English makes all of this more difficult because it doesn’t assign just one letter to each sound. Instead, we have /f/ represented by f and ph, and all the other ridiculous spellings like -ow, -igh, and -ough.
(A litte side rant. I have had several clients and friends tell me their kids’ teachers denied that dyslexia even existed. This makes me fume because it means many kids with less persistent parents don’t get the help they need. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. It most definitely exists. I have diagnosed it, worked with kids with mild to severe challenges, and taught them phonological awareness only to see them begin to read after years of intense struggling. If a teacher or someone else tells you that dyslexia isn’t possible for your child, seek other opinions. They are wrong- it’s certainly a possibility. If you suspect your child has difficulty with phonological awareness, please seek help from a speech-language pathologist. The sooner the better. Early intervention can make an enormous difference. Early treatment can be what allows your child to view reading and spelling as something they can do and enjoy. Otherwise, sadly, reading runs the risk of becoming a massive, painful, seemingly impossible, embarrassing hurdle. But, it’s never too late for good intervention to make a difference.)
Kids who are typically developing will naturally improve their phonological awareness skills. So, this isn’t something I would recommend parents rush with kids- the progression happens with time. Because hearing sounds in words is a precursor to reading, I think some parents who highly value early reading skills might want to speed things along. There’s really not much point in that. Just like you can’t make a baby crawl until they’re ready. Once they’re crawling, sure- encourage them. Give them plenty of opportunity. Put them on hills and on grass. But, seriously, don’t move their arms and legs to try to force the issue when they can’t even hold their head up yet.
So, with that caveat, how do you celebrate phonological awareness while reading to and playing with kids? (Celebrate? What?! Well, I guess I want to promote the idea that this is just as worthy of cheering for as walking. Playing around with these skills is the language equivalent of encouraging a kid to walk on uneven ground.) Learning the alphabet letter names is cool and all, but kids get inundated with it from the alphabet song, Sesame Street, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and tons of other shows and books. Apart from the rhyming books, there are not many popular mediums that focus on actively playing with sounds.
I’m on a beach holding a worm. It’s not a worm, you silly, it’s ___? (Kelp! But you want to say something else, right?)
To help fill that gap, here are some ideas for fun ways to integrate activities that promote phonological awareness into your play and reading times:
*Play rhyming games. Oh, trust me, I know how old this can get. But it is soooo good for your kids! Charlie loves this one that (I think) he made up: “I have a friend named tenguin who loves to play with his penguin.” “I know a girl named Zoga who continuously does yoga.” Charlie and all willing adults and peers in his vicinity take turns making up the rhymes. We have been playing this game for a year and a half. We are patient souls and usually trapped in our car. I think Harry and I usually cut him off after about ten or twenty rounds of rhymes these days but he’d probably go on for hours and we just can’t take it anymore. (Grandparents, come visit soon!)
*While reading books that rhyme, pause and allow your child the chance to guess at what word rhymes with the previous phrase. When your child can guess correctly, they are likely using the stories context (pictures) as well as the words they’ve heard to choose a correct rhyming word. For example, “Would you like it with a fox? I would not like it with a fox. Would you like it in a [pause]…” They will see the pictured box on the page and with this cue, as well as the previously heard “fox”, kids at this level of development with phonological awareness will be able to guess correctly.
*With kids as young as two, you can start playing silly word games that help them focus on the differences in words. Miles loves little games like “Bear is going to eat your toes! Bear is going to eat your nose!” in which a stuffed animal playfully goes after his body. I can pause and let him pick the body part. I can throw some completely made-up word in to make him giggle even more. “Bear’s going to eat your flippity-flop!” I’ll pause, look at him, and then say “Flippity-flop?! What’s that?! Maybe he wants your blippity-blop. No? Slippity-slop? etc…”
*Develop a sense of rhythm through music, musical books, books with rhyming and books with cadence. Sing, dance, shake a rattle, shake your bootie. Songs that provide opportunity for children to fill in a word, like “Old McDonald” are really enjoyable for them. “Old McDonald had a [pause]”. After hearing that song a lot, both our boys like to fill in that gap as early as 18-months. You can build on their listening skills by throwing in your own silly make believe animal and crazy noises every once in awhile. “Old McDonald had a zlug.”
*This website has about a million other activities at various levels.
Doesn’t feel so very far, until it’s two hours in a car. Rhyming here, rhyming there. Thank goodness we’re done. Soaking in the sun.
If you don’t know where your kid is at with these skills, start with the easiest activities. Keeping an eye on their level of frustration is also a good guideline. If they’re having enjoying themselves, laughing at times and a little bit challenged, you’re probably at an appropriate level. If they’re frustrated, back up a little bit or provide them more examples. Truth is, many of these skills will probably come one way or another if your child doesn’t have any developmental challenges. Again, I wanted to share this information not to get people to try to rush the process and get their kids reading by three, but to help you understand the foundation that needs to be in place before you begin reading activities.
Last warning. I am not an advocate of “drill and kill” types of activities and there’s always the chance a well-meaning parent, worried about literacy, will take playful activities and make them obligatory- something that needs to be checked off each day. I think this should be fun and if it’s not, take a step back. If you’re stressed about your kids learning these skills, I suggest that you might have concerns your child isn’t learning what they should be or with as much pleasure as others. Seeking professional help might give you the ease you need- either because your child is getting services to help them develop these skills or you were told all is progressing as expected. If you have a four year old who doesn’t find rhyming fun, doesn’t make up rhymes, and doesn’t seem to “get it”, I highly recommend having a speech-language pathologist screen or evaluate their phonological awareness skills.
One of my next posts will be about teaching kids how to read. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please leave them in the comments section.
*Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27