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Where am I in the Reading Universe Taxonomy?

Word Recognition
Phonological Awareness
Phonics
Language Comprehension
Reading Comprehension
Phonemic Awareness

My students have a difficult time holding three sounds in their memory when they practice phonemic awareness. What should I do?

The reason it’s important for students to be able to hold sounds in their memory is because they’ll need to be able to do it when they eventually sound out words (decoding ) — and when they spell words (encoding). Students begin to develop this memory during phonemic awareness instruction. 

If your students struggle to remember three-phoneme words, go back to two-phoneme words and use physical tokens (for example, felts or coins) to represent each sound they hear in the word.

A first grade boy manipulates felt squares during small group phonemic awareness instruction.

You could start them with see, ate, and up, for example.

  1. Place two tokens on a flat surface in front of one student.
  2. Have them touch each token as they segment the sounds (Touch and Say): "/s/, /ē/"
  3. After they have segmented the sounds successfully, ask them: "What is the first sound?"
  4. They should answer: "/s/"
  5. "What is the last sound?"
  6. They should answer: "/ē/"

This requires them to remember each sound in isolation. As you go through more words, alternate the order you ask these questions, asking for the last sound first sometimes. This will require students to rely on their memory by pulling the sounds in random order. If they forget, have them touch and say the sounds again, then repeat the questions. 

Once they can do this accurately and consistently with two-phoneme words, increase the complexity by practicing with three-phoneme words … and three tokens.

You could start with words like fun, bake, and shop. (You can find other options from our printable word list.)

  • Have students touch each token as they segment the sounds in each word:
  • Then ask them: "What is the last sound?"
  • "/n/"
  • "What is the first sound?"
  •  "/f/"
  • "What is the middle sound?" 
  • "/ŭ/"

After practicing with two-sound words and adding tokens to the process, remembering all three sounds should now be easier for your students. 

When students are able to do this accurately with the tokens, remove the tokens and practice segmenting words and identifying sounds without them.