Phonemic Awareness with ELLs

Phonemic Awareness with ELLs

A student’s level of phonemic awareness when they enter kindergarten is a strong predictor of how easy it will be for them to learn how to read. All students in preschool and many in the primary grades are learning phonemic awareness skills. Teaching phonemic awareness skills to young ELLs is similar to their native English peers. Older ELLs may also benefit from short and targeted instruction and practice with the sounds of English.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate phonemes in spoken words. It is also the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words (Reading Rockets.) Phonemic awareness activities are done without letters so that the focus is on sounds.

Components of Phonemic Awareness


What is the beginning, middle, ending sound in cat?


Which word had the same beginning sound as cat? Dog, bug, cut (cut)


Which word does not start with the same beginning sound, it does not belong? blue, black, red (red)


Put the sounds together to make a word. /c/ /a/ /t/ is cat. If a student struggle with blending each sound give them the initial sound (onset) and the rest of the sounds (rime) /c/ /at/.

A simple activity is to play a guessing game with students. Segment a word /t/ /r/ /e/. Students say the word and then look around and try and find it. This helps ELLs build their vocabulary as they are practicing sounds.


Say the sounds you hear in the word cat /c/ /a/ /t/. One way to help students with this task is to give blocks for them to move with each sound or tap their finger for each sound.


Have students remove a sound to create a new word. Say blog. Now say blog without the /b/ log.


Have students add a sound to create a new word. Say at. Now say at and add /s/ to the beginning sat.


Say mat. Change the /m/ to /r/. What is the new word? (rat)

Exposure to the Sounds of English

You can help ELLs strengthen their knowledge of the sounds of the English language through read alouds, songs, poems, and other word games. Choral reading is also helpful as it gives students practice pronouncing English words without the stress of people hearing if they mispronounce a word.

Teacher reading book to young students sitting on floor.

Focus on Sounds that are Different

Especially for older Ells, it is helpful to focus on the sounds that are different between English and their native language.  Phonological awareness skills transfer from one language to another. If a student is literate in their native language then they only require instruction in sounds that are different.

English and Spanish similarities and differences

Use Pictures

ELLs need to understand the vocabulary words that are being used for a phonemic awareness lesson. Using pictures is a simple way to help students both learn new sounds and vocabulary.

Older Students

For older ELLs photographs are one way to keep instruction age-appropriate.  Students can work on completing a picture alphabet book. Use magazines, teacher provided pictures and student drawings that connect to the content that students are learning. Students can sort the pictures based on the beginning sounds.


Phonemic Awareness Bundle– This set includes print and digital phonemic awareness games with pictures and rhyming puzzles.

References & Further Reading

A Fresh Look at Phonics

The Big Five: Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Part 2


phonemic awareness with ELLs

Leave a Reply