Phonemic Awareness Strategies & Activities for Struggling Readers

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In this post, I share my favorite phonemic awareness strategies and activities for struggling readers.

Phonemic awareness is the first step in learning how to read and spell. Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds that make up words.

So for example, whether a student can identify the beginning sound in a word, if a set of words rhymes, or break a word into syllables is highly dependent on their phonemic awareness skills.

For most individuals, they naturally acquire phonemic awareness through exposure to print, games, songs, and interactions with others. But for students with language disabilities like dyslexia, they need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness.

Reading Intervention Activities for Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic Awareness Task Cards

If you want something ready made, that doesn’t involve any planning or prep, and that takes 5 minutes or less a day, then check out my Phonemic Awareness Task Cards.

These are printable cards with scripted oral activities that can be used with beginning readers or as an intervention with struggling readers.

phonemic awareness task cards

Use A Sound Wall

If you have a word wall up, I strongly suggest you switch to a sound wall. Sound walls have lots of reading research to back them up for improving reading and spelling skills, and they make a lot more sense than word walls. They build on phonemic awareness because they focus on the phonemes. You cannot teach blending, segmenting, or other phonemic awareness skills without the foundational understanding of phonemes.

Check out my post all about implementing a sound wall.

Phoneme Segmentation

This is easy to do with few supplies. I like to use Elknonin boxes to isolate each sound visually. {You can download my free template here.} Students can either write a letter in each, use letter/color tiles, or use flashcards to segment the sounds in a word.

Another great strategy is tapping out the sounds. Students tap their fingers onto their arms for each sound they hear in the word.

phonemic awareness strategies - Elkonon boxes for segmenting and blending
Here the student is using Elkonin boxes to segment and blend a word. This is also a helpful visual aide for onset rime and phoneme deletion, described below.

Onset and rime

Getting visual with onset and rimes is a great way for struggling readers to see the sound and begin to isolate it. I use Elkonin boxes, flashcards, cubes, or letter tiles.

Have them segment the word and say the beginning sound. You can also work on the middle and final sound to extend. Move away from using visuals to performing this task mentally. Students should be able to listen to a word and identify the beginning sound without any visual aids.

Phoneme Deletion

Once they can identify the beginning sound, you can delete the sound and they should be able to say the new word. You can start with visuals like letter tiles and flashcards but the goal is for students to perform this task mentally.

Delete different sounds in a word, such as the beginning, middle, and final sound. You could also insert a new sound and see if they know the new word.

A typical exercise I do with my students is showing them a simple word like cat. I remove it after a few seconds and ask them to picture the word. Then I ask them what is the beginning sound, middle sound, and final sound. I say “take away the /c/ and what do you have?” Students should say “at”. Then I say ” add a /p/ to the beginning. What word do you have now?” This is tricky at first but model it and provide lots of practice.

Rhyming words

So many of my students struggle with rhyming words because they focus on one letter in any part of the word and struggle to focus on the ending. I usually start to teach orally by segmenting 2 rhyming words and focusing on the rhyming pattern. I ask for more words that rhyme and we make a list.

Then we move on to visually finding rhyming patterns, using a highlighter to box in the rhyming pattern in two words. After the student has mastered this, then I give 1 word and ask for a rhyming word.

The rhyming game below is a favorite with my students. I print rhyming words on cardstock and have them play memory. When they find a match, they must write the words.

phonemic awareness strategies - rhyming games for phonemic awareness
In this memory game, the student needs to match rhyming words and write them down.


Another area that many of my students struggle in. I love using Elkonin boxes for blending because it provides a visual for them while they blend. You can see below how I use it this way. {Download the template here}


From here I teach them a few strategies like finger sliding as they sound out a word, covering the onset or ending as they blend, and doing daily blending drills.

Blending drills are an important part of any Orton-Gillingham lesson. To do this you set up your phonogram cards in 3 or 4 piles using only sounds the student already knows. Then they blend as you remove cards from each pile.

Syllable Segmentation

In my experience, most people do not understand syllables. My students always do that thing where they clap or put their hand under their chin to count syllables and they always do it wrong. They don’t know what to count!

Explicit syllable instruction is so important but many students are not getting it. Make sure they know a syllable is a part of a word with a spoken vowel sound. We count the vowels we hear, not what we see. Then, we split the word according to a set of rules.

I focus on 1 rule at a time and spend a lot of time practicing. First, I work on words splitting them after marking vowels, consonants, and the pattern. I like to have students cut the word written on a flashcard to visualize the syllables. I also isolate the syllables and have them read them separately and put them back together.

Check out all my syllable posts here.

phonemic awareness games
In this board game, the student pulls a card after moving their pawn and must split a word into syllables.

Sentence Segmentation

This is probably not common but many students need it. How often do you notice students leave out a word or more when copying or reading?

Dictation drills can help with this. Say a simple sentence. Have students listen and count the words they hear. Then they can write the sentence and do the same.

You could also use cut up sentence strips to switch things up a bit.

Phonemic Awareness Games

Phonemic awareness games are a great multisensory way to get students to work on their phonemic awareness. Here are some of my favorite games:

  • Use any board game and add flashcards. Choose a phonemic activity for students to complete on their turn. It can be segmenting a word, finding a word that rhymes, splitting a word into syllables, phoneme deletion, or blending nonsense words. To complete their turn, students must do the activity after moving their pawn.
  • Use pictures of common items to ask for the name of the picture and the beginning sound.
  • Play a memory game using a set of words that rhyme printed on cardstock.
  • Challenge students to make 10 new words using syllables flash cards.
  • Challenge students make 10 nonsense words using flashcards of the letter sounds they know.
phonemic awareness activities
In this game, the student picks up a card on their turn and must read it then say a word that rhymes with it.

Check out my Phonemic Awareness Task Cards to help you get those phonemic awareness activities in – in just 5 minutes a day and without any prep!

If you’re looking for more tips on teaching struggling readers, check out these other posts:

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  1. Where can I find the short u sound sheets that are pictured in the multi sensory article? It is pictured with an umbrella at the top of the sheet. Thanks, I am trying to help my son to improve his reading.

    1. Hi Cheryl. Sorry I am replying weeks after your comment. I purchased those sheets from The Literacy Nest. She has tons of great resources.

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