Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic Awareness is, according to Reading Rockets  , the ability to notice, think about and work with different sounds in words. Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language. When grouped together, they form syllables and words.

Prior to using phonics, all learners must develop phonemic awareness. This goes beyond letter sounds. There are just 26 letters in the English alphabet, but there are 44 phonemes. English Language Learners especially need practice with phonemes,  says classroom teacher Suzanne Irujo. Try these activities to help your ELL participants. be sure to keep the activities short and fun!



Materials: Costume to fit the part (basketball jersey or a mail uniform), Deck of words containing the phonemes /s/, /sh/, and /ch/ (make two copies: one for the instructor and one for the students), sorting containers (basketball hoops or mailboxes/slots). It is also helpful to have images that give an indication of what the word is or means.

Step 1: Practice voicing /s/, /sh/, and /ch/ with the participants. Move around the room and make sure participants are making the correct mouth shapes when saying the phonemes.

Step 2: Explain to participants that they will need to listen for /s/, /sh/, and /ch/ in words and sort the word according to the correct sound they hear. Do a practice round.

For Example:
Instructor shows a picture of Colby Cheddar  with the word “cheese” written below the picture and says: CHEESE, CH-EESE, CHEESE.
The Participants repeat the word and then find the matching word in their deck and sort the word into the correct hoop or mailbox.

Step 3: The instructor assigns points for correct sorting of the words according o their sound.

Adult Adjustment

For adults, strive for lessons that could lead to career readiness, not that feel like school or child’s play. Don’t worry. The adults can still have fun. This activity will have the learner become aware of the phonemes and sort based on sound, a skill transferable to positions such as postal office employees, clerks, receptionists, and library services. Tell the adult they will be sorting mail based on the sounds they hear. Inform them of how this could be a transferable skill to their career goals.

Adolescent Adjustment

For teens, this activity should be culturally relevant, practical and engaging. Have the adolescents follow the same sorting method, but instead do it with books being sorted in a library, musical artist being sorted in a streaming playlist or names of video games being sorted in an online grocery cart.

For Elementary learners

For kids, the activity should be hands on, low stakes, and energetic. Have 4 basketball hoops set up with boxes underneath them to catch the balls. On balls draw pictures and write the names below the picture of animals or objects with like sounds. Create a runway, giving the students the option to run and put the ball in the appropriate basket, or to throw the ball into the correct hoop. Make success achievable for all students and then increase the challenge level slowly.



Reading Rockets suggests using rhyme to help participants learn and make connections between the phonemes.

Materials: ears that can hear and a deck of simple words, each word should have a rhyme, lots of dimes or a non-currency based prize, bell.

Step 1: Explain to participants that learning language skills can lead to big dividends. Inform them they will be playing a rhyme game. When they are able to find a rhyme, they will earn money for their “bank account.” Struggling participants can play this online-based Listening Memory Game first. This game voices a word when you click on a box. The player has to click the box that voices the same word. Using this Flash Player games, participants match sounds. Once participants have mastered the Listening Memory Game, they can play the game with rhymes.

Step 2: The instructor will pass out one word 3 cards to each participant. The instructor will help the participant pronounce their words correctly.

Step 3: Participants will travel the room and pair up with other participants. The participants will each read their cards one at at time. If one participant has a word that rhymes with the other participant, they can ring the bell and exchange the rhyme for a dime. At the end of the game, the participant with the most dimes wins.


Both of these activities are accessible for most students. The focus on sounds rather than decoding full words allows students of all levels to participate. It will strengthen their attention to sounds that are the same and sounds that create rhymes. While the students are not reading words in the first activity, they are subconsciously making connections between sounds and letter patterns.


The second activity may be difficult for new ESL participants whose native language contains only some of the sounds heard in English. it also requires some memorization of words. Words can be substituted for pictures, but students would still need to know the object name and correct pronunciation. If any words in their native language contain the same sounds, you may practice this activity a few times using their native language before playing it in English.

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