Do you remember as an early reader, struggling with a word and being told to “sound it out”? Well, the act of breaking a written word into its various parts requires several skills, but none of them do the reader any good unless that child has a strong sense of phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness is one of the number one predictors of reading success. And yet it’s a skill many people have never heard of. Here’s the quick explanation: Phonemes are the individual sounds in words. Before children can read the sounds in words, they need to be able to hear, isolate, and manipulate the sounds in words. (For a more in-depth explanation of the terms and and components of phonemic and phonological awareness, check out an earlier post, Do You Hear That? )
One activity that helps children hear, segment, and blend phonemes is stretching words. Using a rubber band or a slinky, I show the children how I can stretch the item and snap it back together. I have the children illustrate using their own hands as well, starting with their palms together, stretching the hands apart and then snapping them back together into a clap. (Sound and motion — the kids are sucked right in!)
Now that they have the visual and physical concept of slowly stretching and snapping back together, we start stretching some words. With each sound in the word, stretch your hands, slinkies, or rubber bands slightly farther. So, to segment the word cat, you have three phonemes: /c/ /a/ /t/. For turn: /t/ /ur/ /n/.
Once they’re familiar with this activity, you can use it as a mystery word game. Slowly stretch out a word and have the children “snap” the word back together to solve the mystery! Take turns giving the clues so that children get practice both with segmenting and blending (blending may be easier than segmenting at first). Use it in transitions, stretching out the children’s names, group names, areas of the room they need to move to, or the locomotor pattern they should use. You can also use this technique in games like I Spy and Simon Says.
Hap Palmer has a wonderful song that utilizes this skill called Secret Word on the album, One Little Sound. (Check it out on iTunes to hear a sample and pick it up for yourself.) In the song, different actions (clap, tip-toe, march, etc.) are stretched out and the children are given a few beats to put the sounds back together and then follow the action. It’s a fun, active song the kid’s love. Plus, the album also includes an instrumental track so that you can create your own new versions of the song to keep the kiddies on their toes.
When a child has built a foundation of stretching and snapping words, it’s a very natural step to combine that ability with a growing knowledge of the alphabetic principle and phonics to actually begin “sounding out” words. Just another way that our kids begin to read before ever studying a word on a page.
Top photo by Megan Brock.