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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Hearing sounds in spoken words

The Ready to Read Phonics Plus books have recently been developed to support instructional reading and focus on explicit teaching of word recognition knowledge and skills. We recommend teachers of children in early years use these books to support early literacy development in the classroom.  

Please note over the coming months we will be making changes to existing content on Literacy Online to ensure current early literacy teacher supports place a sufficient emphasis on word recognition. Throughout this process you may find content has been changed or has been moved. Please let us know by emailing eesoll@tki.org.nz if you cannot find something you are looking for and keep an eye on the newsreel for links to newly updated content. We welcome any feedback that will help us make it easier for you to navigate the changes.

Sound Sense logo.

Sound Sense: Supporting reading and writing in years 1–3 is a revised and updated edition of Sound Sense: Phonics and Phonological Awareness (2003). 

You can download the new PDF here: 

The ability to hear the different sounds within words is essential to reading and writing successfully. Sound Sense provides suggestions for how you can support students, particularly year 1 students, in developing and applying understandings about sounds, letters, and words when reading and writing.

The suggestions are closely linked to the expectations for students’ learning described in  The Literacy Learning Progressions for the first year of school. They include links to specific Ready to Read shared texts, including poem cards. You can find many more suggestions for building and consolidating these understandings in the teacher support materials for all Ready to Read guided texts.

Sounds and Words – a clarification

Sound Sense provides suggestions for how teachers can support students in years 1–3 to develop and apply understandings about sounds, letters, and words when reading and writing.

Sounds and Words is a different online resource, for teachers of students in years 1–8. It has a wider focus than Sound Sense. It provides information about vocabulary and grammar as well as phonological awareness and also includes a summary of the resources available to teachers.

An awareness of the sound system of spoken language and the ability to hear the different sounds within words are essential to successful reading and writing. Students need to be able to aurally distinguish sounds and recognise when sounds are the same or different.

Throughout the school day, you can incorporate oral activities that will support the students’ ability to differentiate sounds in words. Simple listening games take only a few minutes and help tune students into the similarities and differences between words. Many phonological awareness activities can be incorporated into classroom routines. For example, when sorting students into groups, you could ask them to find another person whose name starts with the same sound as theirs or who has the same number of syllables in their name. When dismissing the class, you could ask each student to say a word that rhymes with a given word or send off the students according to features of their names, for example, “off you go if your name has an ‘a’ in it”. Such activities provide great opportunities for reviewing new learning or anchoring previous learning.

The suggestions in this section focus on students learning how to hear and articulate sounds. They start with identifying and differentiating large chunks of sound (rhyme), then smaller chunks (syllables) and, finally, on to activities that involve listening for initial sounds, end sounds, and sounds in sequence within words. Students are generally very quick to recognise rhyme and alliteration. It takes a little longer for most students to be able to recognise words that end the same way or that have the same medial (or middle) sound.

Several of the suggestions overlap. For example, when generating rhyming words, students are also differentiating onset and rime; or when identifying medial sounds, they will often also be identifying particular vowel sounds.

Identifying rhyming words

The ability to recognise rhyme requires an underlying awareness that rhyming words end with the same group of sounds. The following are suggestions for developing the students’ awareness of rhyme.

  • When reading rhyming texts aloud, emphasise the rhyme and pause at appropriate points to allow the students to predict the rhyming word.
  • Play listening games, such as saying three words (two of which rhyme) and asking the students to pick the rhyming pair.
  • Substitute initial sounds to create new rhyming words (including nonsense words, for example, “tumpty rumpty”).
  • Support the students to differentiate onsets and rimes. Begin with a one-syllable word, such as “jump”. Say the word. Now, just say the first sound. If we took away the “j”, what would the word be? Encourage the students to create new rhyming words by adding new initial sounds to “ump”. Choose new “starter words” from familiar shared books or poems.

Examples of shared texts that include rhyme

In 2012, the existing Ready to Read poem cards were reorganised into two sets of 12 cards. Other Ready to Read poem cards can be ordered individually, as shown below.

Poem cards that can be ordered as sets

Set 1 2012 Set 2 2012

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Hey Diddle Diddle

Hickory Dickory Dock

Higgledy Piggledy

Humpty Dumpty

Jack Be Nimble

Mary Had a Little Lamb

One Two Buckle my Shoe

Pat-a-Cake Pat-a-Cake

Pease Porridge Hot

Sing a Song of Sixpence

Wee Willie Winkie

Bedtime Cat

Clickety-clack Cicada

Daisy Chain

I Blew a Bubble

Jingle Bells

Just a Touch


Noke Worm

Slooshy, Sloshy

Ten Little Monkeys

The Most

Two Little Dicky Birds

Poem cards that can be ordered individually

Poem and people standing beside a puddle.

Buzzy Bee



Mālō e Lelei

My Flower



Puddle Play


Splish splash cover with child in gumboots.


Shared books

Fantail, Fantail

Haere Atu

Is That an Earthquake?


Monster’s Lunch

Splish Splash! (a collection of poems)


Identifying syllables

The following are suggestions for developing the students’ awareness of syllables (relatively large “chunks” of sound) in words.

  • Together, clap the students’ names. Help them to recognise patterns of one, two, three “beats” or more.
  • Use the students’ names to make up a group chant.
  • Clap the syllables in a line of a poem.
  • Find a word from a poem that has one syllable, then a word with two, then one with three.
  • Clap a syllable pattern for a word in a particular line of a familiar poem and ask the students to identify the word.

Building and breaking words

As students become more proficient in identifying large chunks of sounds within words, you can begin to model how to:

  • identify phonemes within words
  • build words by blending a sequence of phonemes
  • create new words by substituting phonemes in any position within a word.

The following are suggestions for developing the students’ ability to identify and blend phonemes. They involve the identification and articulation of sounds, not letter names.

  • Model how to articulate the phonemes in one-syllable words such as “pop” (/p/-/o/-/p/) “gate” (/g/-/ay/-/t/), “ship” (/sh/-/i/-/p/) and encourage the students to say them with you.
  • Introduce phoneme blending. Articulate the phonemes in a one-syllable word, for example, “/n/-/i/-/t/” (night). What word do we get when we put these sounds together? As the students develop their ability to blend phonemes, you could extend the activity by choosing more complex words, for example, those that include consonant blends.
  • Choose a simple consonant-vowel-consonant word, such as “pin” and have the students “break it” into its onset and rime. Together, experiment with adding or changing the initial sound to make new (rhyming) words (“in”, “pin”, “tin”, “chin”, “win”). As the student becomes more proficient in identifying and manipulating sounds, they could also experiment with initial consonant blends (“tap”, “flap”, “clap”) or making new words by replacing the final sound (“pin”, “pit”, “pip”, “pig”).

Hearing initial sounds

When students begin learning to read and write, they rely heavily on their knowledge of initial sounds. They need to be able to distinguish what the first sound in a word is and to recognise when initial sounds are the same or different. When helping students to develop their ability to hear initial sounds, focus on one sound at a time and choose words with distinctive initial sounds, such as those that start with “b”, “d”, “f”, “m”, “p”, “s”, and “t”. Keep in mind the possibility of confusions with sounds across languages for multilingual students. (For further information, see Learning through Talk, page 21.)

The following are suggestions for developing the students’ ability to distinguish particular initial sounds and to recognise when initial sounds are the same or different.

  • Enjoy alliterative texts (texts that repeat initial sounds) with the students.
  • Have fun making up tongue-twisters or alliterative phrases.
  • Place several objects (such as a ball, a car, a pencil, and plastic animals) inside a “mystery box” (a box with a hole cut in the lid). Put your hand in the box and pull out an object. Say the name of the object, its beginning sound, and repeat the name of the object. Then have the students take turns to choose an object and follow the three steps. You can extend the activity by having the students name another word that begins with the same sound. Leave the mystery box out for the students to use as an independent activity.
  • Play listening games such as saying three words (two of which start with the same sound) and asking the students to pick the two that match.

Examples of shared texts with repeated initial sounds (single sounds)

Poem cards

Poem with child watering flowers.

Hickory Dickory Dock: dickory, dock, down

Mary Had a Little Lamb: little, lamb; white, went

My Flower: put, pot; seed, sunshine, say; watered, waited, watched

Pease Porridge Hot: pease, porridge, pot

Wee Willy Winkie: Wee, Willy, Winkie, window

Shared books

Bubbles: birds, bubbles

Dragons! Dragons! Dragons!: cheered, children; Daisy, Damon, Dora, Dylan, day, deep, do, down

Fantail, Fantail: peas, pie

Greedy Cat: bag, bananas, buns; chips, chocolate; pepper, pot, potato

Haere Atu: bag, baggy, beach, board, boy, boys, bumpy; She, she, shorts, shout, shouted

Examples of shared texts with repeated initial sounds (consonant blends)

Poem cards

Dragon breathing fire.

Just a Touch: snails, snuffly

Nanny: criss cross, snip snap

Puddle Play: floating, Flying; sky, skies

Slooshy, Sloshy: Slooshy, sloshy; squishy, squashy

Shared books

Dragons! Dragons! Dragons!: blew, blow; dragon, dragons, drew, dropped; flame, flapped, flew; friendly, fruit; stared, stories; swished, swooped

Haere Atu: flapped, flew, floppy, fly; slap, slapped, sloppy, Slurp, slurp

Hearing final sounds and inflected endings

As students gain confidence with identifying the initial sounds of words, you can help them attend to final sounds. Again, choose examples with end sounds that are relatively easy for the students to hear and articulate. These include words that end with digraphs such as “ch” or “sh” or with “y” (either as a long “i” sound, as in “fly”, or an “ee” sound, as in “Greedy”). You could extend this to include inflected endings, for example, “s”, “ed”, “ing”, “er”. Be selective in your choice of texts when drawing attention to “s” as an inflected ending in order to avoid confusion with its use to denote both present-tense verbs and plurals. With young learners, focus on only one use of these aspects at a time.

Be aware of possible confusions with sounds across languages for your multilingual students. Also note that students with hearing impairments may find some end sounds, such as “s”, “sh”, “ch”, “j” (“dge”), and “th” difficult to distinguish. See Learning through Talk, 21 and 32 for further information.

The following are ideas for developing the students’ awareness of final sounds.

  • Use intonation to draw attention to the end sound. Ask the students to say the word themselves so they can hear and “feel” the sound. Discuss the position of their tongue or teeth when articulating the end sound. What sound can you hear at the end of “sleep”? Say it softly. Touch your lips with your finger as you say the last sound. Can you feel air on your finger? You could use a mirror to help students see where to put their tongue to make particular sounds.
  • Within a set of three or four words, ask the students to identify the word that ends with the focus sound or inflected ending.

Examples of shared texts with distinctive repeated final sounds

Poem cards

Poem and people standing beside a puddle.

Buzzy Bee: buzz

Clickety-clack Cicada: clickety, noisy

Hickory Dickory Dock: dock, clock, struck

Mice: touch, much

Nanny: criss cross, snip snap, zig zag school bag

Puddle Play: sky, by

Sing a Song of Sixpence: dainty, twenty

Sleep: sleep, creep, creeps, sweep

Ghost shape with title.

Slooshy, Sloshy: sloshy, squishy, squashy

Shared books

Number One: crash, splash

Dragons! Dragons! Dragons!: Daisy, fiery, friendly, library, lonely, ready, very

Greedy Cat: Greedy, sticky

Examples of shared texts with inflected endings (s, ed, ing)


Poem cards Shared books

Mice: tails, faces, chins, ears, things 

Puddle Play: birds, eyes, skies

“A Splish-splash Day” (in  Splish Splash!): bits, coats houses, puddles, raindrops, rivers, snails, trees, worms

Bubbles: birds, bubbles

Dragons! Dragons! Dragons!: Dragons, friends, lives, picnics, princesses, sausages, shelves, skateboards, stories

Greedy Cat: bananas, buns, chips, sausages

Haere Atu: arms, girls, boys, legs, dads, mums, shorts

Present-tense verbs (ending in “s”)

Poem cards Shared books
Octopus: gets, zooms

Me and My Dog: barks, bounces, leaps, lifts, opens, scratches, sits, stands, stretches, wags, watches, waves

Number One: jumps, runs, says, shuts, stops

Past-tense verbs (ending in “ed”)

Poem cards Shared books
My Flower: watered, waited, watched

Dad’s Snore: boomed, bounced, howled, roared, rolled, yelled, yowled

Dragons! Dragons! Dragons!: cheered, dragons, dropped, jumped, lived, packed, screamed, sizzled, stared, swished, swooped

Haere Atu: cried, flapped, jumped, laughed, reached, shouted, slapped, zoomed

Lost: looked, promised, shouted, waited, squealed, wobbled, scooped, worked

Present-tense verbs (ending in “ing”)

Poem cards Shared books

Clickety-clack Cicada: Clinging, shining, sleeping

“Night Noises” (in Splish Splash!): Chasing, hissing, howling, hunting, Making, prowling, racing, scratching, Shouting, snorting, Snuffling, Spitting

Octopus: hiding, lurking

Puddle Play: floating, Flying, Shining

Me and My Dog: barking, bouncing, Scratching, stretching, wagging, walking, waving

Hearing medial sounds

Greedy cat lying on the floor.

The identification of medial sounds in words is a relatively challenging task for young readers and writers, but it is essential if they are to be able to accurately sequence sounds within words, especially when writing. Make sure the students are reasonably confident with identifying initial and final sounds before you ask them to focus on medial sounds. (This topic has close links with “Building and breaking words” above.)

The following are teaching ideas for developing the students’ awareness of medial sounds:

  • Start with two-syllable words that have distinct medial consonants or digraphs (for example, “open”, “before”, “over”, “away”, “again”, “sloshy”, “washing”, “puddle”, “wobble”) and ask the students to identify the sounds they hear in the middle.
  • Move on to activities with single-syllable words that have strong medial vowel sounds. Give the students three or four words, for example, “cake”, “face”, “deep”, and “made”, and ask them to tell you which word has a different sound in the middle. As the students develop their ability to distinguish medial sounds, you could introduce examples with short vowel sounds (for example, “pot”, “dog”, “then”, “shop”). Short vowel sounds are more difficult to distinguish because some of the differences between them (for example, “e” and “i”) are subtle.

Updated on: 29 Mar 2021