If you are the parent of a preschooler or Kindergartner, you may have heard the term “phonological awareness” and wondered what it means. “Phonological awareness” is a reading readiness skill that is often confused with the terms “phonemic awareness” and “phonics.”

These terms are related, but they each mean something different in the world of learning to read. “Phonics” is a method of teaching reading that focuses on sounds and letters in printed text. “Phonemic awareness” is a subset of “phonological awareness” that I’ll discuss later in this blog post.

What is phonological awareness, then?

Phonological awareness is the ability to

  • hear and recognize that orally spoken words are made up of smaller pieces of sound, such as syllables, onset (initial sound) and rime (the blended ending chunk of a word), and phonemes
  • manipulate, work with (play with) these pieces of sound in a language.

An important part of this definition is “orally spoken words.” Phonological awareness is about the sounds we hear and speak, not about the print we see.

Why is phonological awareness important?phonological awareness

Before a child can learn how to read, they must be able to pay attention to the sounds of spoken words.

When kids have progressed to the point that they can notice, isolate and work orally with the very smallest sounds in words (phonemes) they are ready to benefit from phonics instruction. Along with strong alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness is a foundational skill that leads directly to learning to read. Strong phonological awareness is a highly accurate predictor of your child’s success in learning to read.

What are the components of phonological awareness?

There are five parts to phonological awareness:

  • word awareness
  • syllable awareness
  • onset and rime awareness
  • rhyme awareness
  • phonemic awareness

This sequence progresses from the largest pieces of sound (words) to the smallest pieces of sound (phonemes.)

How does phonological awareness develop?phonological awareness

As children move from working with larger pieces of sound to smaller pieces of sound, they progress from

  • recognizing the sounds to producing the sounds
  • matching the sounds to blending the sounds to segmenting the sounds
  • hearing and working with the initial sounds, then the final sounds, then the middle sounds

They also progress from

  • learning with objects and pictures to learning through activities that are strictly oral
  • using concrete objects such as Lego pieces, chips or blocks to represent sounds to using letters to represent sounds

Let’s take a look at these pieces of sound, from largest to smallest.

Word Awareness

Word awareness is the understanding that sentences are made up of individual words. Imagine how speech must sound to a baby – just a continual stream of sound. As a child’s language develops, they begin to notice and hear individual words.

A later application of word awareness is the understanding that when we see one word in print, we say one word. The concept of leaving spaces between words when we write is also part of word awareness.

Quick Tip – My favorite way to teach this is to have children count each word of a short, fun sentence on their fingers. For example, I might say “We love to go to the park.” I ask the kids to repeat it with me while we all count the words on our fingers. Then I ask, “how many fingers, how many words?”

rhymingRhyme Awareness

The ability to hear, recognize and “play with” rhyming words is a powerful predictor of a child’s success in learning to read. When kids play with rhyming words, they are learning the sound patterns that will help them learn and apply phonics skills as they learn to read.

Quick Tip – The easiest and most powerful way to help kids learn to rhyme is to read rhyming books.

Syllable Awareness

Syllable awareness is the understanding that words can be divided up into chunks of sound.  A syllable is a “chunk” or section of a word that has only one vowel sound.

Kids need to be able to hear and count how many syllables are in a word. For example, the word “eat” is one syllable. It has only one vowel sound, even though that sound is spelled with two vowels together. The same idea applies with “house” and “rain.”

The word “playground” has two syllables because it has two chunks or sections that each have one vowel sound.

Quick Tip – In the United States, it’s common to have students clap once as they say each syllable in a word, and then count “how many claps?” If you teach your little one to clap syllables, chances are good that this will match what they are later expected to do at school.

Onset & Rime Awareness

Syllables can be broken down into smaller sections of sound. These sections

  • Segment a word in the correct place (“c-at”)
  • Delete the first sound, called the onset (“_-at”)
  • Substitute a new ending sound, called the rime, in the correct place (“h-at”)
  • Blend the new sounds/word parts correctly (“hat”)

In the skills listed above, the first sound in a word (“c-at”) is called the “onset.” The last word part (“c-at”) is called the “rime.”

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, recognize, and work with the very smallest pieces of sound, called “phonemes.”phonemic awareness

Kids who have strong phonemic awareness can:

  • Isolate sounds (beginning, ending and middle sounds)
  • Blend sounds into words (“cat”)
  • Segment words into individual sounds (“c-a-t”)
  • Change sounds to create a new word (“c-a-n”)

When children can orally isolate, segment and blend these smallest pieces of sound, they are ready to benefit from phonics instruction and begin learning how to read.

Changing sounds to create a new word is much trickier. For many kids this is not a reading readiness skill, it is a skill that develops while they are learning to read.

Quick Tip – Work on blending as a riddle game. “What’s the mystery word?” Say the sounds of a word slowly and separately, and have your child practice identifying the word.

What does this mean?

If you want to teach your child how to read, your first step is to teach phonological awareness.

If your child is having a hard time learning to read, go back and spend time on phonological awareness activities.

Phonological awareness is the key to success in learning to read.

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Phonological Awareness


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