Tips for Teaching Letters in the Classroom Using Phonics & Phonemic Awareness
It’s no secret that teaching letters is a crucial part of early education and literacy. We’ve all heard about the importance of phonics lessons, but there are many essentials that go into creating a firm reading and writing foundation.
As an educator, finding the best way to approach phonics can be a difficult task, as much as it is essential. In this blog, we’ll review what phonics is at its core as well as how you can incorporate creative and engaging ways of teaching letters in your classroom.
Phonics vs. Phonemic Awareness
For educators to be successful in teaching letters to their students, they must incorporate phonics and phonemic awareness in their lesson plans. Since phonics and phonemic awareness have a reciprocal relationship, it’s best to teach them in tandem. Phonemic awareness, or the awareness that words are made up of sounds, is typically introduced before explicit phonics instruction occurs.
Although the two concepts are intertwined, they have distinct differences. Below, we’ve outlined the main differences between phonics vs. phonemic awareness as well as explained how the two concepts build on each other.
In the simplest terms, the most basic concept of phonics involves the relationship between written letters, words, and their associated sounds. Phonics instruction relies heavily on visual cues, such as the recognition of letters. Learning the relationship between the symbols that make up the alphabet and the sounds they produce is a key element in building literacy skills.
When teaching phonics, students are usually instructed to decode words by sounding them out based on the most common sound-spelling relationships. The most effective way to do this is by using a structured and repetitive review of each letter and its associated sound.
Once students can confidently learn each letter and its sound, they’re ready to move on to letter blends. Consonant blends are when two or more consonants are blended together, but the individual sounds are still heard (for example, /sn/ in the word “snap”). Consonant digraphs occur when two consonants make one sound, like /ch/ in the word “chop.”
Based on the Science of Reading, this series builds phonics skills using a systematic approach to direct phonics instruction. Authors: Dr. Jeanne Chall and Dr. Helen PoppView Product →
Very similar to phonics, phonemic awareness is teaching students to understand that each word they read, write, or speak is comprised of a series of sounds. The main difference between the two is that phonics instruction relies on visual and auditory processing, whereas phonemic awareness has an auditory focus.
Phonemic awareness instruction is usually made up of two key skills: segmenting and blending. Segmenting is the act of breaking a word into individual sounds, while blending is the ability to put those sounds together to say a word.
Some examples of phonemic awareness objectives are as follows:
- Students will be able to isolate sounds in words (i.e. identifying /m/ at the beginning of the word “map”).
- Students will be able to identify the individual sounds they hear in a word (i.e. 4 sounds in the word “clip”- /c/, /l/, /i/, /p/).
- Students will be able to substitute one sound for another to create a new word (i.e. “map” to “mop”).
- Students will be able to add a phoneme to an existing word to make a new word (i.e. “nap” to “snap”).
- Students will be able to blend sounds together to make a word (i.e. give them the sounds /t/, /a/, /p/ and have them blend to say “tap”).
- Students will be able to remove a phoneme from a word to make a new word (i.e. “slip” to “sip”).
Phoneme-grapheme mapping is the physical way in which students represent the relationship between the letters (graphemes) and the sounds they represent (phonemes).
This type of instruction contains sequential, systemic, and explicit lessons by providing both visual and kinesthetic practices at the same time. It’s an important lesson because it helps students understand that the number of sounds in a word may be different from the number of letters that represent those sounds.
Below, we’ll break down what phonemes and graphemes are, and offer ways teachers can use phoneme-grapheme mapping when teaching letters in their classrooms.
Phonemes and Graphemes
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another in a language. In the English language, there are 44 total phonemes and each has a special action of the lips, teeth, and tongue during articulation.
A grapheme is the letter or letters that are used to represent a phoneme. Some phonemes can be represented by several different combinations of graphemes. Consider the long “a” phoneme in the following words: cake, ballet, play, break, and mail. The same sound is represented by different graphemes: -a, -et, -ay, -ea, -ai.
The ability to decode words quickly and accurately will depend on a student’s knowledge and understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondence.
4 Ways to Use Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping in Your Classroom
There are many ways teachers can incorporate phoneme-grapheme mapping in their classrooms. When teaching letters, different techniques will work better for different learners.
Make sure you take the time to analyze how your students are responding to each activity, that way you’ll have a better understanding of what works best for their learning style. Below, we’ve listed 4 of the most popular ways teachers can begin introducing phoneme-grapheme mapping.
- Phoneme Grapheme Boards
You can give each student their own phoneme grapheme board that’s laminated. Using dry-erase markers will allow students to work using the same board multiple times.
- Sound Cubes
Physical sound cubes allow students to build out the given word into phonemes. They can represent each sound by touching the correct cube.
- Monster Taps
This is an oral routine a student can use before applying the graphemes. Students use their fingers to tap out each sound. Eventually, the students will be able to draw out several lines to represent each sound when they complete the taps.
- Digital resources
There are numerous digital resources students can use that have interactive letter tiles and maps to represent the sounds in words.
How to Teach Phonics Step-by-Step
A good understanding of phonics will lay the foundation for a student’s reading development. There are many different approaches teachers can take when instructing students in phonics and decoding. Below, we’ve listed the 3 main steps every educator should take as they begin planning their phonics lessons.
Step 1: Letter Sounds
The first step in teaching phonics is to focus on the individual letter sounds. The best order to do this is as follows:
- S, A, T, P, I, N
- C, K, E, H, R
- M, D, G, O
- L, F, B, Q, U
- J, Z, W
- V, Y, X
Step 2: Blending
Next, you’ll want to work on blending the letters that have been learned. This can be done in a variety of ways, but usually, it’s best to start with consonant, vowel, consonant (CVC). These are words like sat, pan, and tap.
Once a student has mastered this, they can move to consonant, consonant, vowel, consonant (CCVC) as well as consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant (CVCC). These include words like stop, plan, milk, and past.
Step 3: Digraphs
After learning the sounds of individual letters, students can move on to reading and writing diagraphs. There are two types of diagraphs: consonant and vowel.
When students learn both consonant and vowel digraphs, they’ll have the ability to sound out full words such as hair, moon, and chin.
During this step, students may also be challenged to study words that are more difficult because they don’t follow the normal phonics rules, for example, he, she, was, they, and all.
Phonics Reading Books
Providing students with the proper resources is crucial for teaching letters. You can find plenty of books and resources to help the process of reading and writing, however, you want to ensure that you’re keeping your students engaged.
Below, we’ve listed our top picks for phonics reading books that combine student-friendly designs with colorful artwork and photography.
• Available for grades K–3
Early Phonics Readers
• Available for grades K–1
On Our Way to Reading—Newcomers
• Available for grades PreK–3
Phonics & Word Study
• Available for grades 1–6
What Does the Science of Reading Say About Phonemic Awareness?
The Science of Reading identifies phonemic awareness as one of the five pillars of literacy.
Why is phonemic awareness important in early literacy? According to a study from Learning Point Associates, “Phonemic awareness helps young children use more advanced ways of learning new words. Learning a new word involves forming a connection between visual information about the word as it appears in print and its meaning, pronunciation, and other information that is stored in the child’s oral vocabulary. This connection is what enables the reader to access information. Faster, stronger connections help produce more proficient reading.”
Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s report showed that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective across all the literacy domains and outcomes.
The study also identified the following key strategies for effective phonemic awareness instruction:
- Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters
- Explicitly focusing instruction on one or two types of phoneme manipulations rather than multiple types
- Using small group instruction
Phonics and phonemic awareness skills are imperative for building a strong foundation in early education and with the proper planning and encouraging student participation, teachers will be able to make teaching letters enjoyable and educational.
This blog was originally published on August 15, 2022. It was updated on October 24, 2023.