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What is Phonological Awareness?

Promote early childhood literacy by learning the basics of phonological awareness.

What is Phonological Awareness?

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the foundation for learning to read and write. It is a strong indicator of children’s future literacy skills. Studies show that children who recognize letter sounds in spoken words more easily develop literacy skills.

While children can acquire phonological awareness skills naturally, teachers and parents can streamline the process by engaging them in fun phonological awareness activities. Rhyme, songs, alliteration, animal names, and sentence games are all easy phonological awareness activities to consider.

The first step to improving your teaching quality is to seek resources on phonological awareness. This guide elaborates on everything you should know about phonological awareness and how to teach it.

Children standing in a line with mouths wide opening learning  different soundsSource

What is the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness?

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are closely related but have their differences. The primary difference between phonological and phonemic awareness is the focus on sound units. Phonemic awareness focuses on the individual sound units, while phonological awareness focuses on how to combine and separate those sound units to form words. 

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate a unit of sound in spoken language. It’s an umbrella term for sound recognition that includes manipulating different sound units like syllables, onset, rhyme, and phonemes.

  • A syllable is a unit of sound in English. Vowels pair with consonants to create a unit of sound that makes meaning in language. For example, ‘water’ and ‘consistent’ have two and three syllables, respectively.
  • The onset is the first phonological unit of any word (e.g. the “b” in boy).
  • A phoneme is the smallest and most distinctive unit of sound you hear in a word. For example, the word “dog” has three phonemes: the “d” sound, a short “aw” sound and a “g” sound.

Phonological awareness skills include recognizing words in a sentence, responsiveness to rhyme, as well as adding, subtracting, and substituting syllables and phonemes in words. Below is a breakdown of how to use phonological awareness skills to manipulate words. We’ll use the word cat for this example: 

  • Segmenting sounds: separate sounds in cat: /c/ /a/ /t/
  • Blending sounds: put constituent sounds together: /c/ /a/ /t/ to make cat
  • Adding sounds: add /s/ to the end of cat to form cats
  • Deleting sounds: delete the /c/ in cat to make at.
  • Substituting sounds: substitute the sound /c/ with /f/ to read the word as fat.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate a phoneme, the smallest sound unit. The English language has 44 sounds or phonemes. The 26 letters of the alphabet make up phonemes individually and in combination.

Let’s review the different sounds in the words dog and shack

  • dog >> /d/, /aw/, and /g/
  • shack >> /sh/, /a/, and /ck/

These sounds qualify as phonemes since you can’t break them down further. For example, though the sound /sh/ has two letters, you can’t break it down to more than one sound. 

Why is phonological awareness important?

Phonological awareness is important because it builds the foundation for early childhood learning. Below we elaborate on why phonological awareness is so crucial for young children.

Supports learning and using the alphabetic code

The alphabetic code refers to a set of correspondences between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes, which are the letters symbolizing sounds. It is the foundation for learning to read and write in English. Phonological awareness skills help identify and manipulate different sounds in the alphabetic code, especially through phoneme awareness.

Predicts literacy skills success

Phonological awareness facilitates print awareness and word recognition. Children with robust phonological awareness skills can more easily identify different sounds when reading. 

Children with stronger phonological awareness skills have a higher success rate in developing reading and writing skills later. You can predict literacy skills development success by testing a child’s knowledge of different sounds, letters, and vocabulary.

Promotes the development of vocabulary and language

Vocabulary refers to the words children understand or use expressively in communication. Phonological awareness lays the foundation for identifying words in spoken language and manipulating them to form new words. For example, deleting the sound /c/ in cat and substituting it with the sound /f/ to form a new word fat.

How to teach phonological awareness

Phonological awareness skills development is unique for every child. While some children can naturally pick out sounds in spoken words, others may need a little push to train their ears to identify the sounds. Below are tips for teaching children phonological awareness. 

Devote time to regular and strategic teaching 

A lack of phonological awareness is a primary contributor to poor reading and spelling development. Systematic and explicit instructions in phonological awareness directly improve children’s literacy skills. Educators should incorporate teaching phonological awareness and skills into their curriculum.

Start with the less complex activities focused on rhyming and alliteration before moving on to more complex ones like sentence segmentation or blending and segmenting syllables. Focus on one or two types of sound manipulation instead of teaching everything at once. That way, children are able to gradually build on their skills. 

Children seated in a classroom engaging in phonemic awareness activitiesSource

Make it fun and playful

Children learn best through play, as it allows them to communicate ideas and understand others through social interaction. You should consider plenty of engaging and fun activities when teaching phonological awareness. The most common ones are songs and games. We'll cover more about them in the next section.

Assess children regularly 

Regular assessment moves the needle in many ways. You can use assessment to screen children’s progress and determine those who need extra support. This is an excellent strategy to monitor children’s progress and tailor your teaching style. You can always modify or change strategies if they are not working as intended.

Incorporate phonological awareness activities

Below are some fun and engaging activities to consider when teaching preschoolers phonological awareness.

Rhyme memory match

The rhyme memory match activity is a fun rhyme activity that helps children match rhyme pairs of picture cards. Arrange the rhyme picture cards face down in rows and then ask the children one at a time to pick two cards. The goal is to determine if the two picture cards match, e.g., crown and clown. Next, ask the children to place matching cards on the sides but return non-matching cards to their original position. 

Rhyme boards

The rhyme boards activity aims for children to match rhyming picture cards to picture boards. You'll need rhyme boards and rhyme picture cards for this activity. Give each child a unique rhyme board, and then stack rhyme picture cards face down. The first child should pick the top card on the stack, identify what's in the picture (e.g., dog) and then match it with a picture on the board with a similar rhyme (e.g., log). The child should also say the rhyming word as they put the picture on top of the matching rhyme on the picture board.

Tongue twisters 

Tongue twisters are phrases with a particular sound repeated over and over, such as “Sally sells seashells by the sea shore”. This can be a great way to practice a particular speech sound.

Around the room

Practice beginning sounds by saying a letter sound and asking children to find objects around the classroom that start with the same sound. For example, you can ask: “Can you find something in the classroom that starts with the letter /b/ sound?”

Mystery bag

Put items with the same beginning sound in a bag and give children some clues to see if they can identify these items. For example, if you are working on the /p/ sound, you might include a pencil, a peanut, and a potato. Take out each item they guess correctly. 

Animal names

You’ll need animal picture cards for this activity. Give the children the picture cards and ask them to name the animal on the card. Next, ask them to identify the sound they hear at the beginning of the animal’s name.

Robot talk

Robot talk is excellent for teaching phoneme blending. Slowly spell out the constituent sounds (phonemes) of any common word (e.g., boy /b/…/o/…/y/). Then instruct the children to say back the complete word. 

Sentence game

Line up the children and then say a sentence like, "The cat is running", while tapping on the first four children’s heads. Ask the children how many words the sentence has. You can repeat the sentence as you go down the line or use another easy one. Word recognition is the first step in phonological awareness and sound manipulation. The sentence game is excellent for promoting phonological awareness as it helps children identify words in spoken language.

"I spy" first sounds

This activity is excellent for teaching children how to form words from beginning sounds. Choose words that have distinctive beginning sounds. For example, if you're in class, you can say, "I spy something yellow, starting with the “b” sound” (book)

Phonological awareness in a dual language classroom

Most dual language programs in the U.S. teach in English and Spanish; however, programs in other partner languages like French, Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic are increasing. Dual language learners, or children under five who are learning more than one language, must constantly navigate between two languages while learning the rules and nuances of both. This process can be challenging without phonological and phonemic awareness. 

In a dual language classroom, it is especially important to help children develop these skills as they learn both languages simultaneously. By understanding how sound works in each language, children can become better readers and writers of both languages. With the right instruction, teachers can help bilingual learners gain confidence in their ability to communicate and understand the complexities of speaking multiple languages.

For example, when teaching early literacy skills in Spanish, most teachers focus on phonological awareness because of its emphasis on syllables. Spanish instruction focuses on syllables, as children learn to connect the syllables to make words. However, phonemic awareness is also important because it helps children apply their phonemic learning in Spanish to reading lessons in English.

Phonological and phonemic awareness help children learning more than one language to develop metalinguistic awareness—they understand how both languages are similar and different. For example, similar words with the initial /s/ sound include siete in Spanish and six in English. Phonemic awareness in both languages also transfers into phonics instruction, helping the children learn how to read.


Phonological awareness is important for early childhood learning since it supports learning and using the alphabetic code, predicts success for literacy skills, and promotes language and vocabulary development.

Families and teachers can teach phonological awareness through all sorts of fun and engaging activities. That, combined with the right strategies, like dedicating daily time to teaching phonological awareness skills, focusing on one or two specific skills at a time, and assessing children regularly can make all the difference in a child’s literacy development.

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