How to Strengthen Phonological Awareness Using Instructional Scaffolds

Little girl holding her ear.

For many beginning and struggling readers who need to strengthen phonological awareness, instructional scaffolds are a necessity. In our previous post, we answered a lot of questions about instructional scaffolds. In this post, we delve more deeply into specific scaffolds used to strengthen phonological awareness.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological Awareness is an auditory skill. It is an umbrella term that includes identifying and manipulating parts of spoken language. Phonological awareness includes the following subsets which are listed in order of difficulty:

Word Awareness – the understanding that sentences are made up of individual words.

Rhyming Awareness – the ability to identify words that rhyme (Do these two words rhyme? cap-lap) and the ability to create rhyming words (say a word that rhymes with lake).

Alliteration – identifying words that begin with the same sound (bike-balloon).

Syllable Awareness – segmenting multisyllable words into parts (lightbulb, light…bulb). Blending single syllables into multisyllable words (win…dow, window).

Onset and Rime Awareness – segmenting and blending the onset (the part of the word before the vowel) and the rime (the part of the word from the vowel to the end of the word). i.e. b…ack

Phoneme Awareness – the ability to segment and blend individual sounds in words. The word dish has four letters, but only three sounds: /d/…/i/…/sh/. When given the word ‘say’, a student with strong phonemic awareness will be able to segment the word into two sounds /s/…/a/. Alternatively, when hearing the sounds /s/…/t/…/i/…/k/, a student with strong phonemic awareness will be able to blend the sounds into the word ‘stick’.

What is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonological awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness encompasses a broad range of auditory language skills. Phonemic awareness is specific to the individual sounds of words. Specific phonemic awareness skills are listed below from least to most difficult.

Identifying beginning, final, and medial sounds – The beginning sound tends to be easier to identify than the final sound. Likewise, the final sound tends to be easier to identify than the medial sound.

Segmenting and blending sounds in words – as the number of sounds in the word increases, difficulty increases. The word ‘clap’ is more difficult to segment and blend than the word ‘cap’.

Adding/Deleting beginning/ending sounds – For example, say ‘at’. Add /p/ to the beginning of ‘at’ and the word is…pat.

Phoneme manipulation – changing the beginning, ending or medial sound.

How do I know which skill to focus on to strengthen phonological awareness?

If you are teaching kindergarten, then you will want to administer a phonological skills assessment. Often older struggling readers have an underlying weakness in phonological awareness so it is important to assess their skill level as well.

There are a variety of assessments available. DIBELS 8 is a free resource, but it only addresses phonemic segmentation fluency. Heggerty also has a phonemic awareness assessment.

We also offer a phonological awareness assessment FREE to our subscribers. This resource also contains ‘guidelines for analyzing’ which is helpful in determining next steps.

assessment materials on a table with a pencil
Guidelines for Analyzing are included in this resource. The guidelines help teachers determine next instructional steps.

What instructional scaffolds should I implement to strengthen phonological awareness skills?

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In general, incorporating visual cues such as pictures or hand motions help students bridge the gap from what they know to what they cannot YET do. Manipulatives are also a powerful scaffold. Remember, instructional scaffolds are a TEMPORARY support. Once students are independent, they no longer require the scaffold.

Word awareness – often young children or English language learners hear sentences as one continuous stream of sounds. Use chips or cubes to provide a visual cue. Say a sentence, then say the sentence again speaking slowly and clearly. As you say each word slide the cube or the chip up. Then have the student repeat the sentence as they slide a cube up for each word spoken.

Rhyming Awareness – When working on this skill, it helps to narrow down the choices for rhyming matches. Rhyming puzzles are perfect for this. This also happens to be a great literacy center that will keep students busy learning while you work one-on-one or with a small group of students.

Image of a rhyming puzzle
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Of course, you can’t go wrong with rhyming books either! Try reading aloud a rhyming book. Once students are familiar with the book, you can pause before reading the rhyming word and students will begin to spontaneously complete the sentence. One of our favorites is Silly Sally by Audrey Woods.

Rhyming book - Silly Sally by Audrey Wood
Silly rhyming books help engage students
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Syllable awareness – As an early introduction to syllables, incorporate student names. As you call each student to line up, clap their name in syllables: Kev…in, Jas…mine, O…mar, etc. Or, as you call the student to come sit on the rug, ask them to clap their name before moving to the rug area.

Alliteration – one of the best ways to expose students to alliteration and to build this auditory skill is through songs. Willoughby Wallaby Woo sung by Raffi is a crowd pleaser. You can listen to Raffi sing this song on YouTube. Once you and the students get the hang of it, you can change the beginning sound to your letter of choice. (i.e. /b/ as in Billoughby Ballaby Boo). Young kids think this song is uproariously funny.

A great warm-up activity for alliteration is a scavenger hunt. Ask your students to find something in the classroom that begins with the sound _______. Example: find something that begins with /g/… (items may include glue, glove, game). Then make up sentences incorporating the names of the objects. I glued on my gloves to play the game. The sillier the sentence the better! If doing this as part of small group intervention, cut out a variety of pictures from a magazine and distribute them to your students. Then ask them to find a picture that begins with /b/ for example. Everyone finds a picture and holds it up and says the name of the picture. Again, you can take it to the next level by making up a silly sentence.

How can I help reinforce the more difficult phonemic awareness skills?

Isolating and identifying beginning, middle, and ending sounds – Adding a visual cue such as chips, cubes, or coins can help students retain the sound and where in the word it is located. Using a different color for beginning, middle, and ending sounds adds an additional layer of support.

Finger pointing to the first of four coins being used as an instructional scaffold.
Finger pointing to the first of three coins.
The additional scaffold of using different size coins helps students retain the concept of beginning, middle and end.

For example: Lay out three cubes in three different colors. Point to the first cube and say, “This is where the beginning sound of the word is. As I say the word, listen for the beginning sound.” Then say the word slowly and clearly while sliding your finger under each cube. “/sssss/…./aaaaa/…./d/.” Ask, “What is the first sound of the word?”

Hand motions also provide a visual cue when isolating the sounds in words. To help students isolate the medial sound, say the word slowly and clearly, pulling your hand from left to right. Next, as you say the medial/vowel sound draw your hand upwards as if going uphill. Then draw your hand back down as you say the ending sound.

Author holding her hand up as she says the medial sound of the word.
Hand at the top of the slope accentuating the vowel sound.

Segmenting Sounds – This skill is necessary for encoding or spelling.

Sometimes, teachers may need to begin with a gross motor scaffold to strengthen this skill. Body tapping is a fun way to incorporate movement while segmenting sounds. You may need to begin by modeling how to tap a word, and then have students copy your movements. For example, when segmenting the word cat, touch your fingers to your head and say, /k/. Put your hands on your waste (and wiggle your waste) as you say /aaaaaaa/. Then touch your toes and say, /t/. Then have the students do the same.

Author modeling the instructional scaffold of body tapping.
Wiggling one’s waste as while stretching out the medial vowel sound helps student hear that important sound more distinctly.

Once students can segment three sound words, you can add words that have beginning blends. When segmenting the word snake, touch your hands to your head /s/, hands to shoulders /n/, hands to waist and wiggle, /aaaaaaa/, hands to toes, /k/.

Ending blends can be segmented with body tapping in the following manner: When segmenting a word such as melt, touch your hands to your head /m/, touch your waist and wiggle /eeeeee/, touch your knees /l/, touch your toes /t/.

Pop Its are a fun way to encourage students to say each sound in a word. As students say each sound, they press down a pop it. This device also provides kinesthetic feedback that can help students retain auditory information.

Rainbow Colored Pop It Fidget Toy

Last, finger tapping can be employed to support students working to segment sounds. Touch each finger to the thumb as the individual sounds are said. For example, when tapping the word spill, /s/ pointer finger to thumb, /p/ middle finger to thumb, /i/ ring finger to thumb, /l/ pinky to thumb.

Of course, the goal is to eventually complete the auditory activity without the need for a scaffold. So, remember to reduce or remove the support when it is no longer needed.

Blending Sounds – This foundational skill is a prerequisite for reading. Students must be able to blend a sequence of sounds in the correct order. Some students may not even understand that the individual sounds being said can be blended to form a word. In that case, pictures cues are a necessity. Picture cues are helpful for students with weak oral language skills and for English language learners.

TPT product cover for phonemic awareness bingo boards
These bingo boards can be used to support a variety of phonemic awareness skills. They are available in our TPT Store.

When working with students on phonemic awareness, watch for students who mistakenly add or delete sounds or who blend sounds out of sequence. This can be a sign of an underlying weakness in phonemic awareness.

Deleting phonemes – If using manipulatives, say the word (i.e. ‘boom’) slowly while sliding your finger under the manipulatives. Then say, “Say boom without /m/,” while removing the last manipulative. “Boom without /m/ is boo.”

Cover of the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Manual Primary Edition

Hand signals are also helpful with this phoneme activity. The following is an excerpt from the Heggerty manual, describing the hand signals for deleting the beginning phoneme. “Deleting hand motion: Hold 2 open palms out if front of you. Teacher’s right hand is the first sound, left hand is the rest of the word. Pull your right hand away when deleting the first sound, and show what part remains with your left hand.” (pg 53 Heggerty, Phonemic Awareness Primary Curriculum, 2020 Edition)

Author modeling a phonemic awareness scaffold of hand signals for removing the beginning sound.
Modeling hand signal for removing the beginning sound. Say ‘seat’. Now say ‘seat’ without /s/.

Manipulating phonemes – This is more difficult than simply identifying the sound. The student must hold the sounds in their phonemic memory and then change the sound of the targeted phoneme while holding onto all the other unchanging phonemes. For example: Ask the student to say the word, ‘fried’. Then ask the student to change /f/ to /b/ and say the new word, ‘bride’. Students with weak phonological memory may have difficulty with this task.

Use visual cues such as coins, cubes, or chips as a scaffold when manipulating sounds. Using the words from the above example, fried to bride, point to the coins as the word is stretched out. Then point to the coin representing /f/, “I’m going to change /f/ for /b/. Switch the coin and say the new word.

Helpful Reminders for Using Instructional Scaffolds to Strengthen Phonological Awareness

  1. Use progress monitoring assessments to determine which students require instructional scaffolds and which students do not.
  2. You don’t need all the scaffolds all the time. Select the most powerful tool for those who require support.
  3. Move from large motor to fine motor scaffolds.
  4. As soon as your student(s) grasp the concept, move to a less intensive scaffold.
  5. The goal is independence. Gradually work toward removing the scaffold completely.
  6. While phonemic awareness is an auditory skill, attaching print to phonemic awareness is critically important. Be on the lookout for our next post which will tackle this topic!

Have more questions about using instructional scaffolds?

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The post How to Strengthen Phonological Awareness Using Instructional Scaffolds appeared first on Informed Literacy.

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