Literacy games for emerging readers


Written by contributor Catherine Way of Indirect Observations.

One important skill that emerging readers need to develop is phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is sensitivity to the sound structure of language. Children who can detect and manipulate sounds are phonologically aware.

Until your child understands that words are made up of sounds and we can write these sounds down, they cannot access written language. Some children naturally pick up on this understanding, some need it made more explicit.  As my children are not home-schooled, I try hard not to do “school” work at home (apart from homework).  That means we don’t do worksheets, we don’t have a letter of the day, we don’t use flashcards.

Does this mean we don’t do literacy learning at home? Not at all. Incidental learning is happening all the time. I take advantages of many opportunities to reinforce their learning or bring up a relevant concept. With an emerging reader, like my 4 year old, I read books and talk about letters and words. I write things down for him. I help him write letters when he wants to. And we play games. These things all build his phonological awareness.

Literacy games for emerging readers

Here are some activities and games I use at home, that don’t seem like school work, but help children start to notice the sounds in words. I find that many of these games are fun to play in the car.

When you play games and talk about the sounds in words it is best to refer to letters by the sound that they make rather than the letter name.

Here is a list of the sounds of letters in the English language.  Be aware when you play letter sound games that it is often a combination of two or even three letters in the word making one sound – for example /th/ in the word, three.

  • Read books. When your child begins to be interested in reading words it is a perfect time to read some books that draw attention to the sounds in words, that is, books that use alliteration or rhyming. A couple of our favourite rhyming books are Mr McGee Went to Sea, by Pamela Allen and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket, by Dr Suess.  Alphabet books often have alliteration.  We like Animalia, by Graeme Base. As your read, draw your child’s attention to the sound patterns – for example, “that’s hard to say, all those words have the same sound at the beginning”.
  • Sing songs and say nursery rhymes and poems. Point out the rhyming words or pause as you say a nursery rhyme and let your child fill in the appropriate word.  A couple of fun word play songs are

Willoughby Wallaby Woo

Willoughby Wallaby Woo

An elephant sat on you.

Willoughby Wallaby Wee

An elephant sat on me

Willoughby Wallaby Wed

An elephant sat on Fred (and so on)

Michael Finnegan

There was an old man

Named Michael Finnegan

He grew whiskers

On his chin-ne-gan

The wind came up

And blew them in again

Poor old Michael Finnegan, Begin Again

  • Say tongue twisters and make up your own tongue twisters. It is fun to make up tongue twisters using your child’s name.
  • Syllable Clapping. Say your child’s name, adding a clap for each syllable. For example, my name Ca-the-rine, would have 3 claps. This helps your child learn to recognize the sound unit in words.
  • Find a Rhyme. In this game, one persons suggests a word. Everyone must call out as many words as they can think of that rhyme. For example, start with ring. Answers might be ding, ping, sing, fling. For young children, accept all answers, even nonsense words. Make it harder for older children by making them say only real words.
  • I Spy. Instead of using letter names, play this classic game with letter sounds. For example, I spy something beginning with t
  • What’s the Word? Break apart a word and say it slowly. Have your child blend the sounds together and tell you what the word is. For example, rain-bow, Fri-day, s-a-t
  • Sound Word Categories. Challenge your child to think of words beginning with a particular sound, for example, words beginning with b. A harder version is to think of words in a particular category beginning with that sound – sports beginning with b.
  • Back to Back Words. Like find a rhyme, one person suggests a word. But this time, the next word must start with the last sound of the word. For example, you might say hat, tap, pan, nap, pot, toy … This is a slightly harder game, more suitable for children familiar with playing the other sound games.

Have fun playing with sounds! If you would like more information on phonological awareness and how it helps you child with reading, or other suggestions of books or games to develop phonological awareness I recommend this article from NAEYC

Do you have any favourite games, songs or rhymes for playing with sounds?

About Catherine

Catherine Way is mum to two boys living in North Australia. They read lots, run lots, love to learn new things and are good at finding fun and mischief. Catherine blogs about her family adventures and passion for lifelong learning at Indirect Observations.

Online Knitting Class
Delightful kids' crafts delivered to your door!  See sample crates>>


  1. My 2.75 year old and I LOVE Willoughby Wallaby Woo! We played it for a solid 10 minutes in the bath the other night. I say the first part, and then she finishes by saying “An elephant sat on Benjamin!” or whoever. Her favorite was “Willoughby Wallaby Wickey Wouse.” 😉
    I love the I Spy idea – I’ll have to try that one and the syllable clapping. Thanks for the ideas!
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s latest post: Pathological Literacy

  2. super article!

  3. We have a Bingo letter sounds game called ABC Bingo that we received as a gift from a friend. It’s been a lot of fun & a good way to practice hearing those different letter sounds. It even includes some blends & each of the sounds is followed by the name of the object so it’s appropriate for a wide age range of kids.
    Jennifer´s latest post: Laurie Berkner Live at Sea World’s Just for Kids Festival

  4. Annie Ferrante says:

    Thanks for the ideas! I have twin 4-year-olds that are loving games just like this!


  1. […] Literacy games for emerging readers – Here are some helpful tips to help kids beginning to read. […]