Phonological Awareness and Phonics Strategies to Support Developing Readers

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In recent years, the science of reading has brought attention to the importance of systematic, explicit instruction on phonological awareness and phonics. As a result, many educators are looking for phonological awareness and phonics strategies to support and strengthen their early literacy instruction—instruction that will help lay the foundation for successful readers and writers.

While not exhaustive, this Shaped blog post features five areas of reading instruction, with a focus on effective phonological awareness and phonics instructional strategies teachers can use to support student growth and learning.

1. Phonemic Awareness

Before delving in, it is helpful to establish shared definitions. Cunningham and Zibulsky (2014) define phonological awareness as “the ability to perceive and manipulate sounds. Phonological awareness includes four levels of sound: word awareness, syllable awareness, onset-rime awareness, and phoneme awareness. Because the focus is on sounds, it is not necessary to reference print to develop phonological awareness” (p. 446).

Phonemic awareness, a component of phonological awareness, is the ability to perceive (hear) phonemes, the smallest unit of spoken language (individual speech sounds), within words; as well as the ability to manipulate, combine, delete, and replace phonemes within words (Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2014; Liben & Liben, 2019).

Phonemes are the units of sound that are represented by the letters of an alphabet, but before students can map sounds to letters, they must learn to distinguish speech sounds (phonemes), as it is this letter-sound connection that allows us to read words. It is important to note, that among kindergartners, phonemic awareness “is one of the strongest predictors of subsequent reading achievement” (Brady, 2012, p. 19).

High-quality instruction in the early grades focuses on helping students understand the role that phonemic awareness plays in learning to read and write (HMH, 2021a). After learning to hear the sounds, students must learn phonics, that is connecting the written letters—graphemes—to the individual sounds they represent—phonemes (HMH, 2021b).

Research supports the teaching of phonemic awareness with letter training, as phonemic awareness and letter-naming understanding mirror one another (Bus & Van Ijzendoorn, 1999). Instruction should be both explicit and systematic, with a spiraling approach to skill instruction, as mastery develops with practice, over time.

Phonemic Awareness Strategies

Cunningham and Zibulsky (2014) provide numerous family and teacher friendly activities to support all levels of phonological awareness. Including the following phonemic awareness strategies:

  • Sound search
  • Read alliterative books
  • Sing songs
  • Sort picture by the initial sounds
  • Use a mirror to look at how your mouth moves when saying different sounds

2. Corresponding Letters with Sounds

An awareness of phonemes is key to understanding the logic of the alphabetic principle and thus to learning phonics and spelling. One of the most crucial steps when learning to read is mastery of the alphabetic principle. Yet to fully understand the alphabetic principle, students must understand that the sounds of language are paired with letters, and those speech sounds make up words (Adams et al., 1997).

Phonics is “an approach to teaching beginning reading that emphasizes letter-sound relationships as the path to efficient word recognition” (Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2014, p. 446). Phonics instructional practices “emphasize how spellings are related to speech sounds in systematic ways” (NRC, 1998, p. 52). More than 20 years of research provides overwhelming evidence of the value of phonics in early reading instruction (NRC, 1998). Systematic and explicit instructional approaches to phonics that “use a planned, sequential introduction of a set of phonic elements along with teaching and practice of those elements” and feature “the identification of a full array of letter-sound correspondences” have been shown to be more effective in promoting early literacy than non-systematic approaches (NRP, 2000).

Letter-Sound Correspondence Strategies

As students learn letter-sound correspondences through explicit instruction, they apply that knowledge to decode words as they read and encode words as the write (Foorman et al., 2016). To support students developing alphabetic knowledge, teachers and families can try the following activities (see Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2014 for additional details):

  • Provide a print-rich environment
  • Engage in shared reading
  • Draw attention to letters in books
  • Shared writing using various mediums
  • Play letter bingo
  • Provide writing centers
  • Make letters with play dough and discuss sounds
  • Play I spy (for letters and letter sounds)

Check out this downloadable resource from Saxon Phonics & Spelling, which offers options for differentiating letter-sound instruction for students who may either need additional support, reinforcement, or extend enrichment.

3. Decoding

To decode, students must apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships, also known as sound-symbol correspondences, to correctly sound out and pronounce printed words. In addition to learning letter-sound patterns, beginning readers must become fluent in decoding—the process of segmenting letter-sound patterns within words and blending them back together to access that word in their lexicon. Decoding requires students to quickly translate print to speech, by rapidly recognizing and translating letter symbols or combinations of letters symbols (graphemes) to their corresponding sounds (phonemes).

Decoding Strategies

Decoding skills develop over time. Teachers can support students reading growth by moving from simple words to more complex words. For example, once individual letters are introduced, have students form CVC (constant vowel constant) words. Make sure students have enough practice with manipulating the middle vowels, as those are the most difficult for students to distinguish. It is also very beneficial to include Decodable Readers so that students have amply opportunities apply the targeted phonics skill in the context of controlled text.

To further support students decoding skills be sure that students have access to a systematic and explicit, research and evidence based-curriculum, allowing them to develop a strong understanding of letter-sound correspondences. In addition, teachers and families can try the following decoding strategies:

  • Draw attention to words in the environment, connecting sounds and letters
  • Teach letter-sound correspondence through manipulatives, including Elkonin/sound boxes and magnetic letters
  • Emphasize the importance of students attending to every letter when reading (decoding) words
  • Teach high-frequency words (see below)
  • Provide decodable text, such as this HMH Into Reading Grade 2 Start Right Decodable reader.

4. High-frequency Words

Often referred to as “sight words,” high-frequency words are the most common irregularly spelled, decodable and non-decodable (or not yet decodable) printed words. The 25 most common words in English represent about a third of all printed material, forming the glue that holds text together (Kress & Fry, 2015). The ability to fluently comprehend text—the goal of all reading instruction—depends on reading high-frequency words with automaticity (Adams, 1990). The importance of mastering high-frequency words is made clear by the fact that only 14 of the 150 most frequently used words in English follow sound-symbol generalizations that early readers are likely to have encountered (Adams, 1990). Indeed, some of the most common words in English, such as does, to, were, there, one, are irregular by any standard. Because of their frequency, students must master high-frequency words before they can read connected redundant text or decodable text.

High-frequency Words Strategies

To support the mastery of high-frequency words, beginning with the most common words, teachers and families can try the following high-frequency word strategies:

  • Go on a word hunt for high-frequency with familiar books
  • Create high-frequency words with magnetic letters
  • Play “memory” board game with high-frequency words
  • Explore/make high-frequency words using sensory materials
  • Create “heart word” flash cards and word walls with high-frequency words (download a free PowerPoint slide with an example ”heart word” routine)

5. Encoding

An important component of reading instruction is encoding, which is the opposite of decoding. Encoding involves “translating spoken sounds into written letters, as is required in spelling” (Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2014, p. 441). The evidence for focused and explicit spelling instruction as a major component of a reading program is strong. Adams (1990) concludes that “learning about spelling . . . enhances reading proficiency” because it reinforces knowledge of common letter sequences, spelling-sound relationships, and (possibly) word parts (p. 404).

It is worth noting that while an understanding of spelling patterns aids reading success, children’s awareness of phonics also promotes their spelling skills. The National Reading Panel (2000) concludes “that systematic phonics instruction produces gains in . . . spelling not only in the early grades (Kindergarten and 1st grade) but also in the later grades (2nd through 6th grades) and among children having difficulty learning to read”(p. 2-122).

Encoding Strategies

Developing an awareness of spelling patterns (orthography) is important to early reading success. Phonics instructional approaches in which word families are carefully grouped to highlight letter-sound contrasts have been shown to be effective in helping students grasp orthographic patterns (Henry, 2010). In addition, instruction that systematically organizes and exploits minimal contrasts helps focus children’s attention and hastens development of their orthographical/phonological abilities (Adams, 1990). With this guidance in mind, to support reading development, be sure to:

  • Ensure students have ample opportunities to develop strong phonological awareness skills and emerging decoding skills
  • Provide ample opportunities to write and spell in the classroom
  • Provide explicit spelling instruction
  • Support development of retrieval skills

Learning to Read

These phonological awareness and phonics strategies will help support the growth and development of beginning readers. Yet, it is important to note, the purpose of phonics instruction is to promote the ability to read with ease, accuracy, and meaning so that students can both comprehend and engage with the text. While systematic phonics instruction and the ability to decode are essential to learning to read, it is as a means, not an end. Learning to read with comprehension is highly complex – to do it successfully, students must also have substantial opportunities to develop vocabulary knowledge, world knowledge, morphology, syntax, and fluency, as well as a positive relationship with reading and books.


Adams, M. J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press.

Adams, M. J., Foorman, B., Lundberg, I., & Beeler, T. (1997). Phonemic awareness in young children: A classroom curriculum. Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Brady, S. (2012). Taking the Common Core foundational standards in reading far enough. Perspectives on Languages and Literacy, 38(4), 19–24.

Bus, A. G., & Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., (1999). Phonological awareness and early reading: A meta-analysis of experimental training studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 403–414 .

Cunningham, A. E., & Zibulsky, J. (2014). Book smart: How to develop and support successful, motivated readers. Oxford University Press.

Ehri, L. C. (1995). Phases of development in learning to read words by sight. Journal of Research in Reading, 18(2), 116–125.

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Henry, M. K. (2010). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [HMH]. (2021a). HMH Into Reading: Research evidence base.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [HMH]. (2021b). Saxon Phonics and Spelling: Research evidence base.

Kress, E. J., & Fry, E. B. (2015). The reading teacher’s book of lists (6th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Liben, M., & Liben, D. (2019). Know better, do better: Teaching the foundations so every child can read. Learning Sciences International.

National Reading Panel [NRP]. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health.

National Research Council [NRC]. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


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