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What Is Segmenting In Phonics? A Simple Guide

In ten years of working with children aged 3-5, I have found that one of the most important skills in early phonics is definitely segmenting.

It is a crucial skill in early writing, and it is involved in reading too. But what exactly is it?

Segmenting in phonics is the ability to separate a word into its sounds. Technically the sounds are called phonemes, the units of sound that make up language. Practically speaking, to segment the word ‘pig’, you would split it into its three phonemes – p-i-g.

It can be quite a tricky thing for children to get their head around. It takes lots of practice in imaginative ways.

It requires you to have a few fun games up your sleeve to be able to introduce and practise it, and it also needs quite a bit of repetition before children use it securely.

Luckily, this article will give you all the tricks of the trade that you need to pull this off.

We will look at a bit more about what it is, what it is used for, and some great ways to get children segmenting.

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Segmenting In Phonics

In a nutshell, segmenting is the key phonic skill of writing. To write a word, a child needs to ‘sound it out’ first. This sounding out process is segmenting.

It is splitting up words into sounds.

To a lesser extent it is used in reading also. Sounding out a word by reading the sounds is also a kind of segmenting.

However, the big skill is in oral segmenting – i.e. doing it through sound. You hear a word like ‘dog’, and you can split it up into ‘d-o-g.’

Some Brilliant Segmenting Games

There are some great games that you can play when you start segmenting.

The danger with segmenting is that it can become a bit dry and boring. Not if you follow these games!

Honestly, they are fun both for adults and children, and can be repeated many times in a motivating way.

Kung Fu Segmenting

Everyone stands up!

Get everyone to bow to ‘the master’. The master could be you (just tell them you are the master). Alternatively, these days I use this fantastic kung-fu panda toy:

They all really love this toy, and it really helps to focus them! You can find them on Amazon here

What you do is get them all to bow to the kung-fu panda.

Then show them a move. I normally do gentle defensive moves, rather than aggressive kicks and hits! This is just to avoid any play fighting, and the whole thing going a bit wrong.

Give them a word like ‘cot’. All do the move, for example, a low block, and segment the word, one sound for each move – e.g. ‘c-o-t. Cot!’

Always do each word a few times. Repetition is the key to learning how to segment!

Top tip – Always say the full word at the end after you have segmented it.

Did you know this is one of the strategies that we teach and advocate through our phase one phonics online teaching resources. We really do recommend checking them out!

Rhythm Sticks

Rhythm sticks are one of the ultimate phonics resources. You can use sticks from outside, or claves, or you can buy rhythm sticks like these fantastic ones that I bought recently:

I got these very cheaply off Amazon, and I recommend you take a look.

To segment with the sticks, give out two sticks to all children.

Then give them a simple three-letter word, e.g. ‘kid’.

Everyone hits the sticks together as they say ‘k-i-d. Kid! K-i-d. Kid!…’

Repeat with different words.

There are all sorts of exciting rhythm sticks games you can do. To check out some more, then why not look at 10 Rhythm Sticks Games – The Essential Practical Guide.

Using A Robot

This is the classic way of teaching segmenting (in Britain at least).

You need some kind of robot. I used to have a bit tinfoil mask that I had made myself.

However, these days (even better!) I have this spectacular robot puppet:

I can’t begin to tell you the excitement that this generates! You can get one here.

Puppets are one of the best ways of teaching more or less anything in the early years, and you can find out the 22 best ways of using puppets in teaching here.

He is called Metal Mike. I get the children to press his screen at the front to activate him in to life. He makes a fake whirring sound when activated. I always get him to scan their eyes as well, checking for great eye-contact!

Then he whispers a word to the adult, e.g. ‘sit’. He doesn’t say the word in a robot voice, because they all then segment in robot voices and it becomes a complete nightmare! Ge them to segment in their normal voices – it really is best in the long-term.

Get your arms like ‘robot arms’, e.g. ninety degrees at the elbow with your hands sticking out in front of you.

If the word is ‘sit’ the move your arms up and down like a robot as you go ‘s-i-t. Sit! S-i-t. Sit!…’

Repeat each word a few times!

Repetition breeds success.

The three games I have just described for you are definitely my top activities for starting the teaching of segmenting. However, I have also written the essential guide to 16 segmenting activities that it is definitely worth taking a look at.

Top Tips For Segmenting

Here are some tips to help you find success when you are teaching segmenting.

1.Start At The Right Time

This is really important. If you start when a child is too young, or does not have the foundation skills required to segment, then it becomes a tortuous, long-drawn out process. Basically before a child can segment they should be able to:

  1. Have at least some awareness of rhyme
  2. The ability to join in with simple listening games
  3. The ability to successfully join in with simple instrument games
  4. Know some rhymes, songs and chants
  5. Be able to join in with group games
  6. Begin to have an awareness of simple alliteration such as is found in these top ten alliteration activities

2.Make It Active

Segmenting is a practical skill. It is also a very physical process.

Use lots of dances, kung-fu, robot arms, and whatever else you can think of to get the children moving and segmenting at the same time.

The more multi-sensory the experience, the quicker they will get the idea.

3.Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!

Repeat everything.

You should repeat the games, for example. If you do the robot game on Day 1, you can also do it on Day 2, and Day 3. As long as they are not getting bored of it just keep going. The more they do it, the better the chance they have of getting the idea.

All the games are like this. Mix them up, but repeat, repeat, repeat.

4. Do It Every Day

A ‘little and often’ approach is the way to go for segmenting.

You will get blank looks when you start, but if you keep going then some will start to get it, and then hopefully that will snowball.

5. Commit!

When you start, keep going!

I would keep going every day even after you are confident they have all mastered it. It is surprising how quickly some of them will forget!

Never stop, until they are well into the next phase of phonics and beginning to write words confidently.

Some Issues To Look Out For

There are many issues that might occur when you teach segmenting. Here are some, and what you can do about it:

  1. Children guessing! This will happen to some degree with all children when they start. Segmenting takes a while to get used to. Just keep going.
  2. Saying the last sound wrong. This is very common. This usually means they are on the way to getting it. Again – keep going. If they can hear the first and second sound in a word, then they will eventually be able to hear the end one.
  3. The can’t say the sounds due to some kind of speech and language issue. Again this is very common. Using lots of early phonics games is good here to develop speech and language. Remember, that although some children can’t say sounds, they can hear them OK. They may be able to write them fine, just not say them clearly. This is more of a speech issue than a segmenting issue.


There is a lot involved in segmenting, but hopefully I have given you a good starting point for getting going with it.

With just a few simple toys and fun games, it is a skill that is enjoyable to learn and hugely beneficial once understood.

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