Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

Phonological Awareness with Upper Elementary Students

By Beth Richards

Most early childhood and early-elementary classrooms are filled with activities to help develop phonological awareness, such as rhyming songs and stories, alliterative poems, and picture sorts. But older students with reading difficulties may have deficits in phonological awareness. In this post, I’ll share some ideas for addressing these needs in upper-grade classrooms, especially during small-group instruction.  

What is Phonological Awareness? 

Phonological awareness is the awareness of sounds in oral language and the ability to manipulate those sounds. In addition, phonological awareness includes noticing similarities and patterns between units of sounds. Phonological awareness skills include identifying and producing rhyming words, segmenting and blending sounds within words, hearing words as units within sentences, identifying syllables within words, and breaking words into onset and rime. 

Research shows that phonological awareness is a strong predictor of success with reading and spelling. Many struggling readers, including those with a dyslexic diagnosis, have deficits in at least one area of phonological awareness. These students then have difficulty spelling and applying phonics principles because they do not have a strong enough awareness of sounds.

Inspire! Collection, Hameray Publishing, Leveled Readers, Nonfiction, Biographies

Although phonological awareness activities are most often done in grades K-2, some struggling readers in grades 3 and up may have gaps that need to be addressed through small group instruction.  I will provide examples of phonological practices using words from the Hameray Inspire! Collection. This collection is ideal for second and third-graders and struggling readers in upper elementary and middle school. 


How do I know which students may need additional phonological awareness support? 

Observation of student responses during whole group, small group, and 1:1 instruction will allow you to notice which students may need some additional assessments and instruction. Here are some things to look for. 

  • Can segment words when decoding but has difficulty blending them back together to form a word
  • Written attempts may not have all sounds within the word represented; in younger students, this may be individual letter sounds, while in older students, this may be syllables or larger chunks.
  • Difficulty hearing the difference between similar sounding letters, such as /m/ and /n/, /a/ and /e/, /p/ and /b/
  • Difficulty using analogy to solve words in both reading and writing
  • Mispronunciation of words
  • Persistent spelling confusions, especially those related to similar sounds (such as short a and short e)
Teaching phonological awareness in small groups

Since phonological awareness deals with the sounds in oral language, teaching activities are auditory and can be done in very little time. Consistency is vital; taking a minute or two at the beginning or end of group time every day can go a long way in fostering the development of this awareness. Use your observational or assessment data to determine which skills are lacking.

Inspire! Collection, Hameray Publishing, Leveled Readers, Nonfiction, Biographies, Serena Williams

Hearing Syllable in Words

After reading, choose a few words from the book. Ask students to say and clap the syllables in each word. For example, on page 22 from Serena Williams: Game, Set, Match: 

  • clap singles, sin-gles
  • clap tournament, tour-na-ment
Using picture cards, have students say and clap the label that matches the picture, and then sort the pictures according to how many syllables are present.

    Generate Rhyming Words

    Select a known high-frequency word or a word from a book students have read, such as the word game from the Serena Williams book. Speaking out loud, ask students to generate as many words as possible that rhyme: game, fame, shame, lame, tame, name, frame. This helps prepare students to hear and use analogy as a tool for spelling.

    Inspire! Collection, Hameray Publishing, Leveled Readers, Nonfiction, Biographies, Maya Lin

    Segmenting Words 

    Using words from reading or writing, model different ways to segment words, and then allow student practice. Students can segment words in the following ways:

    • Clap to hear syllables
    • Use hand motions - saying a base/root word while holding out the left hand, saying the inflectional ending or suffix while holding out the right hand, then clapping hands together and repeating the word as a whole.
    • Select words to segment into onset and rime.  From page 8 of Maya Lin: Artist and Architect, select the word traveled. Onset: tr / Rime: aveled. Select the word brother. Onset: br / Rime: other
    • Tap, touch, or push counters to represent sounds in words
    • Segment prefix, base word, and suffix


    Select words from students’ reading, writing, or new vocabulary words. For example, geode and memorial are vocabulary words from page 8 of Maya Lin. Segment the words in one of the ways listed above while students listen.

    • ge-ode
    • me-mo-ri-al

    Ask students to blend the parts and say the word as a whole. The teacher can do all the segmenting or ask students to repeat the segments orally and blend them. 

    Inspire! Collection, Hameray Publishing, Leveled Readers, Nonfiction, Biographies, Shape Up, Buildings of All Shapes and Sizes


    Tell students a word and have them repeat it. Then ask them to repeat it without the initial letter, initial blend, or final sound. Here is an example using words from Shape Up, Buildings of All Shapes and Sizes, page 5:

    • Initial sound: "Say learning without the /l/." "earning."
    • Final sound: "Say building without /ing/." "build."

    Mispronunciation of Words or Sounds

    Students with phonological awareness difficulties struggle to hear differences between similar sounds. While you work on supporting their development, you can also teach them to feel the difference between those sounds in their mouths. Short a and e sounds may be hard to distinguish through listening, so help students notice lip formation, tongue placement, facial movements (such as nose wrinkling, lips pulling down, tightness in the cheeks), or vibrations (with lips and teeth in the throat). A mirror is also helpful.

    When students mispronounce words, ask them to watch you and listen while you model the correct way. Over-enunciate the portion of the word that is most challenging for them to pronounce. Have them repeat it to you (part by part at first, if necessary). Draw attention to any of the abovementioned cues that might help them pronounce it correctly, such as “Put your tongue between your teeth to make the /th/ sound.” 

    A minute or two each day to address students’ phonological awareness gaps will be time well spent with many struggling readers. 


    Hameray's Inspire! Collection is a unique series of informational chapter books for grades 2-3. Featuring biographies of nineteen extraordinary trailblazers, each paired with a nonfiction chapter book that explores a key theme related to the individual's life. It contains 38 titles. Guided reading levels: M–Q.

    Inspire! Collection, Hameray Publishing, Leveled Readers, Nonfiction, Biographies


    Beth has been teaching for twenty years. For the last nine years, she has been a literacy interventionist and Reading Recovery teacher. Prior to that, she taught kindergarten, third, and fourth graders. She loves spending her days helping her students develop and share her love of reading.