Phoneme isolation is the ability to identify where a sound appears in a word, or to identify what sound appears in a given position in a word. This is a very important step in the development of literacy, as well as general language development.
Children who have mastered this level of phonemic awareness can accurately answer questions like "Does the /p/ sound come at the beginning, middle, or end of the word tap?"
A child adept at phoneme isolation will also answer correctly if you phrase the question as "What sound comes at the end of the word tap?" At advanced levels, they will be able to do this with longer words as well as words with just one syllable.
Children who have not yet mastered phoneme isolation, but are well on the way, will be able to tell you if a sound appears in the word, although they may not accurately identify where in the word it comes. In other words, they can tell you that tap contains the /p/ sound, but struggle with where it comes in the word.
Here is one of my favorite speech therapy activities to use for exercising phoneme isolation skills.
Ideally, for this activity you will have access to a toy train or train set of some sort. I have a Brio set that I use, but you can use any toy train with an engine and at least two cars that can be hooked or unhooked. Tracks are not essential, but I prefer to use a simple circle of track to keep the activity contained and to prevent our sounds from taking long trips around the living room floor. If I am working with a child who really loves to build train tracks, I might use additional sections of track as a reinforcer, letting the child add a new section after an agreed-upon number of correct responses.
If you don't have access to a toy train, you don't need to go out and buy one (unless you want to and need an excuse!). It works just as well to use index cards or pieces of paper representing the engine and the cars. If you want, you can have your child draw and color an engine on one card, a freight car on another, and a caboose on the third.
Gather together an assortment of different-colored wooden or plastic blocks (or beads, tiles, sticks, or other objects). If you have five or six different colors and two or three objects of each color, that should be plenty.
Begin by putting just the engine and caboose on the track, or on the table or floor between you and your child.
The first step is demonstration. Pick up one of the colored blocks and say, "This is the oo sound. I'm going to say a silly word that has the oo sound. Voo. Voo. Voo has the oo sound. The oo sound is the last sound in voo, so it's going to ride in the caboose, because that's the last car on the train." Place the block in or on the caboose; then pick up a block of a different color and say, "This is the vvv sound. Vvv. This is the other sound in voo. The vvv sound comes first in voo, doesn't it? So we're going to put vvv in the Engine, because that's the first part of the train. So here's our voo train with vvv riding in the engine and oo riding in the caboose." Then have your child give the voo train a ride around the track.
Here is a link to an explanation of why I prefer to use nonsense words to train phoneme isolation and other phonemic awareness skills.
Next, have your child try it. Put the two blocks back with the others, pick up another block, and say, "This is the mmm sound. I'm going to say a silly word that has the mmm sound. Moy. Moy. Moy has the mmm sound. Let's see, I wonder if we should put mmm in the engine or the caboose." Hand the block to your child. Pause and give your child time to think about it and give you an answer. Resist the urge to start talking if your child does not respond immediately. If you can't resist the urge to say something, just repeat the word "mmmoy" once or twice, lingering on the mmm sound. If your child wants to put mmm in the caboose, say, "Mmmoy. Mmmoy. You know, I think mmm is the first sound I hear when I say Mmmoy. Let's put it in the engine." If your child responds correctly, your response will be almost the same: "Mmmoy. Mmmoy. You're right, I think mmm is the first sound I hear when I say Mmmoy, so we'll put it in the engine." Pick up a block of a different color and say, "This is oy. It's the other sound in mmmoy. It comes after mmm, so it goes in the ..." Hand the block to your child to place in the caboose. It's not really important whether the child says "caboose" or not. Then have your child give the moy train a ride around the track.
This looks complicated when you read it, but really it takes longer to describe it than to do it. If you practice a couple of times by yourself, you'll have no problem doing the activity with your child.
Once your child is comfortable with phoneme isolation using words made of two sounds (consonant-vowel or vowel-consonant), add a freight car or passenger car to the train between the engine and caboose, and work with words made of three or more sounds. Begin with consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) and progress to CCV and VCC. You can also use words that have more than three sounds (e.g., Where is the /g/ sound in forget?). You do not need to add cars to the train to match the number of sounds in the word; at this level, all your child needs to tell you is whether the sound comes first, last, or somewhere in the middle. If your child is sophisticated enough to tell you that the /g/ sound is the fourth of seven sounds in forget (or the third of six if you count /or/ as an /r/-colored vowel), then you should be working on a more advanced level of phonemic awareness than phoneme isolation.
If you or your child begin to tire of trains and you want to introduce some variety, you can practice phoneme isolation using familiar stories with trios of characters, such as:
Goldilocks and the Three Bears: "The Three Bears are going for a walk in the woods. They're each carrying a sound from the word fip. Mother Bear is carrying the fff sound, so should she go first, second, or third?"
The Three Billy-Goats Gruff: "The Three Billy-Goats Gruff have to carry the word fip across the bridge one sound at a time. Which sound will the first one carry?"
The Three Little Pigs: "The Three Little Pigs are trying to hide the word fip from the wolf. They're hiding one sound in each house. Which sound will the wolf find when he blows down the first house?"
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