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Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Reading is often seen as a visual activity in lots of homes and classrooms — but what about the skill of listening? Learning to hear and manipulate the sounds of our language is key to future success.

Listening games encourage children to hear the sounds in words before they are ready to read.

We often overlook the ability to listen when it comes to learning to read. Yet it is a vital pre-reading skill that can playfully develop through games and activities.

Listening is not the easiest thing to do, especially if you are a preschooler with lots going on around you. How many times does it take to get preschoolers to do anything? Actually, I still think that now and my youngest is twelve.

We call the sounds in words phonemes (The smallest unit of sound in speech). Adults take it for granted that cat has three letters, three sounds, one syllable. Yet, toddlers and preschoolers often need explicit instruction to hear individual sounds. We must teach all children how the sounds in our language are represented as letters on a page that create our words and sentences.

Segmenting and blending are new skills needed to decode unknown words. If a child struggles to hear sounds in words, they will be more likely to struggle to decode (sound out) words all the way through by sound.


All children need to have phonological awareness. This is a broad skill strongly linked to early reading success. It is the ability to recognise and manipulate the sounds in spoken words. The most important skills when learning to read are segmenting, blending and sound manipulation. This image explains the skills under the phonological awareness umbrella and why they are helpful in the early years.


Games are a playful way to encourage and develop brilliant listening skills. Games can also help your child develop sound awareness.

These games will help your child to:

  1. Follow directions

  2. Develop attention span

  3. Manipulate and discriminate sounds in words

  4. Pull words apart

  5. Isolate sounds in words and words in sentences

  6. Rhyme

Go at your child’s own pace and play together daily.

These games require the sounds of the alphabet, not letter names, as it is the sounds that build words, not letter names.

Yes, letter names are important but they don't help cement the initial sound-symbol correspondence we want to see children develop. It can confuse playing a listening game about sounds when letter names are used.

The letter names see ay tee, are not needed to sound out the word cat. The sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ are needed.

When finding items around your home, make sure to use the initial sound /a/ as in ant. The symbol (a) represents many sounds in words, such as alien air, age, and aid. A systematic structure is best in the early years to avoid confusion.

If possible, always start with decodable words, as these words are the easiest to pull apart. Head on over to the store to check out my hand-painted decodable early literacy resources.


The object of the game is to pull out the words that form a sentence.

Say a simple sentence, “A red cat.” I always use a robot voice because it is slower than a normal voice and a little fun, too. The student is to tell you how many words they hear in the sentence. The decodable alphabet kit has some sentences to get you started, and I also have packs of decodable sentences, just perfect for this game, in my store.

Take it in turns to be the robot and the listener.


Similar to I spy but instead of spying a visual, you are hearing a sound. Start with the sounds around you.

I hear with my little ear something that begins with the initial sound /w/… it could be… washer or water.

Encourage your child to guess what you are thinking of. I am thinking of an animal and the first sound in the word is /p/…. pig. If your child says cat, you could say cat starts with the sound /c/. The animal I am thinking of says oink and is often pink, have another go.

We still play this now when we are out and about. A brilliant game for the park, a walk along your street, in a forest or the beach, etc.

Have two or three pictures with different initial sounds and ask, “Can you find the picture that begins with /m/?” Great, that’s right, map begins with /m/. Let’s pull that word apart and listen for other sounds that make up that word /m/ /a/ /p/

Play with rhymes too. I hear with my little ear something that rhymes with hat. Hearing and responding to rhyme will help your little people notice the individual sounds within words.


Sound hunts can be a fun way to build phonemic awareness. In the beginning, find some items or pictures beginning with one letter /b/ bat, bus, brush, block, bead, boy– /s/ sun, star, sock, skittle, and square, as in the picture.

Find several objects and/or pictures with the same sound, hide them around and about, and say, “We are hunting for /b/ things today.” once found, chat about the initial sound and pull sounds out of the words. I always use a mixture of basic code decodable words–bat and bus and words with more complex sounds boy, brush, and bead. Pulling sounds out of words with complex vowel sounds is a key skill for proficient reading later on. Discuss the word boy–it has three letters, but two sounds boy–/b/ /oy/ this will train little ears to pull sounds out of words, and in time this will help with phonics.

Once your kids get the hang of one sound, hide several pictures or objects with two different initial sounds that can build words, e.g. s a t p i n. Once found, group the pictures and objects according to sound.


I often play this game with flashcards because it is easier for little people to pick a picture card rather than have to think of a word.

Play this game with simple words and always use the initial sounds in short words — /a/ for ant as this will help your child to isolate sounds quicker than if you use longer, more complicated words such as alligator or alien.

In the beginning, use words that start with continuant consonant sounds because they are more easily stretched without leaving a gap between sounds. – these sounds are /f/ /l/ /m/ /r/ /s/ /v/ /w/ /z/

  1. Shuffle the cards

  2. Take a card

  3. Don’t show the card

  4. Say the word

  5. Ask your child or student to pull the sounds out of each word, e.g. s…..u…..n…..

This game teaches phoneme segmentation.

Try playing this game with letter tiles to show the link between sounds and letters.

The ability to separate a word into its smallest units of sound. When children can do this, it helps them to connect the sounds they already know to the alternative spellings of the alphabet code.

You could also play this game doing the opposite. Say the sounds of a word and get your child or student to blend the sounds to say the word.

The skill of blending is what all children need to develop to read unfamiliar words.

Always try to say precise sounds. Sometimes we add ‘uh’ as in, ‘muh’ not /m/ ‘fuh’ not /f/


Make a collection of cards and/or objects, and ask your children to spot the odd one out. “Let’s have a look at these objects or cards. I can see a sun, a bus, a block, and a bead. I wonder which one doesn’t begin with a /b/ sound?

Playing these games daily for 5–10 minutes will train little ears to hear sounds within words and discriminate between sounds and words.

Being able to manipulate and pull the sounds out of words is a crucial skill when learning to read.

And just for fun…help your child tune into sounds at home and in their local environment.

When you are out and about, spot the sounds in your local neighbourhood. You could even do this at home.

I can hear a noise in the garden…what could it be?

You could turn this into a guessing game — I can hear a buzzing on that plant over there…what could it be?

We turned our free nature hunt into a sounds hunt when we went to the beach. Instead of the usual—what can you find?

We looked for the items we could hear first. I offered help by dropping my glasses and talking to a crab in a rock pool!


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