Tips for Phonemic Awareness Skill Development in the Early Grades

Updated: Jan 10

Based on John Hattie’s Influences.

As we all know, the pandemic has left unfinished learning in the hands of our teachers. Our responsibility is to accelerate learning with grade level standards, while integrating effective interventions that will propel our struggling learners to make adequate gains. Carving out ten to fifteen minutes twice a day to work with small groups of three to four students on a specific targeted skill will have a direct impact on student outcomes.

Researcher John Hattie's groundbreaking study on Visible Learning , identified 150 influences related to learning outcomes from very positive to very negative. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of Hattie’s notable research, the top influences having the most positive effects on visible learning for students are the very strategies I use daily with my early childhood students when teaching phonemic awareness and phonics. Take a look at Hattie's Effect Size Infographic .

First and foremost, it starts with teacher clarity. When we state the learning goal in simple student friendly language, we are setting the stage for learning. For example, “Boys and girls today we are learning the sounds for the letters P,F,N,T, A. We will learn words that begin with P,F,N,T,A.

Next, direct instruction , the modeling for the students is explicit, systematic, and multi-sensory. Using a Gradual Release of Responsibility approach, I model, we practice, and then the students give it a go on their own. Repeated practice with one letter at a time in a systematic way makes it understandable and clear. After a few rounds, students practice the formation of the letter. For instance, the letter “P” looks like, “Down, up and around”. As students orally state the directionality of the letter formation, they can sky write, write the letter on a tempera paint filled Ziplock bag, and practice writing the letter in their journals. As they write each letter, they are stating orally, “Down, up and around P, Panda /p/”. Again, drill and practice several times is key for developing mastery. Another technique I found engaging and effective is having the students use a small mirror to look at the formation of their mouths when producing different letter and blend sounds. This was very effective during virtual learning. Since the pandemic, this technique can be challenging unless the student has a face shield on and a shield barrier around his/her desk. As they watch me produce the correct sound through my face shield, they try to model the same mouth formation while looking at the mirror.

In 2004-2005 I had the privilege to work with Dylan Wiliam an internationally renowned expert on formative feedback. In this video clip, Dylan Wiliam shares the impact of Feedback on student learning. This is another John Hattie effect that yields positive learning outcomes. Every student should receive formative feedback that is specific, immediate, and clear. For example, if my student is orally producing /puh/ versus /p/, I immediately model the correct pronunciation and have them repeat it until he/she produces the sound correctly. Using this effect consistently will have a significant impact on student outcomes.

And lastly, having some type of formative assessment at the end of the lesson guides the planning of the next lesson with clarity and focus on targeted skills. It should be quick, easy, and aligned to the lesson’s learning objective. For example, I will produce the new letter sounds the children learned, and they will write the letter on a dry erase board and name the letter. I will then state four words, two of which begin with the letter they learned. They provide a thumbs up if the letter sound corresponds with the letter name. This formative assessment assesses their auditory discrimination.

Remember, be clear with the learning objective, provide targeted direct instruction, model, practice, provide formative feedback to move learning forward and assess to inform future lesson planning. If you would like to learn more about teaching phonemic awareness and phonics skills, email me, Jackie Frangis at:

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