Phonological processing: Sound awareness, memory, and retrieval

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Learn what sounds your child can recognize, remember and retrieve in early childhood.

Key points

  • Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize individual sounds in words.
  • Phonological memory is the ability to remember individual sounds in words.
  • Retrieval is how quickly your child can name objects and symbols.
  • Different sounds can include syllables, words that rhyme and individual sounds or phonemes.

Phonological awareness

When beginning Kindergarten, many children recognize rhymes and syllables in words. A syllable is a unit of spoken language made up of a continuous sound. For example, run has one syllable (run) and pocket has two syllables (pock·et).

By Grade 1, many children recognize beginning and ending sounds in words. They can also break down words into individual sounds (e.g., phonemes). Phonemes are the most basic speech sounds. The “m” in mat and the “b” in bat are phonemes.

By Grades 2 or 3, many children can break words into syllables and phonemes.

In general, during early childhood, the following phonological skills are developed. The ability to:

  • recognize rhymes such as ball and wall
  • generate rhymes
  • recognize whether the sounds of words are the same or different. For example, understanding that bat and man, bat and ball, and cat and bat are different words with varying degrees of similarity
  • recognize that words begin or end with the same sound, for example, ball starts with “b,” bat also starts with “b”; plant ends in “t”; mat and cat also end in “t”
  • identify middle sounds in words (e.g., bat is “ah”; fun is “uh”)
  • break words into syllable sounds (e.g., by clapping or saying them out loud – “pock·et”, “ba·na·na”)
  • identify individual word sounds (e.g., cat → c-a-t)
  • recognize that sentences are made up of words

You can practice these skills with your child to help support their phonological awareness.

Phonological memory

Phonological memory is the ability to remember individual speech sounds in words.

In general, by early elementary school, children can:

  • repeat words in isolation and in lists
  • name letters and produce sounds independently

These are useful skills in the practice of reading, where recognizing words and their pronunciation is necessary.


Words are retrieved based on their sounds. Retrieval is the ability to accurately and rapidly name pictured objects, letters and numbers.

What if I have questions about my child’s phonological processing?

Phonological awareness, phonological memory, and retrieval are the building blocks of literacy. If you are concerned about your child’s development of speech sounds, speak with their doctor to learn whether a referral to a speech-language pathologist is needed.

Last updated: August 6th 2021