Teaching Strategies for Phonological & Phonemic Skills

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll gain an understanding of teaching strategies for helping students improve phonological skills. You'll also learn activities related to phonemic skills, and take a quiz to check your knowledge.

Essential Skills

Roger is a preschool student in Ms. Garcia's class. Each day, Ms. Garcia takes some time to practice reading skills with small groups of students within the class. These strategies help Roger and his group develop their skills in phonology (the sounds we make when speaking and their relationship to syllables, words, and rhyme) and in phonetics (recognizing and using the smallest unique sounds in language as well as combine them meaningfully into syllables).

Phonology: Rhythm and Rhyme

Recognizing rhythm and rhyme are both examples of core phonological skills. When Roger first entered Ms. Garcia's class, he was already aware of the rhythm of words. Within a short amount of time, he could clap out the syllables of his name with Ms. Garcia's help: RO-GER. Two claps! He could also do his teacher's last name: GAR-CI-A. Three claps! As he improved, he progressed to longer words and even phrases. For instance, his small group was able to correctly identify the number of claps in ''tomato soup:'' TO-MA-TO SOUP.

Ms. Garcia incorporated rhythm activities in a variety of ways such as:

  • Clapping activities into the warm up part of each day's English lesson
  • Group games and competitions about finding the number of claps in a new word or phrase

Ms. Garcia also asks students to identify rhyme. She starts by teaching what rhyme is and showing many examples. Ms. Garcia can then ask her small group if two words rhyme, showing words like ''mat'' and ''pat.'' She focuses on this skill until the students are comfortable with the idea of rhyme and know how to recognize it.

Once students confidently recognize rhyme, she incorporates active practice by doing things like:

  • Presenting three or more words (like ''bat,'' ''cat'', and ''ball'') and asking students to identify the rhyme or single out the non-rhyming one.
  • Picking a word, like ''bat,'' and asking students to think of words that rhyme with the chosen word (like ''rat,'' ''sat,'' and ''mat'').

These activities form the core of Ms. Garcia's teaching strategies for rhythm and rhyme. She'll repeat one activity a number of times before moving on to ensure the students practice enough to master skills.

Transitional Phonological Skills

Before she can teach true phonetics, Ms. Garcia needs to work with students on two transitional concepts: onset and rime. Onset refers to the initial sound of a word and rime refers to the rest of the sounds that follow. Students who start with this skill are able to better understand phonemic tasks later, so it is important to assure their understanding at this stage.

Some of Ms. Garcia's favorite activities for these skills include:

  • Making silly phrases/sentences with words that begin with the same sound ('dizzy dancing dinosaurs')
  • Creating related new words by changing the initial onset sound (bat, hat, mat, cat, etc.)


Once students master phonological skills, they are ready to learn about phonemes, or the smallest unit of sound in a word, such as the sound /t/ at the end of the word ''sit.'' There are 44 phonemes in the English language, and they do not all specifically match to a single letter (think about the combination sound of /th/). This means it is important to focus on sounds without considering orthography.

Phonemic Isolation

This first skill, phonemic isolation, requires students to recognize phonemes, typically one at a time. Unlike onset/rime, students learn to recognize single sounds in any position in a word. Ms. Garcia asks Roger what the first sound is in the word ''sat.'' Once he selects the /s/ sound, she could ask him for the last sound (/t/), or the middle sound (/a/). She must be careful to make sure that he understands what she means by the terms ''first,'' ''middle'' and ''last.'' Other classroom activities include:

  • Identifying words which have the same beginning, middle, or end sound (e.g. showing pictures of a dog, desk, dish, and cat, then asking which words share their first sound)
  • Having students brainstorm all of the words they can think of that contain a specific first, middle, or last sound.

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