Phonemic Awareness and IEP Goals

Phonological awareness skills and phonemic awareness skills are the top predictors for future reading success. For many years, the focus shifted from direct phonological and phonic instruction. However, we are continuing to see the ramifications of this type of instruction and have learned the best practices include acquiring these skills. Although it is important to start learning these skills at a young age, learners of all ages can be taught these skills and therefore taught to read.

Phonological Awareness vs Phonemic Awareness

Phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness- what is the difference? Some people seem to use these interchangeably, and they are related, but they are slightly different. Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in oral language. Some examples of this skills would be counting the words in a sentence, identifying the first sound in a word, blending onset and rime, and segmenting compound words. This is like an umbrella term when referring to these two terms.


Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual phonemes (or individual sounds) within words. Examples of phonemic awareness would be segmenting the different sounds in a word or changing the beginning sounds in a word to create a new word. An example of this would be to say the word bat, but then change the /b/ to /f/. Phonemic awareness is a part of phonological awareness.


Phonological awareness is the overarching term, and includes phonemic awareness. It is important to understand that phonological awareness is the focus on the sounds in our language as opposed to the written language. These skills are primarily done through oral activities. Which means, this can be challenging for students with disabilities. Especially those who struggle with auditory processing, short term memory, or have attention concerns. We know these are essential reading skills, so these are perfect for the measurable annual goals on an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.


Keep reading to learn how to target these skills by writing IEP goals and specific materials that can help you do just that.

IEP Goals for Special Education Teachers

When writing a measurable annual IEP goal, we always want to know what the end goal for a student is. For example, using a grade level standard as a target can be a great goal to reach. Grade level standards as they are by themselves should not be used as an IEP goal. Why is this? Because whether a student has an IEP or not, this should always be the goal for all students. All students should be exposed to grade level content as well as strive to hit those learning targets. However, students with IEPs need to have targeted goals that are building blocks to get to that goal, which become the goals on their IEP.


The first step in creating an appropriate goal is to understand the continuum of phonological skills to write these goals, here is an image that illustrates the skills in progression. Below is a visual that shows how the skills build upon one another. Notice that skills such as counting syllables must come before segmenting sounds, which comes before manipulating sounds. It is important to build one skill before moving onto the next, because each relies upon the previous.


Once you understand the continuum, you can begin with writing measurable goals.


Here are some examples you can use:

  • When given two words, student will blend them to make a compound word.
  • When given a CVC word, student will isolate the medial sound.
  • When given a word with four sounds, student will segment the word into separate sounds.
  • When given a word, student will identify how many sounds are in that word.


To be an appropriate goal, you want the child to be able to achieve it within a year. This means you need to be reflective of where their present level is to know if a goal will be achievable. Additionally, you can collaborate on your goals with your speech and language pathologist to have these goals targeted during speech and language therapy, if appropriate for that student.

Resources to Support Phonemic Awareness Goals

Now that we have our goal, we need some resources to be able to support his instruction. It is important to note that this instruction does not have to happen in isolation. This is a perfect time to collaborate with your speech-language pathologists and classroom teachers. Working together as an iep team will support students and make them more successful in their literacy development.


Since we know what phonological and phonemic awareness is, it is important to find resources to support student learning. We know that visual cues are one of the best supports for students with disabilities. Since we cannot use letters for these skills, we have to use pictures. This can make learning more concrete and allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in a way other than using just oral language.


One example of a resource you can use is task boxes. Below is a picture of a task box that is a perfect example of phonemic awareness that can be used during small groups to target an essential skill. Students are given a word by their teacher, they then have to move the train along the track for each sound they hear. This keeps students engaged, they do not have to be worrying about counting as they are segmenting, so it frees up their brain to work on just the skill or segmenting phonemes. Once students finish segmenting the word, they can see where the train lands and then tell you the number of phonemes in the word.

Another example is this task box. This skill is more at the beginning of the continuum, and is more clearly categorized as phonological skills. For this skill, students see two images. They are two smaller words of a compound word. Having pictures again frees up their mental work load from having to hold onto those in their working memory. Having them in image form makes it more concrete and easy to refer to. Students then have to find the compound word they represent. There are several images for the students to choose from to show they know what the compound word is.

These task boxes open up students’ abilities to demonstrate what they know. Many students who struggle to communicate verbally would not be able to demonstrate their language with traditional phonemic awareness activities. With these resources, students can practice their skills and then demonstrate their knowledge on top of that. I have had students who are very limited in their oral abilities show their knowledge with resources like this. Without them, I would have assumed the child did not know or understand phonological awareness.


As students start to understand how these phonological awareness tasks work, they can then be turned into individual work to solidify their knowledge.


If you have a student who loves technology, these task cards are all turned into Boom Cards as well. What is great about Boom Cards is they are zero prep, they are engaging, and they take data for you! Students love these fun activities, while still practicing an essential skill.


There are so many options for Boom Cards. They can be done in a small group as well, used as an assessment tool, or as independent work. These are supports that can be implemented with classroom teachers as well.


Finally, just having a variety of pictures can support your instruction. For example, this Guess My Word game can be used for several skills. You can start off my giving students one page to look at. You can then say, “Guess what word I am saying.” Then, say a word by segmenting the sounds. Students then will scan the page to determine what word you said. This helps students who struggle with their expressive vocabulary. Providing picture options can support their ability to demonstrate what they know. Without these supports, students may struggle to demonstrate their understanding.

How to use Resources to Support with Delivering Explicit Instruction


Students who struggle with learning these skills need the most effective ways to instruct them in acquiring new skills. This requires a delivery of direct instruction of skills. For example, if you are working on manipulating the initial sounds in words, you will want to use concrete objects to do so. You cannot assume that just hearing the words in books or songs will help them develop this skill.


To teach this, you give the student the word, for example- mat, give them three cubes as well. As they touch each cube, have them segment the sounds. Then, exchange the first cube (the /m/ sound) and as you give them the new cube, say it is the sound /h/. Ask them to then repeat the sounds back with the new initial sound, /h/ /a/ /t/. Then ask them to blend the sounds to make a new word.


If this continues to be challenging for students, have them blend just the onset and rime. That would sound like /m/ /at/ and change to /h/ /at/. Although this can seem like a difficult skill to teach kids, it is essential for students so they will become fluent readers in the future.


A bonus result of using these hands on materials is that this can decrease problem behavior. How does this happen? When students are more engaged they are less likely to engage in problem behavior, Think about it this way, if you are at a professional development conference and the trainer is engaging and has many activities for you to engage in, you will be less likely to talk to your teacher bestie about things unrelated to the topic at hand. The same thing happens with students in your classroom.

What happens as students get older and still struggle with phonemic awareness?

This happens very often with students who struggle with learning to read. This does not mean you throw in the towel and stop working on phonemic awareness. It means you need to continue working on phonemic awareness while still continuing to expose students to phonics skills. It can be used as a warm up skill before a phonics lesson or embedded within it.


When working on phonological awareness skills, it can help to begin by practicing a skill they have mastered. For example, if you are working on manipulating initial phonemes, by beginning with a skill of just isolating the initial phoneme can help build confidence and success with the more challenging skill. This helps for several reasons, it can help get the brain prepared for working on a more difficult skill as well as building a student up. When you dive in to a difficult skill first thing, it can cause students to shut down resulting in not being able to practice any skills. By building student’s confidence, they will be more willing to attempt challenging skills and therefore develop as a reader overall.


Remember, phonological awareness, and specifically phonemic awareness, is one of the biggest predictors of reading success. If students do not grasp a solid understanding of these skills, they will struggle with learning phonics skills and reading as they continue on as a learner. To get hands-on materials to support your learners, click here. This have been used by thousands of teachers with success in getting their students to learn to read.

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