Exploring Phonological Awareness

Girl and woman clapping.

Halloween and the scary month may be past but you can be sure that children’s interest in scary things has not gone away. You can take advantage of their interest in all things scary to use “The Ghost and Jenny Jemima”  by Dennis Lee to play with phonological awareness.

In October we talked about using the same book over and over. Here’s a way to repeat a poem many times with an emphasis on phonological awareness… the awareness of the sound structure of language. Children need these skills of manipulating the sounds and syllables of speech in order to become readers when they enter kindergarten and first grade. Skills like rhyming, isolating beginning and ending sounds in words, blending, and segmenting the sounds in words and sentences make up phonological awareness. Children need some understanding of the sounds that make up language before they begin to make sense of letter-sound instruction.

Early experiences with rich language, however, should not be just thought of as preparation for later literacy skills…they should be included for the joy of hearing rich language and how that language can be used. Songs can also be bounteous with language and opportunities to practice phonological awareness skills.  When I had a classroom full of three and four-year-olds, we started our day with John Denver’s Farewell Andromeda (Welcome to my morning, welcome to my day).  By the end of the year, we got to syllabification to the length of the notes!

The Ghost and Jenny Jemima

The clock struck one,

The clock struck two,

The ghost came playing


As you would any piece of literature, begin by reading the poem to the children.  Depending on your group, you may want to start this in small groups.  Simple props could be used—a clock, a picture of a ghost, a picture of a girl (perhaps one with her hair standing on end.)  Get the children physically involved by having number cards that they put on the clock.  If you are still virtual, perhaps parents and children can have pre-made number cards or they can just hold up fingers.  In the second reading have them shout out the chorus along with you.  These activities will begin to engage them in the activity.


The clock struck three,

The clock struck four,

And Jenny Jemima

Began to roar.

Playing with ALLITERATION:  Alliterative words have common initial sounds—Jenny Jemima is a good example.  The repetitive striking of the clock and playing peekaboo are also examples of alliteration.  Children love to play silly word games.  Play a word game where you replace playing peekaboo with some other words with sound-alike beginning sounds—meek amoo; teek atoo—they don’t have to be real words  (it would be fun to try to demonstrate what the action would be if you were ‘meek amooing.’)  The sillier the better—the point is to have experience with matching beginning sounds.


The clock struck five,

The clock struck six,

The ghost could walk through

Steel and bricks.

Playing with SEGMENTING:  Lead the children in clapping syllables.  Start just with a clap for each word—The Clock Struck One is four claps.  When the children are doing that smoothly move to segmenting words—Jen-ny Je-mim-a is five claps.  Have the children clap out the name each time they hear it.  Have them clap and say it softly—have them clap and say it loud!  Making it visual with syllable cards will also help the children make the connection with how the word looks when written.


The clock struck seven,

The clock struck eight,

And Jenny Jemima’s

Hair stood straight.

Playing with SYLLABLE BLENDING:  Pick some words from the poem that have more than one syllable.  (Jenny, peekaboo, playing for example.)  Say them with the syllables split apart (Jen-ny, peek-a-boo, play-ing.)  Ask the children to guess what the word is.  Have them say it with you.  Using your syllable cards, as you did in segmenting, will reinforce the visual and written aspect of this.  Keep your syllable blending activity to two to three syllables.  For younger children you can begin with sentence blending—“The-clock-struck-four—let’s say it together fast.”  You can also play a game with onset and rime (the beginning sound of the word is the onset and the body of the word is the rime) by repeating onset sounds—J-J-J_Jenny; g-g-g-ghost; f-f-f-five. 


The clock struck nine,

The clock struck ten…

The ghost wound the clock

And went home again.

Playing with SOUND BLENDING:  After a bit many of the words in the poem will become familiar to the children and you can begin playing with sound blending.  Take some of the words that recur many times in the poem—such as clock, Jenny, ghost—and say them with the sounds separated like this /cl/ /o/ /k/.  Hold up your clock picture and ask the children to guess what the word is.   Choose words with only two or three sounds (or four for your five-year-olds.)  Many sounds lend themselves to continuation—they can be produced for longer  periods of time.  Vowel sounds are easy to extend—ghooooooooost—but many consonant sounds can also be continued–/s/ as in ssssssteel or ssssstraigh; /th/as in thththrough and thththree; /h/ as in hhhhhome.  Play with holding these continued sounds out at the beginning of words.


Playing with RHYMES:  Rhymes are words that sound alike.  Read the poem and point out the rhymes to the children—two and peekaboo; six and bricks; eight and straight for example.  Play a game where you substitute non-rhyming words for the second rhyme—six and house for example.  Ask the children if those words rhyme.  Give some examples of words that might rhyme—sticks, mix, fix for example.  What other words (or nonsense words) can they think of to rhyme.  Play with substituting their words for the rhymes in the poem—‘the ghost could walk through steel and sticks.” 

Playing with MANIPULATION:  Manipulation involves deleting, adding, and switching sounds around.  Typically children who are 6-7 years old are ready for this kind of an activity.  Have the children tell you what ghost would sound like with the /g/ or what would happen if you said /p/ instead of /g/ when you wanted to say ghost.  Again, children like playing with words—the sillier the better and this type of activity lends itself to silly word play.

These are just some examples of the literacy activities that could be built around one poem.  One certainly would not want to do them all in one day but perhaps over the course of a week or more—depending on what the children are ready for and interested in–with a separate emphasis each day.  The activity could be extended by making a rhyming book using the children’s names, for example:

The clock struck one

The clock struck two

And (child’s name) came playing

(rhyme the child provides.)

Using the clock as the shape for the book would also put some emphasis on the numbers or you could use a child’s face as the book shape and substitute the child’s name for Jenny Jemima- so that (Child’s name) hair stood straight.

 These kinds of activities are not limited to use only with Jenny Jemima.  You can use other poetry, literature, songs the children like to sing, fingerplays they like to do and extend them to incorporate each one of the phonological awareness skills that we incorporated in this series of activities.  As you plan, think carefully about the outcomes that you expect.  With your younger children and children who have had little exposure to language play just having the experience of your demonstrations of sound and word play begins to provide the experiences they will need as they move into readiness for more complex literacy experiences.  Children who have had more exposure might be expected to participate with rhyming words, with clapping syllables and sounds and even making up some of their own games with words and sounds.

I found the poem “The Ghost and Jenny Jemima” in the book Poetry Speaks to Children edited by Elise Paschen.  This book includes wonderful illustrations as well as a CD with the poetry read (mostly) by the authors.  It is published by Sourcebooks Mediafusion.

If you want to incorporate some print awareness with these activities it will be simple to do.  Making the books is one way.  Another, mentioned in one of the activities, is to use word, letter, and syllable cards.  By holding up the syllables in Jenny Jemima, for example, children begin to make the connection between sounds and print.  Again, the expectation is not that the children will recognize and be able to read the print (though by the time you’ve done several of these activities and incorporated print, some of your children will be able to anticipate and ‘read’ the print.)

Developmental Progression of Phonological Awareness 


  • Produce rhymes, finger plays, and songs: 2-3 years
  • Match and produce rhymes: 3-4 years


  • Recognize and produce words with common initial sounds: 3-4 years


  • Combine a sequence of isolated syllables to produce words: 3-4 years
  • Combine a sequence of isolated sounds to produce words: 4 years


  • Identify syllables in words: 3-4 years
  • Identify sounds in words: 5-6 years


  • Change words by deleting, adding, switching sounds: 6-7 years

(from Building Early Literacy and Language Skills by Lucy Hart Paulson, Linda Attridge Novel, Stacia Jepson and Rick van den Pol.)