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. Reading actually starts with kids tuning in to the sounds of spoken words. That’s where phonological awareness comes in.
What phonological awareness is
Most of us remember doing the Hokey Pokey and clapping out the syllables to “that’s what it’s all about.” It seems like just a fun game, but the Hokey Pokey is also a tool that builds phonological awareness — a key skill that lays a foundation for success with reading.
Phonological awareness lets kids recognize and work with the sounds of spoken language. In preschoolers, it means being able to pick out rhyming words and count the number of syllables in a name. It also involves noticing alliteration (how sounds repeat themselves). For example, “Susie sold six salami sandwiches.” (Preschools usually include this type of language play, songs, rhymes, and stories in their daily activities.)
Phonological awareness moves from noticing to doing. After kids recognize rhyming words, they start to come up with rhymes on their own. Once they can identify the number of syllables in a word, they begin to break words apart into syllables or single sounds by listening rather than clapping.
Phonological awareness is made up of a group of skills. The most sophisticated — and latest to develop — is called phonemic awareness. This skill lets kids tune in to phonemes (the individual sounds in a word).
Phonemic awareness includes the ability to separate a word into the sounds that make it up and blend single sounds into words. It also involves the ability to add, subtract, or substitute new sounds in words.
Watch as reading expert Margie Gillis, EdD, explains what phonological awareness means.
How phonological awareness relates to decoding
Once kids can notice, understand, and 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.
When kids have a strong foundation in phonemic awareness, it’s easier for them to understand that certain letters stand for specific sounds. That’s because they have experience blending sounds into words and taking words apart. And that gives them a head start when it’s time to decode letter sounds, hold them in memory, and blend them into words.
Signs kids struggle with phonological awareness
Kids develop these skills at different rates. Still, there are some flags that could suggest kids are having trouble and may need more support.
In preschool, these include:
Trouble learning nursery rhymes
Not enjoying listening to rhyming stories
Trouble counting out syllables in words
Difficulty noticing sound repetition or alliteration
In grade school, kids might have trouble:
Identifying the first sound they hear in words
Blending individual sounds into words
Coming up with rhyming words in word play
Confusing similar sounding words (like specific and pacific)
Kids who have bigger challenges with phonological awareness can also struggle with other aspects of language, like the ability to understand questions and directions. They might have trouble learning and remembering new words. Kids can also have trouble expressing themselves clearly.
Teaching phonological awareness
Most kids don’t need to be taught phonological awareness. They pick it up by being exposed to a rich language environment.
Reading a nursery rhyme or rhyming story with kids helps build the skill. So do rhyming songs, chants, and word and movement games.
But some kids don’t automatically develop phonological awareness even with that exposure. They need to learn the skill through explicit instruction and practice.
Many teachers teach phonemic awareness in kindergarten and early first grade. The best way to teach this is by using evidence-based literacy instruction (known as structured literacy) that helps kids learn in a structured, step-by-step way.
This type of systematic and sequential instruction teaches skills in a logical order. Kids start by rhyming and identifying beginning sounds in words.
Once they’ve mastered those skills, they move on to blending spoken sounds into words and dividing words into their individual sounds. The last step is learning to add, subtract, and substitute sounds to make new words.
Keep in mind that not all schools use a curriculum that teaches phonemic awareness. Many kindergarten and first-grade programs begin reading instruction with phonics. They focus on associating sounds with written letters right away.
This approach can be hard for some students. It can make the process of learning to read much more challenging. But even when the curriculum is phonics-based, teachers can also use strategies that include the elements of evidence-based literacy instruction.
Strengthening kids’ phonological or phonemic awareness skills can happen in lots of ways, not just through direct teaching. Here are a few suggestions.
Make language play a part of the day. Read rhyming books, sing songs, and ask kids to come up with words that rhyme or start with the same sound. You can also play phonological awareness games online. Choose fun, enjoyable activities and keep them short — five minutes or so — in order to hold kids’ interest.
Build phonological awareness (literally). Use LEGO blocks to build words and take them apart. Give kids two attached blocks to represent parts of the word. For older kids, start by using compound words like doghouse. Ask them to say the word. Then ask them to take away the first half: “Say the word doghouse. Now take away dog. What word is left?” Then have them take the LEGO blocks apart as they split the word apart.
Check out technology. For some kids, apps and software can help build reading skills. Kids can use them to learn and practice phonological or phonemic awareness skills.