Phonological Awareness: What It Is and How It Works

At a Glance

  • Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language.
  • Phonological awareness is the foundation for learning to read.
  • Some kids pick it up naturally but others need to be taught.

Remember doing the Hokey Pokey in kindergarten and clapping out the syllables, “that’s what it’s all about”? You may have thought it was just a game. But in fact you were building one of the most important skills for reading—phonological awareness. Learn about how this essential skill lays a foundation for reading success.

What Phonological Awareness Is

People often think that reading begins with learning to sound out letters. Most young kids are getting ready to read, however, long before they learn 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.

Phonological awareness is a skill that allows kids to recognize and work with the sounds of spoken language. In preschool, it means being able to pick out rhyming words and count the number of syllables in a name. It also involves noticing how sounds repeat themselves (alliteration). For example, “Susie sold six salami sandwiches.”

Later, phonological awareness moves from noticing to doing. Kids can come up with rhyming words, and they can break words apart into syllables or single sounds by listening rather than clapping.

“Every time you read a nursery rhyme or rhyming story to your child, you’re helping her build [phonological awareness].”

Phonological awareness is made up of a group of skills. The most sophisticated is called phonemic awareness. It’s also the latest to develop. This skill lets kids tune into individual sounds (phonemes) in a word. It includes the ability to separate a word into the sounds that make it up and to blend single sounds into words. It also involves the ability to add, subtract or substitute new sounds in words.

How Phonological Awareness Relates to Decoding Words

Once kids can notice, understand and work with single sounds in words, they’re ready for the next step: pairing sounds with letters. This typically happens in kindergarten.

Kids who have a strong foundation in phonemic awareness may have an easier time understanding that certain letters stand for specific sounds. 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 Your Child Struggles With Phonological Awareness

It’s important to know that kids develop phonological awareness skills at different rates. And some kids may need more support than others. Still, there are some red flags that could suggest difficulty in this area.

In preschool, these can include:

  • Difficulty learning nursery rhymes
  • Lack of enjoyment when listening to rhyming stories
  • Trouble counting out syllables in words
  • Difficulty noticing sound repetition or alliteration

In grade school, kids might struggle with:

  • Identifying the first sound they hear in words
  • Blending individual sounds into words
  • Coming up with rhyming words in word play

Kids who have significant challenges in this area may also struggle with some aspects of language. These may include the ability to understand questions and directions. They may have trouble learning and remembering new words. Kids may also have trouble expressing themselves clearly.

How Phonological Awareness Is Taught

Often phonological awareness isn’t really taught at all. It’s a skill most kids pick up by being exposed to a rich language environment.

Every time you read a nursery rhyme or rhyming story to your child, you’re helping her build the skill. Preschools do their part through rhyming songs, chants and word and movement games.

Some kids don’t automatically develop the awareness, though. They need specific instruction and practice.

Many teachers give instruction in phonemic awareness in kindergarten and early first grade. They teach it in a structured, step-by-step way. Kids start by rhyming and identifying beginning sounds in words. Next comes 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.

But not all schools teach 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 harder for some students and can make the process of learning to read much more challenging for them.

How You Can Help Your Child

There are many ways parents can strengthen their child’s phonological or phonemic awareness skills. Here are just a few.

Make language play a part of your day. Read your child rhyming books, sing songs, and have her come up with words that rhyme or start with the same sound. You can also play phonological awareness games online. Choose activities your child enjoys, and keep it short—five minutes or so—in order to hold her interest.

If your child is young enough, consider enrolling her in a preschool program. Preschools usually include language play, songs, rhymes and stories in their daily activities. Visit different preschools before choosing a program for your child. That will help you make sure she gets a rich experience with language and sounds.

Check out the technology. For some kids, apps and software are useful tools. They may help your child learn and practice phonological or phonemic awareness skills.

If you think your child may be struggling with phonological awareness, it’s a good idea to talk to her pediatrician. The doctor can refer you a specialist to find out what’s causing the difficulty. That will help you find the best ways to help your child learn to read.

Key Takeaways

  • You can help your child develop phonological awareness by playing with sounds.
  • Being aware of red flags can help you determine whether your child might need extra support.
  • Kids develop these skills at different rates, and some need more support than others.

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