As a former librarian, nothing could prepare me for the joy of seeing children start to read on their own. As educators, we want to prepare students for a lifetime of reading by teaching them to read at grade level, and one way to do that is to utilize science of reading strategies. One of the first skills developing readers need to master is phonological awareness. In this article, we will dig into what phonological awareness is and the importance of referencing it for reading instruction.
Phonological Awareness: Definition
Phonological awareness is “the ability to perceive and manipulate sounds. Phonological awareness includes four levels of sound: word awareness, syllable awareness, onset-rime awareness, and phoneme awareness” (Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2014, p. 446).
To better understand phonological awareness, we must understand the meaning of syllables, onset and rimes, and phonemes. Syllables are units of sound that have one vowel sound, for example, /book/. Onsets and rimes break a word up into the sound of the first letter in a word (onset) and the remaining part of the word, including vowels (rime), for example, /b/ and /ook/. Phonemes are the smallest unit of speech distinguishing one word (or word element) from another, for example, /b/ and /oo/ and /k/.
What Is Phonological Awareness?
Now that you know the definition of phonological awareness, what is it really? Essentially, students must have the ability to recognize that spoken words are made up of individual sound parts (NCIL, 2022). Through this awareness, students will begin to understand how the words they hear are written.
The umbrella and continuum graphics below can help visualize the skills needed to fully master phonological awareness. Developing phonological awareness is an important part of the process of learning to read—allowing students to map written letters, or graphemes, to speech sounds, or phonemes. Once students develop phonological awareness, they build the foundations needed to become proficient readers.
Phonological Awareness Umbrella
Phonological awareness can be thought of as an umbrella, with four distinct skills under the umbrella:
- Word: At the word level, students can understand rhyming words, alliteration, and sentence segmentation.
- Syllable: At the syllable level, students can break up a word into three syllables and sound them out.
- Onset and rime: At the onset and rime level, students recognize the sounds of the starting and ending parts in a word.
- Phonemic awareness: At the phonemic awareness level, students understand that a word is made up of phonemes, or sounds. This is the most advanced skill under the umbrella.
Phonological Awareness Continuum of Complexity
When watching students make progress with phonological awareness, it’s helpful to think of it on a continuum of skills. The image of stairsteps below, or the phonological awareness continuum of complexity graphic, helps visualize a student’s progression through the levels of phonological awareness.
5 Stages of Developing Phonological Awareness
Five levels of skills and understanding make up phonological awareness. Researchers David Chard and Shirley Dickson (1999) illustrated the levels as a continuum of complexity, which we recreated and adapted below.
- Rhyming Songs: In the image below, you will see rhyming songs on the lower end of the steps. Students can begin to understand how letters and sounds correspond when practicing rhyming exercises.
- Sentence Segmentation: The next step in the image is sentence segmentation, or understanding that sentences are made up of a series of words.
- Syllable Segmentation and Blending: Then, readers can understand that words consist of syllables. Different sounds blended together will make different words.
- Onset-Rime Blending and Segmentation: As they move up the steps, students can split up words into onsets and rimes. They understand the sound to start the word and the rest of the word as a separate sound.
- Blending and Segmenting Individual Phonemes: Finally, students will master phonemic awareness—the most complex of the skills. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds, or phonemes, and that you can combine them together to create words.
Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness
Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness may sound similar, but they mean two different things. Phonemic awareness is the most complex and crucial skill under the phonological awareness umbrella.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, phonological awareness is the understanding that speech can be broken down into parts, or units of sound, and the ability to manipulate those parts. This understanding can start very early for children as they learn to speak. Phonemic awareness is understanding that words can be divided into a sequence of phonemes. It’s the comprehension that they can manipulate sounds to create words.
Why Is It Important to Learn Phonological Awareness Skills?
Language is around 70,000 years old (Harari, 2015)! Over time, we have honed our teaching and learning skills to better support speaking and reading. We have learned that reading and writing don’t come naturally: building a reading brain requires explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction in key literacy elements (Castles et al., 2018; Gough & Hillinger, 1980; HMH, 2022; NICHD, 2000; Seidenberg, 2017; Templeton, 2021).
Practicing the key skills under the phonological awareness umbrella will help students develop a foundation for beginning reading. It’s important to note that among kindergartners, phonemic awareness “is one of the strongest predictors of subsequent reading achievement” (Brady, 2012, p. 19). As teachers, we want to set our students up to be lifelong readers, and learning phonological awareness skills is a helpful first step to meeting that goal. Of course, it’s only that—a first step. Students must develop other science of reading skills, like vocabulary knowledge and fluency, to work towards reading comprehension.
Examples of Phonological Awareness Resources for the Classroom
Use the free resources below to aid your phonological awareness instruction.
- Develop phonological awareness by counting the sounds with the free activity below from Saxon Phonics & Spelling.
- Sort pictures by isolating sounds to help students practice isolating the beginning or ending sounds represented by the object’s name shown in the picture.
- Build a sound wall in the classroom to help students develop phonological awareness. Our resource below from System 44 provides a sample of what you can include when creating a sound wall.
There are numerous ways that teachers and families can support students’ phonological awareness. To learn more about how to specifically support phonemic awareness, read this blog.
Using instructional approaches aligned to the science of reading and understanding what phonological awareness is and how to support student mastery will place students on the pathway to success. This pathway will ultimately lead to developing reading comprehension—a critical skill for successful academic performance and essential in fostering a love of reading!
Brady, S. (2012). Taking the Common Core foundational standards in reading far enough. Perspectives on Languages and Literacy, 38(4), 19–24.
Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 5–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100618772271
Cunningham, A. E., & Zibulsky, J. (2014). Book Smart: How to develop and support successful, motivated readers. Oxford University Press.
Gough, P. B., & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). Learning to read: An unnatural act. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 30, 179–196. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02653717
Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. HarperCollins.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [HMH] (2022). The science of reading at your fingertips: eBook. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Retrieved from /forms/sor-ebook
National Center on Improving Literacy [NCIL] (2022). Phonological awareness: What is it and how does it related to phonemic awareness. Washington, DC: US. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Improving Literacy. Retrieved from http://improvingliteracy.org.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: Author. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books. https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/mark-seidenberg/language-at-the-speed-of-sight/9780465080656/
Templeton, S. (2021, March 8). The science, art, and craft of teaching reading and writing [Webinar]. edWeb. https://home.edweb.net/webinar/literacyhero20210308/
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