Tool for the Field: Observing English Language Learners

Imagine a small group of students who are working on developing phonemic awareness. Let’s focus on two skills that will help them: counting syllables and rhyming.


Noticing syllables may not come naturally to children, so deliberate instruction helps. Ask students to tap their hands on the table as they say words to count each syllable. To make the activity fun, you could ask them to beat on a drum (or a bin you pretend is a drum). Some students may prefer to clap their hands or tap their finger on their chin as they talk.

Start with short, one-syllable words: “cat,” “mat,” “rat.” Students may notice that these words have only one vowel sound—one syllable.

Now move on to bigger words. Since these can be challenging, try to choose words the students are already familiar with. You might use the names of students in the class, from the two-syllable “Pablo” to three-syllable “Stephanie” to five-syllable “Mary-Catherine.” The names of cities or states might serve the same purpose: “Ohio” and “Tennessee” have three syllables, while “Indiana” has four. This is an opportunity to ask students whose families may come from farther away to share place names they know with the other students.

Once students are able to notice and identify syllables in this way, they have taken an important step towards being able to identify phonemes, an even smaller unit of words. For example, “Ohio” has three syllables, but four phonemes that need to be blended together: /o/, /h/, /aɪ/, and /o/.


Many students are able to recognize rhyming words, which is another skill that helps build phonemic awareness. Rhymes occur when words have the same sound in the final syllable, and their differences occur in their first phonemes. Identifying rhyming words helps student distinguish between the same ending sound and the different beginning sound. This experience helps students notice words’ phonemic structures.

Following UDL principles, let’s think of a rhyming activity that includes students with a variety of phonemic awareness levels. Using a picture book (like Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks) to work on rhymes incorporates multiple pathways to noticing rhymes and multiple ways for students to respond. Students with hearing challenges can still visually recognize Fox and then identify that he is wearing something that rhymes: socks. Students who are not yet able to read can do the same, recognizing “chicks with bricks” from the pictures, and so on. Students who can already read may notice that while there is a standard phonemic difference between the rhyming words “Fox,” “socks,” and “Mr. Knox,” their spellings differ in several ways. In fact, the word “Knox” uses a very irregular spelling. This example highlights the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics. The written form of some rhyming words includes several differences, even if the oral form involves a change in just one phoneme.

For students with diverse levels of phonemic awareness, a book like Fox in Socks can work with many possible learning exercises. Groups of students can help each other count the number of rhymes on each page and take turns reciting them to one another. Or the group of students can figure out how many different groups of rhyming words (sometimes called “word families”) exist in the text.