Instructional Activities to Develop Phonological Awareness:
Onset-rime and Phoneme

As children progress in their literacy development, they move from the broader areas of phonological awareness to the narrower ones. First, they learn to recognize rhyme and alliteration and to hear words in sentences and syllables in words. Once children have achieved word and syllable awareness, they can focus their attention on the smaller parts within the syllable. At first, this means dividing one-syllable words into onsets and rimes. The onset is the initial consonant or consonant cluster of the word, and the rime is the vowel and consonants that follow it. For example, in the word bat, b- is the onset, and -at is the rime. In swim, sw- is the onset, and -im is the rime.

The final area of phonological awareness - and the most critical for reading and writing - is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words. It is necessary to learn to read in an alphabetic written language system. In order for children to benefit from phonics instruction, they must be able to pay attention to phonemes.

Stage of Literacy Development

Characteristics of This Stage

Phonological Focus Areas


  • Accurately tracks print
  • Uses letter-sound knowledge to decode words
  • Is developing a sight vocabulary
  • Consistently uses beginning and ending sounds when spelling words; learning medial vowels, digraphs, and/or digraphs
  • Instructed in PP-Primer text
Blending and segmenting:
  • Onset-rimes
  • Individual

The instructional activities in this section are designed to develop these narrower levels of phonological awareness: onset-rime and phonemic awareness. They are designed for beginning readers who are learning to decode words and are building a sight vocabulary. All of the tasks described in this section can be done at either the onset-rime or phoneme level. While working at the phoneme level is the ultimate goal, if this is too difficult, students can work with the slightly larger chunks of onsets and rimes. The activities included in this section of the guide are comprised of:

  • Blending and segmenting tasks
  • Manipulation tasks (addition, deletion, and substitution)
When planning phonemic awareness activities for your students, there are several important research findings to keep in mind. The first is that it is better to focus on only one or two, rather than several, types of phoneme-level tasks. Because blending and segmenting are the two most important phonemic skills in learning to read and spell, they should comprise the bulk of phonemic awareness instruction. Secondly, while blank tiles, blocks, or cubes may be used initially to demonstrate an activity, we know that phonemic awareness instruction is most effective when children are taught to manipulate phonemes using the letters of the alphabet. Essentially, phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are integrated at this level. Finally, it is vital that children make the connection between phonemic awareness tasks and their application to reading and writing. They need to understand how the blending and segmenting activities they are practicing in isolation help them to decode and spell words.

It is important to remember that phonemic awareness instruction, like instruction in any one area of reading, can be overdone. In the words of Benita Blachman, phonemic awareness is "necessary, but not sufficient" for learning to read. While it is a critical foundational piece, phonemic awareness alone does not guarantee reading success. It is just a part - albeit an important one - of a comprehensive literacy plan including all of the components described in our guides.

Blending and Segmenting Activities

Blending involves combining a sequence of sounds to produce a word, and segmenting involves the opposite--breaking a word into its sounds. Both are critical for reading and writing. To decode or "sound out" words, you must be able to match letters to sounds and blend these sounds together. To spell words, you must be able to segment a word into sounds and match these sounds to letters.

Blending and segmenting tasks can often be done together during instruction. For example, in a "Push & Say It" activity, students push letter tiles as they say the sounds (segmenting), and then blend the parts back together as they say the whole word.

There are many variations of Push & Say It that work particularly well at the onset-rime level and are perfect for students who are learning to read and spell short vowel word families. These high-interest activities engage students while providing them with additional practice saying the parts of the word (e.g., /c/-/at/) and then blending these parts together to read the word. Examples of these activities include magic dice, flip books, word wheels, and word slides. To see a picture and description of these activities, please click on the corresponding links.

In addition, the tasks described for blending and segmenting syllables can be modified so that they are appropriate for children working at the onset-rime or phoneme level. Simply choose one-syllable words rather than multi-syllable words (e.g., instead of blending cow-boy, a beginning reader might blend /p/-/ig/ or /c/-/u/-/p/). The blending activities include blending during read-alouds, blending using a puppet, and "Say it fast." The segmenting activities include using "mystery" objects or pictures, "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," and clapping the sounds (though you may want to use a different motion, such as slapping your lap, making a chopping motion on your arm, or holding up fingers for each sound so that the distinction between syllable and phoneme is clear). Remember though, that unlike the students who are working on syllable awareness, the bulk of the work at this level should be done using letters. The children will get more "bang for the buck" if you have them read or write these words and not just blend or segment sounds. It is easy to incorporate magnetic letters, letter tiles, wipe off boards, or Elkonin boxes into many of these activities.

The PALS website is another helpful resource for blending and segmenting activities.

Manipulation Activities

Manipulating phonemes in words can involve deleting a sound ("Take the /s/ off of stop"), adding a sound ("Add /f/ to the beginning of lip"), or substituting a sound ("Change map to mop"). These tasks are more difficult than blending and segmenting sounds. Accompanied by wipe-off boards or letter tiles, they can be helpful for reviewing words students have been reading and spelling as well as for applying their knowledge to new words. A series of manipulation activities can be done quickly and incorporated a few times a week into phonics and phonemic awareness instruction. If students need more practice going from letters to sound, use letter tiles for these activities; if they need more practice going from sound to letter, you can use wipe-off boards.

Let's say a group of your beginning readers have been comparing short o and short u word families. You might prepare a series of manipulation activities that goes something like this:

"Write the word hog.
Now change hog to hug.
Now change hug to hut.
Now change hut to shut.
Now change shut to shot.
Now change shot to shop.
Now change shop to chop."

The preceding example was designed with a wipe-off board in mind, but you can also use letter tiles. When using letter tiles with an individual student or a small group of 2 or 3, you might choose the specific letters the students will need from a commercially available set of letter tiles. With larger groups, however, it can be time consuming to take out and put back all of these letters, and you may also find that you run out of specific letters. In this case, it is often easier to give each student a piece of paper with the letters that they will need typed or written inside squares. They can quickly cut out the squares at the beginning of the week, store them in an envelope or baggie, and use them throughout the week for practice.

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

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