Syllable and phoneme segmentation

Syllable and phoneme segmentation refers to the ability to identify the components of a word, phrase, or sentence.

Identifying how many syllables are in a word or phrase (again using auditory, visual, and/or numerical representations) is a very important step in developing phonological awareness. Very young children may have a difficult time understanding the concept of a syllable, and may want to split one-syllable words like bees into two: "bee-zzz". To help these children understand the concept, I'll say a two syllable word like baseball using a "sing-song" voice with each syllable on a different note; then I'll do the same thing with bees, putting "bee" and "zzz" on different notes, which sounds kind of silly.

If a child continues having difficulty with the concept, I'll skip it and move to the next step, which is phoneme segmentation, or identifying how many sounds are in a syllable or word. The simpler the word is phonemically, the easier it will be for the child to master this task. In English, there are words that have just one sound such as a, oh, and I. These are referred to as having a V (for vowel) shape; words like too, so, bee, and pie have a CV (consonant-vowel) shape. Stew and fly are CCV, pit and take are CVC, and stop is CCVC. Remember that we're going by sounds, not letters, so the silent E in take and the W in stew do not count for the purpose of phoneme segmentation.

Here are a few speech therapy activities you can use for exercising syllable and phoneme segmentation.

1. Read aloud to your child. I mentioned on the Alliteration and Rhyme page that a lot of children's books make use of poetry, and that rhyme is a common component of poetry. So is rhythm. Rhythm is valuable for developing segmentation skills at the syllable level because it highlights syllable structure and stress patterns.

I expecially appreciate authors like Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, A.A. Milne, and Ogden Nash, because they are such talented wordsmiths and obviously enjoy messing around with words. Words are to them what mud is to a child making mud pies--it's not about the pies, it's about the feel of the sticky, squishy mud between your fingers, and then feeling it drying, caking, and cracking on your fingers as you wiggle them. Their playful approach to their craft often results in turns of phrase that draw the reader's (or listener's) attention to form and structure, not just meaning. This is tremendously beneficial for phonological awareness at just about every level, not just rhyming and syllable or phoneme segmentation. In fact, you'll notice that I've listed reading as a recommendation for every level of phonological awareness.

2. Sing with your child. Everything I just said about reading to your child also applies to singing. After all, a great deal of singing is poetry set to music, so you've got rhythm and rhyme, plus melody. A few paragraphs up I described how I might use a "sing-song" voice to help a child understand the concept of a syllable.

Singing is a very effective way of becoming more aware of syllable and sound sequences. This is especially true of songs that involve marching, dancing, and hand movements. The rhythm highlights syllable structures and stress patterns, and singing words on notes of varying length forces the singer to think about sound sequences.

3. Jump to me. Words-in-phrases level: Stand facing your child, about ten paces apart. Read a short phrase (five words or less) and have your child take a jump (or hop, or step--whatever you agree on) toward you. When your child reaches you s/he gets a reward of some sort (a hug, a chocolate chip, a piece of apple, a sticker, or whatever motivates your child).

Syllables-in-words level: After your child masters the words-in-phrases level, read single words of 1-3 syllables and have your child jump according to the number of syllables in the word. You can make it more challenging if you want by adding words with more syllables.

Sounds-in-words level: The final step is to read single words and have your child jump according to the number of sounds in the word. Remember that the number of sounds is not always the same as the number of letters! There are five letters in dough, but only two sounds: /d/ and /o/.

4. Mail the postcards. For this activity, you will need an assortment of picture cards that vary according to the number of syllables and/or sounds in the words represented. These can be cards you've made yourself, or you can purchase articulation cards from Linguisystems, Super-Duper, or other suppliers of speech therapy materials.

Find two containers to use as "mailboxes". You can use small paper bags or plastic food storage boxes for this; or, if you are really ambitious, you can create and decorate mailboxes together out of card stock or construction paper, complete with "mailing slots" appropriately sized for the "postcards" you are using. Just be sure and make them so that they can be easily opened to retrieve your "postcards"!

Choose a number of syllables (or sounds), and explain to the child that all the cards with that number of syllables (or sounds) go in the first mailbox and all the rest go in the other. Pick up one card at a time and pronounce the word represented by the picture on the card. Then have the child put the card into the appropriate mailbox.

An alternative way to play is to say that all cards portraying words with up to three syllables (or sounds) go in one mailbox and those with more go in the other.

5. Block Tower. As with the Jump to me activity (#3, above), this is a flexible activity that can be used for word, syllable, or phoneme segmentation practice. You'll need to decide what level you want to target: words-in-phrases, syllables-in-words, or sounds-in-words. Have your child build a block tower, adding a block to the tower for every word (or syllable, or sound) you say, until the tower falls. Then start over. Begin with simpler items, and increase the length and complexity gradually. If your child needs extra motivation, you can award a point for every phrase or word completed without the tower falling down. Ten points earns your child a small reward of some sort (an M&M, a Skittle, a star sticker, some coloring time, or whatever works for you and your child).

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