Developing Phonological Awareness - Our Focus & Activities At 2-3 Years

Do you have a two to three year old who is showing an interest in letters and reading, and you don't know what to do next? Here are a few ideas.

From around two to three years we focus on phonological awareness and this comes before teaching the child letters or reading.

Phonological awareness includes identifying and manipulating units of oral language such as words, syllables, speech sounds (phonemes), onset and rime. Activities regarding phonological awareness do not necessarily have any written words in them, it is about the sounds that the words make, not about the letters we use to spell them.

Phonemic awareness is a part of phonological awareness and for our children has really kicked in at around two and a half. Phonemic awareness is identifying and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. It is about about breaking down a word into it's sounds, sound-letter patterns, blending, segmenting and playing with sounds to make new words. Phonemic awareness lays the foundation for spelling and word recognition skills including decoding unfamiliar printed words. 

What comes before phonics chartDiagram: What Comes Before Phonics? by Sally Neaum.

Some children pick up phonological and phonemic awareness quickly and other children (like mine) need more time with this work. This period should not be rushed. I base our language work on my children's interests, this usually includes their names, the names of their friends and family, and topics of interest. 

It's important to note here that the language we give the child must have meaning. We share language about the child, their life, daily activities and the world around them.

'The essential thing is for the task to arouse such an interest that it engages the child's whole personality.'  - The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori.

Here are the steps we've taken so far (at 2 years 11 months):

Provide a Literacy Rich Home:

  • Provide a variety of books - children's books, poetry, rhyming books, cookbooks
  • Model reading and writing
  • With the child read & make various labels, lists, signs, notes, letters
  • Fully enunciate our words
  • Use real and accurate language - provide real names of things, provide the specific names of things in our environment or with things of interest to the child, you can even provide a language basket to directly support this work, for example a basket of different types of model dogs/cat/horses or you can use photographs to support this. 
    • tree names - oak, eucalyptus...
    • flower names - daffodil, tulip...
    • animal names dog/cat/horse/bird names - poodle, bulldog, beagle...
    • vehicles names different types of trains/tractors/trucks/airplanes
    • names of colours - once the child has mastered primary colours we can move onto secondary and tertiary colours.
    • learn names of geometric shapes - cube, sphere...
  • Use anatomy or 'parts of cards' to teach the child more about the parts of plants, animals and other subjects. 

Listening For and Identifying Words That Rhyme:

  • Share rhyming riddles, poems and verse such as a sailor went to sea, hickory dickory dock, this old man (he played one..), Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, incy wincy spider, and make up alternatives. Once the child is familiar with the rhyme we can ask them to finish it, or we say the first half and the child says the second half.
  • Share tongue twisters which often use word play with common initial sounds (alliteration).
  • Use objects, models or picture cards to match rhyming items like snake/lake, snail/tail, duck/truck. The items need to be things that the child is already familiar with and that they know the name of. We start small with only a few (like four cards) so it's setting the child up for success and is easy to match.
  • Play rhyming bingo! You can buy or make a fun form of matching bingo, start with one card and play together. 
  • Use rhyming puzzles with a built-in control of error. 
  • Play rhyming games. One person says a word and the other person has to say a rhyming word (real or made up!).
  • Have a range of items in a basket, choose one item and think of a rhyming word.
  • Make up rhyming silly sentences using your name, the child's name, pet names or sibling names.

Identifying Syllables: 

  • Clap out the syllables in the child's name and name of friends and family. Clap out and perhaps count syllables of the names of objects or using picture cards. Start with objects with one to two syllables and increase as the child gains confidence and knowledge.
  • Move to clapping out the syllables in a full sentence.
  • Stop with our feet or jump for the syllables.
  • We can also use a drum, claves or rhythm sticks to replace the tapping/clapping.

Increase Awareness Of  Music and Environmental Sounds:

  • We listen and try to copy sounds we hear - a ding on the xylophone, quark of the bird, tick tock of the clock, drip of the water, this helps the child refine these senses and  identify the sounds they hear. Go on a listening walk. Or make up sounds when reading a book depending on what is happening in the story, create the sounds of someone laughing, going down a slide, falling into the pond.
  • Use instruments to identify syllables.
  • Use songs or singing to identify and create verse, rhythm and rhyme. 

Identifying Initial/Beginning Sounds (isolating initial phonemes):

  • We start with I Spy with just two items in front of us, only one item is correct. For example 'I Spy something that stars with a' and there is an apple and a banana on the tray. We can build up to more items in the tray. In the beginning I like to make the objects real, but we can also use models (language objects) or life-like images (illustrations or photographs) of the objects.I Spy Three Items at How we Montessori
  • Play variations of I Spy including 'Show me something that starts with...' for example body parts (arm, leg), 'Pass me something that starts with..' for example fruit from the fruit bowl. We can play I Spy identifying things outside the window or around the room or things printed on a page in a book.
  • 'Play this version of I Spy. Choose the first letter of your child's name and see how many times you can find things that start with the letter when you are out for a walk. Choose other letters on other days.' - Montessori Read and Write by Lynne Lawrence. 
  • Play shops 'Hello, May I please have something that starts with m'. Make sure you are looking at or have identified something in the child's play shop that starts with m. Play shops can be imaginary or we set them up with food goods, play food or toys. 

Montessori Read and Write I Spy  Sandpaper Letters and Movable Alphabet relationshipChart: Montessori Read and Write: A Parent's Guide to Literacy for Children by Lynne Lawrence.

  • Use Mini Alphabet Books to explore words with the same beginning sound. We've made our own using images found online and binder rings. 

How we Montessori Mini Alphabet Books

  • Use initial sound bags, baskets or trays - I love to use Initial Sound Trays and at the moment always have one of the shelves, changing the letter every 1-2 weeks. All of the objects in the basket have the same initial sound, we make the basket together and go on a scavenger hunt for all the things that start with a letter like 'b'. Then we will use the basket by taking out one object at a time and saying (and enunciating) the name of each item. My toddler loves these baskets and will often use them with other members of the family often breaking up the words into onset and rime (bus= b+us). These trays are a big part of our language work.

How we Montessori Sound Tray b

  • Use Photographic Non-Fiction Prereader Readers - These are fabulous. Each book covers seven letters and has an object for each letter. I love that it helps the child with the beginning sound in context like in space, baby animals, dance, musical instruments, making bread. Each photograph is in full colour and I find them interesting and different to other readers/alphabet books. They are also decodable so when they can be used when the child is ready for reading. At the moment I will read 'b is for ...' and allow my toddler to look at the picture and answer 'butterfly'. Remember to use the sounds of the letter not the name of the letter. 

Prereader readers for 2-3 years at How we Montessori

  • Use a Letter Sound Wall Border/Frieze. These cards are nice and large (8.5 x 8.5 inches) and can support the child's need for movement. They can be used on a table, outside or on the floor in a similar way to I Spy, the child can run and touch the letter you call out 'I see something that starts with p'. This frieze comes connected but I've cut them so the cards/letters are all separate. The clear and attractive photographic images are perfect. Like I Spy we start with a few letters and build up until all of them are out.

Alphabet frieze phonetic at How we Montessori

  • Play odd one out, or which one doesn't belong. I've only just started playing this with my toddler and it was surprisingly successful. I put three items on a tray, two start with the same letter. The child is asked to pick out which one is different, or starts with a different letter. For example below butterfly, bee with the odd one out being ant. 

How we Montessori phonics which one doesn't belog b-utterfly  b-ee  a-nt

  • Play with alliteration. Join words that start with the same sound for example 'blue block', 'busy bee', 'brown bear' using objects from an initial sound tray/basket. Or go further 'the big, blue block fell backwards over the bed'. Or make up silly sentences using your name 'Otto likes to eat orange octopus while observing Oscar oscillating over the ocean'.
  • Sorting - put items into basket then sort them according to their initial sounds, start with two, for example a and b - apple, ant, ball, banana, bat, book.
  • Create a pretend (or real) pizza and add toppings, make a soup or a sandwich and add ingredients that start with the same sound for example 'b', bacon, beans, beetroot. If making a real pizza/soup or sandwich we can add each group of letters at a time for example add the potato and pumpkin to the soup first, then the next letter. For pretend food we can use plastic/model foods (or felt) or even cut outs on paper/card.

This is where we are at with our toddler who turns three next month. Once we feel that he has a grasp on most of the initial sounds we will begin working with identifying ending sounds (isolating final phonemes) and then identifying middle sounds (isolating middle phonemes). Identifying middle sounds is the most complex and we should make sure the child has a good solid grasp of initial and end sounds before moving onto the middle sounds. Then we can work on blending and phoneme substitution activities. I'll share more when we get to that point. I have shared a chart above from Montessori Read and Write which includes some detail of when to introduce Sandpaper Letters and the Movable Alphabet. 

Remember when playing sound games we are not testing the child, we set them up for success. We limit the objects or choices until the child's knowledge or skill increases, give hints like a look in the direction of  the item we are thinking for in the game. The home, play, and learning environment is most effective when the child is free to make mistakes, when there is no pressure and no stress.

We really don't need to buy a lot of materials for this work. We can use many materials from around the home including toys we already have. I like to use toys, kitchen items, clothing, lego or playmobil props, food (fruit, vegetables, herbs, canned goods), model animals (Toobs, Schliech), and instruments as language objects. If needed I also use language cards, cut outs or print out of objects, using life-like images or photographs where possible. 

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