Why Is Phonological Awareness Important for Reading Development?

WF2002500 Shaped 2024 Blog Post Why is Phonological Awareness Important for Reading Hero

The word phonology comes from Greek and means the “science or study of sound” in language. Most young children implicitly attend to the sounds of language as they develop oral language, but the first steps in learning to read and write require them to attend to spoken language in significantly new ways. 

Phonological awareness is the ability to pay attention to and think about spoken language at different levels: sentence, word, syllable, and individual sounds. The awareness of individual sounds within syllables is the most advanced component of phonological awareness and is termed phonemic awareness. Researchers often use the term metalinguistic awareness to describe these abilities—developing the ability to “step back” from using language to thinking about language. 

Phonological awareness and reading development

Very early in their journey into reading and writing, most young children must develop an explicit awareness of several features of oral language. This awareness is part of the foundational knowledge necessary for learning the relationships between oral language and print, culminating in the alphabetic principle: letters map to sounds and are matched in a left-to-right sequence within printed words.

As students develop further in their reading and writing competencies, phonological awareness will influence fluency in oral reading, specifically prosody. Prosody refers to the rhythmic flow of speech; for example, the loudness, duration, pitch, and intonation of readers’ voices to signal different nuances of speech and meaning, such as questioning and surprise.

Why is it important to learn phonological awareness skills? 

Phonological awareness skills are important foundational knowledge for the effective development of letter-sound relationships. In order to learn about and apply knowledge of the structure of printed words, children need to learn about the structure of spoken language to which print corresponds. In most children, phonological awareness skills develop in a sequence that moves from larger to smaller chunks of sound, from more global processing of words to internal details. This sequence supports fine-tuned attention to how oral language is represented by print – through words and through within-word structure. 

There is a strong relationship between phonological awareness and vocabulary development—specifically, expressive vocabulary: the words that children know and can use. The larger a child’s expressive vocabulary, the better able they will be to learn more advanced phonological awareness skills involving full phonemic awareness: blending, segmenting, deleting, substituting, and adding individual phonemes. And the more phonemically aware children are, the more equipped they will be to attend to and remember the pronunciations and meanings of new words. 

Research has shown that it is not necessary for children to learn all of the phonological awareness skills before learning about features of print. In fact, some degree of print awareness can support the development of phonological awareness, as shown in the last two rows of the table below.

Phonological Awareness Skills Involve Successively More Fine-Tuned Awareness and Analysis of Features of Spoken Words:

Phonological Awareness Skills


Recognize and produce rhyme

Sort pictures of things whose names rhyme with particular words

“What is a word that rhymes with train?”

Count, pronounce, and blend syllables in a word


Clap and count the syllables in children’s names 

Katy = Ka – ty

Blend syllables and identify resulting word ta + ble = table 

Alliteration - identifying the same beginning sound in several wordsSort pictures of things that begin like bat, moon, sock
Blend and segment onset (the beginning sound in a syllable) and rime (the vowel and what follows)

/b/ + / ăt/ = /bat/

/băt/ = /b/ + / ăt/

Blend and segment individual sounds, or phonemes*

/m/ + /ŭ/ + /d/ = /mŭd/

/mŭd/ = /m/ + /ŭ/ + /d/

Delete, substitute, and add sounds within single-syllable spoken words*

/măn/ - /m/ = /ăn/

/p/ + /ăn/ = /păn/

/s/ + /păn/ = /spăn/

*Print plays a critical role in the development of these higher-order phonological skills

Young children’s writing is very important in developing phonemic awareness: When young children attempt to write a word letter-by-letter, their ability to perceive and attend to individual sounds within a syllable or word is enhanced because the process of phonemic segmentation is slowed down. For example, when writing sip the letter and its sound, /s/, remain in front of the child, allowing them to pay attention to other sounds, /ĭ/ and /p/, in the spoken word. 

Early Literacy and phonological awareness instruction 

Though some children implicitly develop and apply phonological awareness in the early stages of learning to read and write, most children benefit from explicit instructional support that helps them focus on specific aspects of sound. As described above, attention to these aspects helps them develop understanding of how sound corresponds to print. As noted above, aspects of print can help develop phonological awareness: Learning the name and appearance of letters provides a concrete referent for learning the sounds they can represent. 

Assessing phonological awareness and its impact

Given the role of phonological awareness in emergent and beginning reading and writing, assessment is important in determining where along the continuum of development instruction may begin. Effective assessment identifies what the children know and where they need to go. Almost all available early literacy screening assessments include phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, and letter sound knowledge (e.g., Amira). Some, in addition, include concept of word in text (e.g., PALS) and spelling. Spelling has been found to be a particularly effective assessment of phonemic awareness: Children who can write the alphabet letters and have a beginning knowledge of some letter-sound relationships will reveal their level of phonemic awareness.

Phonological awareness and orthographic mapping

Just as phonological awareness is important for beginning readers and writers to understand the ways in which sounds relate to letters, phonological awareness is also a bedrock understanding for the development of orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is a process that all readers—as they learn more about the pronunciations, spellings, and meanings of words—continue to develop throughout the school years and beyond. 

Researchers use the term orthographic mapping to represent how connections are formed between letters in printed words and sounds in spoken words in order to bond together in memory the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words. Orthographic mapping thus supports the development of sight vocabulary in reading. Sight vocabulary specifically refers to words (including the word’s letters, pronunciation, and meaning) that are recognized immediately when the reader encounters them in print. The more that young readers and writers learn about word structure, the more information they have to support the growing expansion of their sight vocabulary.

With beginning readers, of course, the development of a sight vocabulary proceeds slowly because children have yet to develop the range of information about letter-sound relationships and spellings that support rapid word identification (by the end of the beginning reading phase, children average a sight vocabulary of approximately 150 words). The process of orthographic mapping, however, is already underway for emergent and beginning readers and writers, with phonological awareness of beginning sounds mapping to letters that represent beginning sounds. 

This beginning development of orthographic mapping is supported by

  • Representing letter-sound relationships with letter-embedded pictures

  • Sorting pictures of objects according to their beginning sounds and learning the letters representing those sounds 

  • Developing a concept of word in print 
  • Learning about articulatory features of phonemes
  • Just as spelling supports memory for a word as children focus on individual phonemes, attention to articulatory positions supports memory better than sound only.

Children’s development of phonological awareness is crucial to their understanding about the relationships between oral and written language. The discussion here has been primarily focused on general reading developmental trends in young children, but we hope it has been helpful as you plan and deliver reading instruction for the specific students in your classroom. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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