Phoneme Substitution

Phoneme substitution refers to the ability to replace a phoneme in a word with another phoneme to form a new word. This is a very important step in the development of literacy, as well as general language development.

A child who is proficient in this skill can tell you that when the /k/ sound in cat is replaced with /s/, you get sat.

Here are some speech therapy activities to use for exercising phoneme substitution skills.

Songs & books

Along with alliteration and rhyme, a lot of songs and children's books invite the singer and listeners to have fun with phoneme substitution.

  • Willoughby Wallaby Woo is a poem by Dennis Lee, set to music by Larry Miyata, and made popular by Raffi on his first chidren's album back in 1978. The song involves replacing the first consonant (or consonant cluster) in a person's name with /w/, as in Willoughby Wallaby Wustin, an elephant sat on Justin. If the name begins with a vowel sound, a /w/ sound is simply added, as in Willoughby Wallaby Wemily, an elephant sat on Emily. There's no reason you have to limit yourself to names--you can get extra mileage out of this song if you include inanimate objects for the elephant to sit on, as in Willoughby Wallaby Wus, an elephant sat on a bus.
  • The Name Game, a song first recorded in 1964 by Shirley Ellis, follows a phoneme substitution formula that entails replacing the initial consonant (or consonant cluster) of a person's name with another consonant, or for inserting a consonant at the beginning of a name that begins with a vowel. This song has made its way into popular culture, and a lot of people sing or chant it without realizing where it comes from. Unfortunately, as a large number of children (and not-so-mature adults) have discovered, the use of some names in this song can result in rather embarrassing or even obscene outcomes. However, if no one in your family or your child's circle of friends is named Alice, Dallas, Tucker, Chuck, Buck, Huck, Bart, Art, Mitch, Rich, Richie, or Maggie, you can have a lot of fun with this song.
  • I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas is another familiar song to many of us. Unlike the two songs above, which focus on the initial consonant of a word or name, this song involves phoneme substitution of vowel sounds within words.
  • Green Eggs and Ham is one of many books by Dr. Seuss that rely heavily on phoneme substitution for creating rhymes. You are probably already familiar with the lines I do not like them in a box, I do not like them with a fox (substitute /f/ for /b/ in box to form fox).
  • There's a Wocket in My Pocket!, also by Dr. Seuss, is also thick with phoneme substitution. Unlike Green Eggs and Ham, however, Wocket pairs familiar words with nonsense words e.g., There's a findow in my window; There's a yink in the sink, etc.).
  • Sound Train, revisited.

    This is the same activity I describe on my page about phoneme isolation, slightly modified for targeting phoneme substitution. As before, you'll start with the engine and caboose, keeping a spare freight car or flat car standing by. Also as before, you'll have an assortment of colored blocks, which you will use to represent sounds. However, instead of discussing where to place each sound, you'll start by placing a block on the engine and another on the caboose.

    The first step is demonstration. Pick up the block on the engine and say, "This is the vvv sound." Then pick up the block on the caboose and say, "This is the oo sound. Together, these two sounds make the word voo". Replace both blocks, pick up a third block from the pile, and say, "This is the oy sound. Now I'm going to take away oo and replace it with oy." As you exchange the new block for the one on the caboose, say, "Now we have a new word. Our old word was voo; our new word is voy. I took away oo from voo, and replaced it with oy, and now we have voy." Then have your child give the voy train a ride around the track.

    In case you missed it the first time, here is a link to an explanation of why I prefer to use nonsense words to train phoneme substitution and other phonemic awareness skills.

    Next, have your child try it. Leaving the two blocks on the train, pick up another block and say, "Okay, so now we have voy. Now I want you to make a change. Listen closely. This block is the mmm sound. Now I want you to change voy to moy. Voy, moy. Show me what to do to change voy to moy." 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, "Vvvoy. Mmmoy. You know, I think I hear vvv when I say vvvoy, but I don't hear it when I say Mmmoy. Let's take vvv out of the engine and put in mmm instead." If your child responds correctly, your response will be almost the same: "Vvvoy. Mmmoy. Yeah, I think I do hear vvv when I say vvvoy, but I don't hear it when I say Mmmoy. That's why you took vvv out of the engine and put in mmm instead." 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 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.

    Feed The Puppet and Snack Time

    These activities are described in detail on my page about phoneme deletion. To train phoneme substitution, instead of removing a sound and having the child identify what's left, you'll have your child replace a block or snack in the original word with another block or snack to change the word. For example, "Let's change touj to tooj". The child's task is to remove the middle block representing ou and replace it with the new block representing oo. After replacing the block/snack corresponding to the changed phoneme, the child eats or feeds the puppet the "sound" that has been removed.

    When I do these phoneme substitution activities, I like to work from a pre-planned list of nonsense words in sequence, where each word changes by one sound. For example:

    • Voo
    • Voy
    • Moy
    • Zoy
    • Zow
    • Jow
    • Juh
    • Puh
    • Guh
    • Tuh
    • Tou
    • Touj [Here we're not replacing a sound, just adding one to the end]
    • Tooj
    • Kooj
    • Koof
    • Kef
    • Pef
    • Petch
    • Netch
    • Noych
    • Noym
    • Shoym

    ...and so on. Having these written up ahead of time saves me the bother of thinking up words on the fly. It also allows me to avoid embarrassing situations where I blurt out a word only to realize a moment too late that I've just uttered an obscenity. Also, I check each word off my list as we complete it. That way, if we get distracted in mid-list, I can take a look and find where we are instead of racking my memory to recall what I asked the child to do. Finally, this helps me record how many words we've done and how many the child got right. I use a simple +/- system to track performance over time so I can see whether the child's phoneme deletion skills are actually improving.

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