Word play and rhyming games can prepare children to become readers by developing their ear for language. The
games you play with your child are more than just fun. In fact, they will get your child started on the road to reading.
Word games build what’s called phonemic awareness – the insight that words are made up of individual sounds. Mother Goose rhymes and Dr. Seuss books provide an excellent way to get your child's ears attuned to different sounds. In fact, being able to hear that words rhyme is the beginning of phonemic awareness.
A crucial first step
Many kids need help learning how to pick apart the sounds within a word. Even in kindergarten it’s important for parents and teachers to assess how well a child is able to hear the sounds inside a word and to know which letters go with which sounds. It is also important for parents to realize that phonemic awareness is largely independent of IQ.
"There’s a myth that if kids start off slow they’ll eventually catch up. But we know from the research that
that’s simply not the case," says Dr. Edward Kame’enui of the University of Oregon. "We need to intervene early because we don’t have any time to waste. Kids face the tyranny of time. In order for them to catch up, we have to be very strategic in what we do in the early years."
Being able to rearrange and manipulate sounds is a real challenge for some kids. But with the right kind of instruction, even very young children can improve their ear for language. And once children master the connection between the sounds they hear and the letters they see, they are well on their way to becoming readers.
Strategies that work
The second program in the Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers television series, "Sounds & Symbols," introduces parents, teachers, and researchers who are using strategies that work in helping kids distinguish letters and sounds.
- Because so many of his students speak foreign languages at home, kindergarten teacher Kabee Lee of Mark Hopkins Elementary in Sacramento, California, has to work extra hard to teach reading in English. He plays games – for example, using a lion puppet that keeps forgetting the end sounds of words – to help kids pick apart the sounds in English words.
- The parents of a young girl named Neil have been playing rhyming games with her since she was a baby. In one of these games, her parents say words aloud. When they say two words that rhyme, Neil claps her hands. Not only is the game fun, but Neil is also building her phonemic awareness.
- The Lab School in Washington, DC, specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities. Pam
Knudsen’s students get one-on-one help in learning to decode words – to go from recognizing the letters to saying a choppy string of sounds to putting it all together in a smooth, blended sounding of the word.
- Erik was referred to the Lindamood-Bell Center in Denver by his teacher. It specializes in assessing and then
training kids who are having trouble decoding words. After 3-12 weeks of training, 95 percent of kids with phonemic awareness
deficits will raise their scores to typical levels, and reading success usually follows.
- Because deaf children don’t have access to the sounds of language, they lag behind the hearing in
reading skills: the average deaf American reads at a fourth-grade level. To give them an edge in learning to read, deaf students
at the Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, are supplementing American Sign Language (ASL) with a
gestural system called "cued speech." Cued speech represents the English language syllable by syllable and phoneme by phoneme. It offers deaf children the chance to develop phonemic awareness through visual representations of sounds.
- In a Houston kindergarten class, teacher Madeline Eckford starts out with a game that focuses
students on the initial sounds of words. Then she has the students apply their phonemic awareness by changing letters to create
new words, such as changing van to vet. Her approach is emblematic of a good reading program because she
teaches letter-sound connections in a sensible and deliberate order.
What you can do
Play letter and sound games with your children often. Have fun with sounds. And have your child assessed early if you
suspect a problem. For practical strategies you can use today, see our Parent Tips. Or send a fun and
encouraging e-card to a special reader in your life.