A Basic Overview of Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Instruction: Low-Prep Activities Ages 2-5

Literary terms and jargon, for emergent and developing readers! 

Two of the most important terms to know are PHONEMES and PHONICS.  Not sure how they are they are related or different?  No problem!  Here is a simple overview, to get you started.

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Important terms to know:

PHONEMES: the sounds in spoken words
PHONICS: the relationship between the sounds and the written symbols for those sounds.


Every word in the English language is a combination of individual units of sounds called phonemes.  Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear the individual units of sounds (phonemes) in spoken words and syllables.  (Ex. h-o-p.)  

Phonemic awareness involves knowing how to segment and blend.
  • Segmenting: breaking a word apart, into individual sounds
  • Blending: saying a word, after all sounds are heard

Example: If the word is "sun", a child can segment each sound (s-u-n) and then blend them together to say "sun" after hearing all of the segmented sounds.

Phonemic awareness helps children develop an an early understanding how sounds and written letters are connected.  Most of these tasks are oral, as they focus on spoken words.

Phonemic awareness supports successful early reading experiences.  It is an important part of phonics instruction.


This is the teaching of sound-spelling relationships (associated with print.) These skills help students become readers and writers.

Instructional Approaches:

  • Connecting letters with sounds
  • Breaking words into sounds (segmenting)
  • Blending sounds into words
  • Embedding phonics skills in reading texts
  • Onset and rime: substituting the initial sounds (onset) while keeping the same ending pattern (rime) to make a new word.
    • onset beginning unit (comes before the vowel)
    • rime following units (usually vowel and final consonants)
    • not all words have onsets


Incorporate listening activities into your daily activities.  Notice what sounds you hear during breakfast, when you are outside, or during rest times.  Try drawing attention to a variety of sounds: opening a drawer, clapping hands, pouring liquid, tearing paper, tapping a foot, etc.  Talk about these sounds and have fun becoming sound detectives.
Practice letter sounds in isolation and make sound cards using your favorite books.  This is done when you and your child associate a phoneme with a familiar and specific character, animal, creature, or object.  You can also purchase sound-spelling cards that are already made!   

Look at illustrations in picture books, name the objects or activities, and talk about the beginning sounds of those words. Ex. "A frog is hopping." What sounds do you hear in "frog"? What sound does "hopping" start with? You can practice inexpensive picture cards, for practicing this skill in isolation.

Language play is a fun way to support your learner.  A very simple, fun, and free game to play is "Guess the letter."  If you are a parent, these are great during dinner or during car rides.  Teachers, these are fun for small group activities or snack time conversations.   
  • I'm thinking of a letter that makes this sound "mmmm"
  • Is it "m"?
  • Yes it is!
Change it to "Guess my Word"
  • I'm thinking of a word that starts with the sound "ssss'
  • Is it "sock"?
  • Try again! Here's a clue.. it is an animal!
  • Is it a "snake"?
  • Yes it is!
Another version of "Guess my Word" using blending:
  • I'm thinking of a word that starts with "sh" and ends with "ip"
  • Is it "ship"?
Change it to "Guess my sound and letter" matching words to sounds:
  • I'm thinking of a sound that starts these words: mom, mop, Monday
  • Is it "mmm"?
  • Yes, what letter makes that sound?
  • "M"!

Choose books with rhyming and repetition and read them aloud often!  Notice these patterns together, "How are hop and stop the same?"  "Do you notice how they almost sound the same?"

Examples of Books with Rhyming:

Talk about repetition of sounds (alliteration) in books and talk about them: Brown bear, brown bear... "What sound do these words start with?"

Examples of Books with Alliteration:


There are countless ways to practice phonics skills, across the spectrum of phonics development.  Here are some easy-to-employ strategies:


Matching Games

For standard practice, you can use picture cards (with or without words).  You can create word cards, using index cards or card stock paper.  Or, you can purchase various sets of them: letter sounds cardsvowels & vowel teams, word families, picture words, etc.  Be sure to read reviews carefully, as some sets omit letters or sounds.  

Once you have cards, there are many ways you can play matching games. You can have students match rhyming words, words beginning with the same sound, words with the same end-sound, etc.

Create sorting letter baskets with a variety of items.  Have students sort the items into the correctly labeled basket for their beginning sounds.  Or, use them as rhyming baskets instead!  

If you are teaching a thematic unit, this is a great opportunity to take key thematic words and create lists from those:

  • If you are doing a Farm Unit, take a word like "cow" and create a list of words beginning with the same beginning sound (corn, cat, crop, calf, etc.)
  • If you are doing an Ocean Unit, take a word like "sun" and create a list of rhyming words (bun, fun, stun, run, etc.)

  • Check out these thematic units on CVC Words.  

    I Spy
    This is a great game for Morning Meeting or Circle Time.  You can start by focusing on practicing each other's names: "I spy with my little eye a person whose name begins with ssss."

    This can be extended to "spy" on things around the classroom or other settings.
    Play I SPY Game to practice phonics skills.  Example, "I spy an object beginning with the letter 't'.


    • Make an Alphabet Book, with a focus on beginning sounds.  This can be done with drawings, pictures from magazines, images from thematic units, etc.
    • Have children make a book about themselves, where each 
    • Make a flip book.  You can purchase ready-made flip books or make your own!
    • Create a classroom book, where all students contribute to one or two phonics skills.  Example: create a class "S" book.

    Collages & Posters

    • Create classroom collages or posters about individual letters or sounds.  Example: all students find images for objects beginning with the "P" sound.  
    • Create letter posters, with a variety of letter-sound materials (mediums) to fill in the letters.  For example, create a large "B" and have students glue in a variety of buttons.  What it to be super low-prep?  Use stickers!  

    Reading to your students or children is critical.  Consider the interest-level, when reading stories aloud.  When choosing books at your child's developing reading level, make sure they fit with their decodability skills (ex. ABC books.)

    Reading Activities
    • Stop and briefly notice words as you are reading: "Wow, the words brown and bear both start with the same sound!"  
    • Find objects in the illustrations, which match a focused phonics skill (ex. find words beginning with the "mmm" sound.)
    • Play "That's MY Letter!" while reading the text together.  Can your child find words in the text, with the same letters as his/her name?  Extend this by choosing a specific letter (or blends, or word patterns, etc.) to find in the text.  
    • 🌟After reading, TALK about the story.  What was his/her favorite or least favorite part?  Reread interesting or confusing parts.  Act out a small part of the story.  Think about how the words created a certain mood.  Make sure your children/students understand the text and are able to talk about it.
    • Talk about anything special you noticed in the book (bolded words, repetition, humor, ect.)
    • Read nursery rhymes and poems; talk about rhymes, imagery, and sounds.  Notice the feelings different poems give you.  Did any words contribute to those feelings?

    To recap: Phonemic awareness (an important part of phonics instruction) is the ability to hear individual units of sound (segmenting) and blend them together (blending.)  Phonics instruction is an instructional approach to teaching sound-spelling relationships (through print.)  There are five basic types of instructional approaches and COUNTLESS ways to practice through fun and low-prep activities and games.  

    I hope you were able to find some tips or ideas for your young learners!  📚💗

    Check out these thematic practice handouts using beginning, middle and ends of words: Ocean - Themed CVC Word Work packet.