What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is the awareness of all of the sounds of language. It is the ability to hear and distinguish sounds. This includes:

  • Recognizing sounds
  • Adding sounds
  • Taking apart sounds
  • Moving sounds around

Phonemic awareness is the awareness of individual sounds, or phonemes. Phonemic awareness is part of phonological awareness.

(If this is all Greek to you, don’t worry. Just keep reading. We are going to break it down, give examples, and give you many curriculum ideas and helps along the way.)

Why is it important for children to have these skills? Phonological and phonemic awareness help children become prepared to learn how letters and sounds go together into words. This makes it much easier for someone to learn to read and write!

Weak skills in phonological awareness are a primary cause for reading difficulties. We have put together this information about phonological awareness as well as our complete phonological awareness kit, to help parents and teachers to be able to effectively teach these skills.

PA1mediumPagesLet’s start by looking at the big picture.

Children learn to use language starting with big pieces and gradually moving to smaller and smaller pieces. A toddler learning to speak might say “I love you.” However, he or she will not be able to break that sentence into three words or use any of the three words independently for some time yet.

Gradually, the child will master words and be able to put them into more complex sentences. Then, as the child learns more vocabulary and language structure, he or she will also become aware that language is made up of even smaller pieces than words.

In order to learn to read and write, a child must come to understand that language is made up of pieces:

  • Sentences
  • Words
  • Syllables
  • Word parts
  • Individual sounds or phonemes

This awareness is built through oral language activities. As a child learns to hear, identify, and change pieces of language, the child becomes prepared to use this knowledge to learn written language. 

What is important to teach

The best way to develop phonological awareness skills is to begin with more general types of listening skills and bigger pieces of language and gradually move to smaller and smaller sounds until children learn to listen to and use individual sounds of language. So, teaching the right pieces in the right order is crucial.

Phonological awareness skills can be divided into three levels. At each level, children engage in learning and make discoveries about sounds that help them progress in reading and writing at the level where they are currently working. For this reason, it is important for children to go through each level in order.

Level 1: Setting the foundation

Level 2: the building blocks of blending and segmenting

Level 3: beyond the basics–big words and hard words

How to teach Phonological Awareness

What do we know about phonological and phonemic awareness? Research shows that they can be taught and learned–and that when these skills are developed, the result is that children have a much easier time learning to read and write (Adler, 2003)!

So how do we teach it? The best way to develop phonological and phonemic awareness in young children is through interactive games and songs. These should be non-evaluative. (Don’t tell children that they got it wrong. If they did not follow the concept correctly, simply model a correct response for them, help them feel successful by guiding them to give you a correct response–even repeating your response–and go on.) Children should be encouraged to participate in groups in order to build their skills without singling them out. The tone of the activities should be playful and fun. This is language play at its best! (National Reading Council, 1998)

Our Phonological Awareness Kit is a complete full year curriculum. It teaches all of the phonological awareness skills using music and games. It is easy to use with minimal preparation. Click here for more information.

Basic Guidelines for teaching songs and games

  • Keep it fun.
  • Teach and practice the skills for a short time (approximately 5 minutes) every day.
  • Use music. This is one of the most powerful tools for teaching awareness of sounds.
  • Review often.
  • Model, model, model, model, and model.

Three stages of learning

  • Listening: In this stage a child learns to hear and recognize a certain type of sound or sound group (such as rhymes, words, or syllables).
  • Imitating: After learning to hear and recognize the sound or sound group, the child next learns to imitate it. For example, the child learns to follow the model and break words into onset and rime. In this stage it is important to provide a lot of supported practice. Model, model, model! (and did I mention that it’s important to model?)
  • Independent: In this stage the child learns to do it himself or herself. The modeling and supported practice lessen to make room for more independence. Gradually, the child takes on more of the responsibility until he or she can do it alone.


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