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V.2 #4 Recommended Practices - An Experienced Teacher’s Warning: Don’t Forget the Prerequisite Skill

Recently I found myself in a local elementary school assisting a new first grade teacher who was stymied at some of his students’ failure to learn the sight words he had been diligently drilling them on for several months. Mr. Noel was concerned that several students were not making progress with instruction in high frequency sight word recognition. He reported the students with the most difficulty did poorly on quarterly literacy benchmark assessments; all demonstrated difficulty with rhyming words, blending individual phonemes (sounds) into words, and demonstrating accurate recall of learned consonant and vowel sounds. These important phonological awareness skills are crucial building blocks for other reading skills. To teach reading and to diagnose reading difficulty, teachers must understand all aspects of language from accurate pronunciation to the underlying rules that govern the linguistic structure of the language. Research has shown that phonological awareness is highly correlated to reading achievement and poor skills in this area are highly correlated to reading failure (Chard & Osborn, 1999).

In the case of these students, it was clearly evident that their inability to rhyme and blend sounds was paramount to their difficulty reading and remembering high frequency sight words. Mr. Noel made a common mistake that new teachers make: failure to consider a student’s level of development, the difficulty level of the task, and the student’s competence with prerequisite skills, in order to ensure prerequisite skills were in place.

To assist Mr. Noel, we reviewed the sequence of skills for teaching phonological awareness tasks and examples were provided for each as described in Mather and Urso (2007).

Examples of phonological awareness tasks are (in order of difficulty):

  1. Rhyming: What words rhyme with dog?

  2. Blending: What word is this... /sh/ /oe/?

  3. Phoneme Counting: How many sounds are in the word "exact"?

  4. Phoneme Deletion: What is left if the /t/ sound were taken from "cart"?

  5. Phoneme Segmentation: How many sounds do you hear in the word "bus"?

Rhyming tasks in order of difficulty:

  1. Discriminating rhymes

  • Recognition: Do these two words rhyme?

  • Oddity: Tell me which word doesn’t rhyme.

  • Completion: Finish what I say with a rhyming word

2. Producing rhymes

  • Production: What word rhymes with...?

Other Phonological Awareness Tasks

  1. Isolating initial and final sounds

  • What is the first sound in …?

  • What is the last sound you hear in …?

2. Blending sounds

  • Start the instruction with sounds that can be prolonged (e.g., /s/, /f/, /m/)

  • Progress from compound words to syllables to onset-rimes to phonemes

  • Present words with two sounds, three, and then four (e.g., /m/ /e/, /sh/ /oe/, /c/ /a/ /t/, /s/ /a/ /n/ /d/)

  • Gradually increase the interval between sounds from 1/4 second to 1 second break

3. Segmenting sounds

  • Break compound words into words (e.g., cup-cake.)

  • Count the number of syllables in a word (e.g., car-pen-ter.)

4. Break into onset-rime (e.g., c-at).

The onset is the beginning consonant in a word (not all words have an onset in the English language). The rime is the common ending. Note the word "at" is just a rime.

5. Count the number of phonemes (e.g., s-e-g-m-e-n-t).

6. Manipulating sounds (e.g., deleting, substituting, transposing)

  • Deletion: say cart without /t/

  • Addition: say at with /c/ at the front

  • Substitution:

- Initial: Change the /s/ in sun to /f/ - Final: Change the /t/ in cat to /b/ - Medial: Change the /i/ in hit to /a/ - Reversal: say the sounds in “enough” backward

This sequence of phonological awareness activities gave Mr. Noel a starting place for diagnosing the skill gaps for the struggling students and planning appropriate instructional activities. Without phonological awareness skills in place, learning sight words will be largely a futile and frustrating task for the students and the teacher alike.


Chard, D.J. & Obsorn, J. (1999). Phonics and word recognition instruction in early reading programs: Guidelines for accessibility. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 14(2), 107-117.

Mather, N., & Urso, A. (2007). Teaching Younger Readers with Reading Difficulties. In R. Morris & N. Mather (Eds.). Evidence-based Interventions for Students with Learning and Behavioral Challenges. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Recommended Instructional Resources

Wendling, B.J. & Mather, N. (2009). Essentials of evidence-based academic interventions. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Whitaker, S.D., Harvey, M., Hassell, L.J., Linder, T., & Tutterrow, D. (2006). The FISH strategy: Moving from sight words to decoding. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(5), 14-18.

Reading Rockets ( and ColorinColorado ( Reading Rockets is a national multimedia project offering information and resources on how young children learn to read and how to help struggling readers. Funded in part by a major grant from U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Reading Rockets and its sister website on resources for teaching English Language Learners how to read, ColorinColorado, contain research based resources, instructional materials, webcasts, podcasts, newsletters and web resources for teachers, parents and families.

Annmarie Urso, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Ella Cline Shear School of Education, Division of Special Education, at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her current research interests include the role of processing speed in the cognitive profiles of poor readers and effective interventions for students identified as treatment resisters in reading. Dr. Urso also studies pre-service teachers as they prepare to teach culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional learners. She is interested in the role of cultural historical activity theory and cultural modeling design as frameworks for course design in pre-service teacher education programs.

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