Introduction | Rhyme & Alliteration | Onset-rime and Phoneme

Instructional Activities to Develop Phonological Awareness:
Words and Syllables

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Stage of Literacy Development

Characteristics of This Stage

Phonological Focus Areas


  • Has incomplete alphabet knowledge
  • Lacks voice to print match (concept of word)
  • Spellings bear no sound-symbol correspondence (late in this stage, may represent salient or beginning sounds)
  • Instructed in Readiness-PP1 text, nursery rhymes
  • Rhyme
  • Beginning
  • Word

  • Syllable

pyramid As emergent readers develop their rhyme and alliteration abilities, the focus of their instruction will gradually shift to word and syllable awareness. The instructional activities in this section are designed to provide children with practice manipulating these larger chunks of language. Once students are able to complete these types of tasks, they will be ready to work with intra-syllabic units - onsets and rimes, and eventually, individual phonemes. Activities to develop these narrower areas of phonological awareness will be described in the last section of this guide.

Word Awareness Activities

photoActivities at the word level help children begin to break language apart. Orally segmenting sentences into words helps children understand that sentences are composed of separate words in a particular order to convey meaning. Concept of word in print--the ability to accurately match spoken words to written words - requires students to segment sentences into words. To arrive at this monumental understanding, children need a great deal of practice with both oral and written activities to develop word awareness.

To provide children with oral practice separating the words in sentences, it is helpful to give them concrete manipulatives that can stand for a word, such as a block or a unifix cube. Give each child six or seven of these to use to represent the words in the sentence that you read. After saying a sentence, model by thinking aloud how you repeatphoto the sentence word by word, with clear pauses between each. Show students how to move one cube for each word, making sure to encourage left to right directionality. A counting grid, which provides a box for each cube and numbers underneath the boxes, sometimes aids students in visualizing the number of words in a sentence. After the students have arranged their blocks, ask one child to repeat the sentence and point to each block while saying each word. As the student does this, the other students in the group should check their work, also touching each block as the first student says each word.

When segmenting sentences, it is best to begin with monosyllabic words and short, 2-3 word sentences. As children progress, you can add polysyllabic words and slightly longer, more complex sentences to the mix. Providing oral practice with tricky lines from familiar rhymes and books that your students have been tracking (e.g., "Couldn't put Humpty together again") will further develop their understanding of words and syllables.

Another activity to promote oral word awareness - and one that is easy and fun to incorporate into your nursery rhyme routine - is to recite a familiar rhyme as a group, asking each student to stand for one word in the rhyme. While the students sit in a circle, the first student says the first word of the rhyme as s/he stands up, the second student says the second word in the rhyme as s/he stands, etc. Continue until the entire rhyme has been recited. If you have gone all the way around the circle and everyone is standing before you've finished saying the rhyme, the students can sit down as they say the words until the rhyme is over.

Although oral practice segmenting sentences can be beneficial for your students, the goal is for them to apply this understanding to reading and writing. Providing oral practice in tandem with practice in print helps students make this connection. One activity that does this is "Be the Sentence," described in Words Their Way. In "Be the Sentence," you write a sentence on individual word cards and hand them out to the students. You then say the sentence, one word at a time, and have students stand and arrange themselves in the proper order. The sentence can come from the morning message, a familiar book or rhyme, or can be one that you compose together. In order to "Be the Sentence" correctly, students must use their knowledge of initial sounds and their corresponding letters to help them identify the words. Because each word is written on a separate card, students again see that words can be short (e.g., is) or long (Gabriella).

photo Perhaps the best way to build an understanding of word awareness is by repeated practice fingerpointing to familiar nursery rhymes, jingles, and songs, as well as simple books at the Readiness level. In addition to developing word awareness and concept of word in print, tracking practice reinforces initial letter-sound correspondences (which children must attend to for accurate tracking), and most importantly, provides children with valuable opportunities in meaningful, connected text. For additional activities to develop a concept of word in print, please see the following section from our phonics guide, Phonics and Word Study.

Syllable Awareness Activities

Once children understand that sentences are made of words, they begin to learn that words are also made of smaller units, called syllables. At this level, children learn to blend syllables together to form words and to segment words into syllables. Children might also delete a syllable from word. In general, blending tasks are easier than segmentation tasks, and segmentation tasks are easier than deletion tasks.

photoWhen doing syllable awareness activities, it is important to enunciate syllables clearly, and to begin with familiar words such as children’s names and common compound words. When students can handle these fairly well, other two-syllable words, and later, three and four syllable words, can be used. Don't forget to include one-syllable words in your activities as well!

Syllable blending activities can easily be incorporated during read-alouds. As you are reading, periodically stretch out a word by syllable: (e.g., "Some animals laugh at the gangly gi-raffe"). Then point to a student to "say it fast," or blend the word together. Then repeat thephoto blended word or reread the sentence to ensure that meaning is not lost, particularly if it took some time for the student to respond. A great book for this type of activity that features many examples of compound words is Once There Was a Bull ...frog by Rick Walton.

A fun way to provide blending practice is to use a puppet that talks in a very different way. Model by having the puppet stretch words out by syllable (e.g., instead of saying "bicycle," he would say "bi - cy - cle"). Have students practice deciphering what the puppet is saying. Again, a bag of pictures or objects can be used as prompts. Once students are familiar with this game, they can try picking from the bag and saying the words the way the puppet would.

A list of compound words, two-syllable words, and three-syllable words can come in handy for playing "Say it Fast." You can do this orally, by saying the parts of a word to children and having them blend it back together, or you can have children represent the syllables themselves. This variation, described in A Sound Start, is called "Partner Syllable Blending." First, you ask 2 students to crouch on the floor next to each other. Using a "mystery word" that no one else knows (e.g., "fireman"), whisper the first syllable to the first student ("fire"), and the second syllable to the second student ("man"). Then have the students "pop" up, one at a time, saying their syllable. The group, or an individual student, then guesses the mystery word. Please click here to see a list of multisyllable words that can be used for blending practice.

In addition to blending syllables, it is important to provide children with practice segmenting syllables. A great place to begin is by clapping children's names. First, model by using several names of contrasting length (e.g., yours and two other students'). Pronounce each name, syllable by syllable, while clapping it out. Next have the students repeat the name, clapping each syllable. Then ask the students how many syllables they heard. You can then proceed to clap out lots of names, either together as a group or individually. Once students can clap their own names, you can put pictures of each student in a bag, or the names of each student in a bag. You would then call on individual students to pick another child's picture or name out of the bag to clap. The rest of the group then "checks" it by clapping it together. When students can accurately clap their first names (and the first names of children in their group), they can practice clapping their first and last names. You can also add a rhythmic chant such as: "Bippity, Bippity Bumble Bee":

  Bippity, bippity, bumble, bee,
  Tell me what your name should be. (Sta-cy)

photoAfter some initial practice clapping the syllables in their first names, children can segment the syllables in a variety of objects or pictures. You can collect a number of "mystery" objects or pictures in a box, and have one student at a time choose an object or picture from the box with eyes closed. The student then names the object and claps it out (e.g., pen-cil). All of the children repeat the object's name as they clap out the syllables. To connect this activity to other areas of the curriculum, choose pictures and/or objects from a unit of study.

As children clap words, they can also sort them into categories.photo You might start by sorting objects or pictures of one- and two-syllable words, and later add pictures with three or four syllables. The students then sort the objects or pictures under the number card, in a pocket chart or on the floor.

An alternative to clapping syllables and a perfect activity when kids need to stretch, is a variation of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." Instead of singing, however, you touch the corresponding body part as you segment a word. For example, with the word "alligator," you would segment the word slowly, touching your head saying "al-," shoulders saying "li-," knees saying "ga-," and toes saying "-tor." For three syllable words, you would just touch head, shoulders and knees; for two-syllable words, head and shoulders; and for one-syllable words, head. An easier variation that eliminates the need for four-syllable words is to play "Head, Waist, Toes."

Picture cards of multisyllable words are quite useful, for the "mystery" activities described above as well as games that reinforce syllable segmenting. Sets of multisyllable pictures can be found in teacher resource books such as Phonemic Awareness in Young Children, or you can select pictures from the sets of initial sound pictures that accompany many core reading programs. Often these are large photographs that are high-interest, and they usually contain pictures of words with a variety of syllables (e.g., astronaut, bear, candy, dinosaur). Using clip art to make your own pictures is another alternative.

Small sets of picture cards can be used to play generic racetrack games. After choosing a picture, you move forward as many spaces as there are syllables. You can also use small pictures to make Bingo boards. After choosing a picture, you would stretch the word out by syllable (rab-bit), and the students would mark the corresponding picture on their Bingo boards. Bingo boards that have pictures of words with a variety of syllables can be found in A Sound Start.

Please click here to see a picture of a syllable racetrack game.

Please click here to see a picture of a syllable bingo game.

Pictorial Case Study: Phonemic Awareness

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

Introduction | Rhyme & Alliteration | Onset-rime and Phoneme

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