3 Ways to Enhance Phonemic Awareness with Music

Mom and toddler son sing songs together to boost phonemic awareness

You’ve probably heard the word phonics, but what exactly is phonemic awareness? Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds—phonemes—in spoken words, a crucial pre-reading and speech skill.

Research shows that programs focused on phonemic and phonological awareness significantly increase children’s reading abilities in early years, and can be further enhanced by music. What does this look like at home? Here are a few things you can do that sound like learning, but feel like fun!

Start by selecting a letter sound, phoneme, or blend to focus on. Some examples include “lo,” “me,” or “shoo.” Next, try applying the following steps to enhance awareness of the sound:

Bring Attention to Mouth Shape and Tongue Position

As you teach a new sound, it is important to help your child understand how it relates to the shape of their mouth and lips, and position of their tongue and teeth. For example, if I am teaching the sound “lo,” I would show my son that my lips are preparing to make a circle and my tongue is curled against the roof of my mouth.

Use a Mirror to Visualize Phonemes

3-year-old enhances phonemic awareness by making mouth shapes with a mirror.

You can further enhance the experience by using a handheld mirror or the selfie camera on your phone. Let your child see their own mouth as they shape the sound and ask questions (Can you see your teeth when you say meeee? What shape does your mouth make when you say ohhhh?). Doing so will help them concrete the sounds they are learning through visualization. Also, kids love looking at themselves in the mirror!

Repeat that Sound to a Familiar Tune

“Apples and Bananas” is a perfect example of a song that already does this. The lyrics follow the pattern that whatever vowel sound you choose for “eat” (e.g., “oat,” “ite,” etc.), is the same sound you apply to apples and bananas (opals and ba-no-noes, eye-ples and ba-nye-nyes). Play this song below to get started or stream it from our free app.

“Apples and Bananas” | Kindermusik

It could be as simple as replacing all of the words with a single sound, kind of like how we naturally sing a song when we forget the words: “la, la, la…” or “da, da, da…” For example, you might change all of the words of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to the sound “lo.”

Why Use Music to Boost Phonemic Awareness?

Music can help unlock language centers in the brain in ways that spoken language can’t. Plus, it’s fun! Children love to mimic and sing. So, whether you’re just starting to help your child sound out words or you’re in the middle of early speech therapy, remember to keep things simple at home and just turn up the music!


This post was written by Jared Trudel—a dad, Kindermusik Accredited Educator, owner of Trudel Music Studio in Clemson, SC, and music teacher at Montessori School of Anderson in Anderson, SC.

Want to take phonemic awareness to the next level with group musical play? Find a class near you or join a live virtual session!

Looking to enhance your speech therapy practice with pre-planned music activities? Check out our kits!

The connection between timbre and phonemic awareness

Improve Listening Skills with Kindermusik

Improve Listening Skills with KindermusikIn response to a popular holiday song, “Do you hear what I hear?” the answer just might be: maybe. Hearing distinct differences in sounds takes practice. For example, back in August and September, early childhood teachers welcomed new students into the classroom. On that first day of school, the classroom full of children sounded like, well, a classroom full of children. By November, however, teachers learned to identify the distinct voices of each student. In music, we call distinct sounds timbre and it helps us distinguish the sound of a violin from a guitar; Jack’s voice from Aidan’s voice; and even aids in phonemic awareness by helping us hear the difference between the sound of a letter “v” and the sound of the letter “b.”

How people perceive timbre

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University recently created a computer model that mirrored how people make judgment calls regarding timbre. In the study, participants listened to two sounds played by different musical instruments and rated how similar the sounds appeared. The computer model recognized similar subtle differences in sounds that human participants did. For example, both acknowledged that the violin and cello appeared to be closer in sound to each other than a violin and flute and wind and percussive instruments were the most different.

“There is much to be learned from how the human brain processes complex information such as musical timbre and translating this knowledge into improved computer systems and hearing technologies,” researcher Moanya Elhilali said in the article, “Music in our ears: The Science of Timbre.

We look forward to the next phase of this research!

Connection between timbre, phonemes, and early literacy

In ABC Music & Me, our early literacy and language curriculum, children explore the concepts of timbre whenever they compare the differences between and among sounds. Each week in class, children may participate in active listening, singing, vocal play, and instrument exploration activities to teach them auditory discrimination. That same sound discrimination helps children hear the minute differences between letter sounds or phonemes, which supports early literacy and language development. Plus, researchers agree that music improves phonemic awareness in young children.

For more information about using ABC Music & Me to teach young children early literacy and language development, email us at info@abcmusicandme.com.