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Phonological Awareness

What Is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and think about parts of spoken language. We speak in a continuous stream of sound. Phonological awareness allows us to hear and work with sentences, words, syllables (parts of words) and individual sounds within words within that stream of talking.

Let’s explore how phonological awareness looks and how it impacts reading and writing development.

Levels of Phonological Awareness

At the word level, phonological awareness allows us to hear and work with individual words. Prompts like these ask a listener to use word awareness:

In the sentence “The dog barked at the cat.”:

  • How many words are there in this sentence?
  • What’s the last word in this sentence?
  • Change this sentence by changing the word “cat” to a different word.
  • What words rhyme with cat? (Hearing rhymes asks listeners to notice the end part of a word, in this case, /-at/.)

At the syllable level, phonological awareness allows us to hear and work with parts of words. Prompts like these ask a listener to use syllable awareness:

  • What word am I saying? “um-brel-uh”
  • How many syllables (or parts, or beats) does the word “umbrella” have?
  • What would it sound like if we changed the “um” in umbrella to sun, dog, cat, or frog? (Answers: sunbrella, dogbrella, catbrella, frogbrella)

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a particular level of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and work with individual sounds, or phonemes, in spoken language. For example, these prompts all ask a listener to use phonemic awareness:

  • What sound does rain start with?
  • What word does it make if you change the beginning sound in rain to /p/?
  • What word does it make if you add an /l/ sound after the /p/?
  • What’s the last sound in rain?
  • What word does it make if you change the last sound in rain to a /d/?
  • How many sounds does “rain” have? (Answer: three; /r/ /ā/ /n/)
  • What other words start with the same sound as “rain?”
  • What other words end with the same sound as “rain?” (Possible answers: man, ten, chin)

Phonological Awareness vs. Phonics

Phonological and phonemic awareness refer to spoken language only. Phonics attaches written letters to sounds. A useful analogy is to think about phonological awareness as able to be practiced with “the lights off.” Phonics needs “the lights on” in order to see written symbols.

Importance of Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness — especially phonemic awareness — allows beginning readers and writers to hear sounds in words as they try to spell and read them. To read “map,” one must be able to hear that the sounds /m/ /a/ /p/ blend together to say “map.” To write “map” one must be able to break down the word into its three sounds.

(Looking at written letters and saying the sounds they make, or knowing which written letters represent sounds heard, are examples of using phonics knowledge. Phonics and phonological awareness work in concert.)

Teaching Phonological Awareness

Many children naturally develop phonological awareness through hearing language at home and school. This happens through:

  • Informal wordplay (e.g., brainstorming all the words that start with the same sound as “tomato” or pretending to “talk like a robot” and say words segmented into syllables)
  • Hearing books read aloud that play with sounds in words, like rhyming or alliteration stories
  • Enjoying poems and songs that rhyme or play with sounds in words
  • Simple, straightforward explanations of phonological awareness principles support learning, especially for children who struggle. For example:

    • “Rhyming words have the same ending part. Black and stack both end in /ak/.”
    • “A syllable is a part of a word you open your mouth to say. Feel your mouth open three times while you say but-ter-fly.”
    • “Listen to me say a word slowly to say each sound. There are three sounds in map: /m/ /a/ /p/.”

    Phonemic Awareness Involves Sounds, Not Letters

    Phonemic awareness is taught without reference to letters. For children who struggle, this is particularly important, as including letters can be confusing. Activities in which a student moves a chip or touches a box while saying each sound in a word are helpful. Once students can hear individual sounds in words, they are better able to learn about how a letter or letters represent each sound.

    Activity

    Playing with sounds in familiar names is a great way to build phonological awareness. For example, for the name Molly, ask:

    • Count the words are in this sentence about Molly: “Molly went to the park.”
    • Add more words to the sentence. Say the new sentence. How many words are in it now?
    • Which word rhymes with Molly: Dolly or Party?
    • Let’s make up a long, funny rhyming name for Molly: Molly, Molly, Fo-Folly, Fee-Fi-Fo-Folly…Molly! (Add Hi-Hi Ho-Holly, etc.)
    • How many syllables are in Molly? Let’s clap for each one. (Answer: two)
    • Who else’s name starts with the same sound as Molly? Miguel, Thomas, or Sarah?
    • How many sounds are in Molly? Let’s tap a finger across the table for each one. (Answer: the four sounds in Molly are /m/ /aw/ /l/ /ee/)

    Notice that none of these prompts include talking about how Molly is spelled; that’s phonics!