Phonemic Awareness: Having Fun with Sounds
Judy Endicott is a Reading Specialist and grandmother to River, an amazing kid who also happens to have CVI.
Children with CVI require a unique, systematic approach to literacy based on their individual needs. When materials and methods are matched to assessment and adapted in accordance with the CVI characteristics, an individual with CVI will be better able to access literacy.1 A progression of skills when teaching literacy includes beginning with the use of objects and moves to 2D materials, the incorporation of salient visual features and comparative thought, and the use of symbolic systems.2
When it comes to literacy for children with CVI, why is phonological awareness so important? Sally Shaywitz, a physician-scientist at Yale, notes that “when it comes to reading, the child is literally building the neural circuitry within the brain that links the sounds of spoken words, or phonemes, to the print code and the letters that represent these sounds.”3 That’s a lot of work for the brain “to solve the reading code.”4 For kids with CVI, their brains are already working incredibly hard to process their visual world.
So how can providers and families build this sensitivity to sounds? How can we build skills that will connect language with letters and words? And how do we ensure that we are connecting language purposefully, so children with CVI do not develop empty language?
"Individuals with CVI should be taught the sounds made by letters of the alphabet, even if they are not able to independently identify each letter by name. It is more important for the individual with CVI to recognize that the letter b says 'buh' than to be able to name all 26 letters of the alphabet. Learning the sounds of the letters is especially important for helping individuals with CVI recognize the beginning or ending sound of a word."5
We can help children get ready to read by focusing their attention on the sounds they hear in spoken words before they even begin to link the sounds to symbols. For children with CVI, it’s critical to ground activities in something meaningful and motivating—a favorite task or a familiar object, picture, or word they are saying or hearing. Use the 10 characteristics (Roman) as a framework to develop approaches, interventions, and adaptations in order to provide visual access.
First let’s start with some definitions.
A phoneme is the smallest sound that can change the meaning of a word. For example:
“me” has two sounds /m/ and /e/
“play” has three sounds /p/ /l/ /a/
each phoneme (sound) is indicated with / / around it
When we manipulate phonemes in different ways—detecting phonemes, adding, deleting, segmenting, and blending these individual sounds—we are working on phonemic awareness.
"Phoneme awareness means that children can tell when words start like other words or end like them. They know that words are made up of sequences of sounds and they can hear the sounds in words. All of this happens in oral language."6
phonics - An official definition is the mapping out of sounds to letters or letter combinations and the ability to decode unknown words based on those letter-sound relationships. When our children are taught “phonics,” they are learning what individual letters, or combinations of letters, are connected to the sound.
You want to draw the child’s attention to the sounds of language:
comparing sounds in different words
segmenting - learning how to pull words apart
blending - pushing the sounds back together
moving the parts around within words
Oral language opportunities exist all the time. You know your child best, what experiences s/he has had, and what is motivating and important to your child. Begin with these as you have fun with sounds.
The following examples are ones you can embed into your normal daily activities.
Phonemic Awareness Activities
Rhyming and Alliteration
Read books or listen to songs full of rhyme and alliteration. Identify the rhyming words and where the rhyming elements are heard within the word so the learner begins to attend to parts of words.
Say rhyming words. Talk about how two words have parts that sound the same. Use real objects or targets to reinforce these words.
Poems, stories, and songs with alliterations (a series of two or more words that begin with the same initial sound) are fun ways to have individuals listen to sounds within words and compare them.
Emphasize the fun of orally playing with language. Build success. Use highly disparate sounds to emphasize contrast to help the learner listen for rhyming. Start with distinctly different sounds, ones easy for the child to hear, for example “pat” and “rub” have different, easy to hear sounds at the beginning and end of each word. Then build in a rhyming word, asking the learner to listen for similar sounds in each word.
Blending and Segmenting Sounds
Begin with syllables because they are the largest units of sounds in words.
Model blending syllables orally. “To … day” makes the word, ‘today,’ when I put the parts together.”
“Let’s push sun …. and …. shine together. We get sunshine.” Use tapping, tactile, or gestures to illustrate. Continue with words that are known and unknown to the learner.
Model clapping/tapping out syllables in words as they are spoken. Many learners do well by patting their forearm or leg to correspond with the number of syllables. Demonstrate with names of family members and familiar names of items the child knows. Ex. - Amy is two taps. Computer is three.
Parent says, “Say sunshine.”
Child repeats “Sunshine.”
Parent says, “Say it again, but don’t say sun.”
Child answers, “shine.” The child can tap instead of saying sun, then go on to say “shine.”
After lots of practice deleting the first syllable, move onto to deleting last syllable.
Parent says, “Say snowman.”
Child says, “Snowman.”
Parent says, “Say it again, but don’t say man.”
Child says, “Snow.”The child can tap instead of saying man.
Separating Syllables into Phonemes
Matching and Comparing Sounds
Model lots of examples. “Say milk. Feel how your lips press together to make the mmmm sound in the beginning of milk. Say me. Feel your lips make the mmmm sound in the beginning of me. Milk and me begin with the same sound, mmmmm.” While doing this you can also show the letter m, write the letter m, or have the child hold a 3D letter m. This explicit link to the letter facilitates transferring this skill to reading. If the item(s) or accessible (known) images of the item(s) are available, link them to the sound.
Use knowledge of the learner’s CVI characteristics to guide your presentation of visual information. Will you use 3D or 2D letters on paper or a backlit system? Will there be appropriate times to add salient features of the letters?
You want the learner to focus on matching sounds in the initial and final positions. Activities are oral. Be careful you do not make the activity visually complex or the focus of the exercise.
For example, if you were to put letters or pictures out on a table and ask a learner to “find two that begin with the same sound,” you are asking for the learner to 1.) identify correctly the letters or pictures, 2.) attach the correct beginning sound to the letters or picture, and 3.) compare/contrast letter or pictures to find the ones that match). That is a task that is an application of the learner’s knowledge of the sound and symbol. It is a much more advanced task.
“Listen to sss… sun and sss…sick” They have the same sound in the beginning of the word. The beginning sounds the same … sss.”
“Let’s think of a word that begins like sss…sun.” (Supply lots of examples. You are teaching the matching of sounds, not quizzing and you want to build success.)
Initial sounds are easiest, followed by ending sounds. Middle sounds in words are the hardest. Carefully pick your sample and practice words. One syllable words without blends/clusters of beginning or ending letters are much easier for the learner to hear and repeat.
“Listen to the end of your name…Sam. Tell me if the word I say ends like Sam … with the mmmm sound.”
“Listen and tell me if the 2 words I say end the same. Sam…. top.”
Encourage your child to say the 2 words so s/he can feel the production of the sound.
Remember to model sound production of the letter sounds without distorting them.
Separate Words Into Their Sounds
This is a more difficult task than matching sounds.
Words can be separated into sounds in different ways: by syllables and by onsets (opening part) and rimes (the rest of the syllable)
by phonemes (individual sounds): cat /c/ /a/ /t/, bike /b/ /i/ /k/, foot /f/ /oo/ /t/
Model the sounds in words. Use two phoneme words to begin. Go slowly.
toe - “t….ooo, toe”
hi - “h …i, hi”
A rubber band or pull tube can be used to demonstrate that we take a word and pull it apart slowly to hear all of the sounds.
The practice of isolating sounds in words while stretching them out is not a natural one for learners. Do these kinds of activities at different times over an extended time period using words that are part of your natural environment and are motivating for the child. This is much more fun and effective than a set period of practice activities.
Phonemic awareness activities should be woven throughout your day…during regular conversation, story time, introduction of new vocabulary, etc. Notice what your child is noticing and pick words which connect with that focus. This way your work with sounds is a more natural part of your day. Your payoff will come when your learner starts asking YOU, “Do these two words rhyme? “ Or proudly announces “There are 3 parts in the word dinosaur.”
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1 Roman-Lantzy, C. (2019). Cortical Visual Impairment: Advanced Principles, New York, NY: AFB Press, p. 40
2 Roman-Lantzy, C. (2019). Cortical Visual Impairment: Advanced Principles, New York, NY: AFB Press, p. 41
3 Roman-Lantzy, C. (2019). Cortical Visual Impairment: Advanced Principles, New York, NY: AFB Press, p. 48
4 Shaywitz, Sally (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia; A New Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 177
5 Shaywitz, Sally (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia; A New Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level, NY: Alfred A. Knopf
6 Pinnell, G.S, and Fountas, I (1998). Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.