Kids learn sounds from big to small

Little children who are learning about the sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within syllables.

Take the word “elephant,” for example.

Word: elephant
Syllables: el-e-phant
Onsets/rhymes e-l e f-int
Phonemes e l e f i n t

children pronouncing elephant

First, children learn that sentences are composed of words. (I can remember being in first grade and learning that “of the” is two words, a revelation at the time).

Next, children learn the sound of the whole word. They might mispronounce “elephant,” saying it as a two-syllable word (el-phint) as they grow accustomed to it. Eventually they say it right.

Children then learn to break the word into parts (syllables), pronouncing each syllable distinctly.

With a teacher’s or parent’s help, they learn to identify sounds within the word.

Later, they learn to match those sounds to letters.

This sequence—from a phrase to whole words to syllables to the smallest distinct sounds—provides a useful guide for adults teaching reading to preschoolers. We should make sure a child can hear the sounds of a word and can reproduce them properly before we begin to break a word into parts and associate letters with those parts.

What are some activities that help a child to master the phonological awareness sequence?

• Say a two or three-syllable word, leaving pauses of a second or two between syllables. Ask the child to combine the syllable sounds into a word.

• Ask the child to break a two or three-syllable word into its parts. This is a harder skill than combining.

• Ask the child to say (not spell) the sound before the vowel sound in a word (the onset sound). For example, in the word “dog,” the onset sound is the sound a “d” makes.

• Say tongue-twisters and ask the child to identify the alliterated sound. For example, in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” the onset sound is the sound a letter “p” makes.

• Sing songs with rhymes. Ask the child to identify the rhyming sounds.

• Ask the child to say the rhyme part of a word or syllable. The rhyme part is all the sounds beginning with the vowel. So in “dog,” the rhyme is “og.”

• The hardest activity is for the child to break down a syllable into every sound (phoneme). American English has 42 phonemes, or sometimes more depending on regional pronunciations. (Sounds made by “th,” “sh” and other digraphs are considered distinct sounds, which is why English has more phonemes than alphabet letters.)

While learning the ABC’s is a skill most preschools stress, the other skills explained need to be learned first. Some kids are ready to break a syllable into phenomes at four years old, but many more are not ready until part way through first grade. Don’t rush them. Instead, spend time on all the preliminary steps.

For more details on this sequencing of learning sounds, go to While you are there, check out the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and the additional activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.

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