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What is phonological awareness?

By Kelli Johnson, MA

At a Glance

  • Phonological awareness is the foundation for learning to read.

  • It’s the ability to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language.

  • Some kids pick it up naturally, but others need more help with it.

People often think that reading begins with learning to sound out letters. But most young kids are getting ready to read long before they understand that letters stand for sounds. They start by gaining a language skill called phonological awareness. 

Phonological awareness is the foundation for reading. It lets people recognize and work with the sounds of spoken language. That includes: 

  • Picking out words that rhyme 

  • Counting the number of syllables in a word

  • Noticing sound repetition (“Susie sold six salami sandwiches”) 

Preschools usually include this type of language play, songs, rhymes, and stories in their daily activities. Eventually, kids start to come up with rhymes on their own. They also begin to break words apart into syllables or single sounds. 

Most kids pick up phonological awareness naturally. But trouble with it can be a sign of a reading challenge like dyslexia. Kids with dyslexia may need extra help learning to recognize and work with word sounds.

Dive deeper

How phonological awareness helps with decoding

Phonological awareness involves a group of skills. One is called phonemic awareness. This skill is about tuning in to individual sounds in a word, or phonemes. It lets people break apart a word into the sounds that make it up, and blend single sounds into words. 

Once kids can work with single sounds in words, they’re ready for the next step in reading: decoding. It’s a skill that involves pairing sounds with the letters that make them. Decoding typically develops in kindergarten.

Find out more about decoding .

Signs kids struggle with phonological awareness

Kids develop phonological awareness skills at different rates. Still, there are some flags that could mean kids are struggling and need more support. Difficulty with these skills can signal trouble with reading.

Preschoolers might have trouble:

  • Learning nursery rhymes

  • Counting out syllables in words

  • Noticing when sounds repeat (alliteration) 

Grade-schoolers might struggle with:

  • Identifying the first sound they hear in words

  • Blending individual sounds into words

  • Coming up with rhyming words in word play

Learn more about:

Teaching strategies for educators

Most kids don’t need to be taught phonological awareness. They pick it up by being exposed to a rich language environment. But some kids need to learn the skills through explicit instruction and practice. 

Many teachers teach phonemic awareness in kindergarten and early first grade. The best way to teach these skills is by using structured literacy instruction. This type of step-by-step instruction teaches skills in a logical order. 

Kids start by rhyming and identifying beginning sounds in words. They end by learning to add, subtract, and substitute sounds to make new words.

Learn more about structured literacy .

How to help at home

There are many ways to help kids build phonological awareness at home without it feeling like “work.” 

Make language play a part of the day. Read rhyming books, sing songs, and ask kids to come up with words that rhyme or that start with the same sound. You can also play phonological awareness games online.

Also, check out technology. For some kids, apps and software can help build reading skills. Kids can use them to learn and practice phonological awareness skills. 

Get ideas for building phonological awareness at different ages. 

Related topics

Reading and writing Reading and writing Talking and understanding Talking and understanding

Did you know?

Many people think that writing letters backwards is a sign of dyslexia, but that’s often not the case.

More on: Reading and writing

Role-playing is a great way to build conversation skills. Act out a situation and switch parts with a partner midway.

More on: Talking and understanding

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