Phonological awareness

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Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of individual sounds. Phonological awareness goes through developmental stages like other language-related skills.

Key points

  • Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of individual sounds.
  • While each child develops individually, there are certain phonological awareness milestones children typically reach by a certain age.
  • Specific games and activities can help your child improve their phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of individual sounds. Phonological awareness goes through developmental stages like other language-related skills. From ages three through eight, children become increasing able to recognize the different sounds that make up a word, isolate those sounds, and manipulate them. Well-developed phonological skills are necessary for learning to read and spell. Children diagnosed with a reading or spelling disability most often have significant problems with phonological skills.

Development of phonological awareness

By four years of age, about half of all children can indicate or recognize the syllables of a word. A syllable is a unit of spoken language made up of a continuous sound, for example, run has one syllable and pocket has two syllables. Four-year-olds are also able to determine which words rhyme.

By six years, many children can break words down into individual sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are the most basic units of speech sound that differentiate a word. The /m/ in mat and the /b/ in bat are phonemes. Children at this age are also able to determine whether pairs of words start or end with the same sound.

By seven years, the majority of children can break words up by syllable and phoneme.

In general, children between the ages of three and eight will develop the following specific phonological sub-skills:

  • recognize that sentences are made up of words
  • recognize whether the sounds of words are the same or different. For example, the child understands that bat and man,bat and ball, and cat and bat are different.
  • recognize rhymes such as ball and wall
  • generate rhymes
  • isolate the first sound in a word; recognize that words begin with the same sound, for example, ball starts with “b,” bat also starts with “b”
  • isolate final sounds in words; recognize that words have the same final sound, for example, plant ends in “t”; mat and cat also end in “t”
  • recognize different medial sounds, for example, the middle sound in bat is “a”; the middle sound in fun is “u”
  • identify the syllables of a word by clapping or rhythmic speech: pock-et
  • identify the number of sounds in a word, for example, the word cat has three sounds c-a-t
  • remove sounds from words and tell you what remains, for example, “park” without “p” is “ark”; “winter” without “t” is “winner”

When to worry about phonological awareness

Before school, children with phonological awareness problems may have difficulty associating environmental sounds with appropriate objects and they generally do not play with sounds. For example, a child will not look at a fire engine and make a siren noise, or will not make a siren noise when playing ‘fireman.”

As the child begins school, sign of phonological awareness problems may include:

Kindergarten: (four to six years)

trouble recognizing when words rhyme

End of Kindergarten: (five to six years)

trouble isolating the first sound in a word, matching words by the first sound, clapping out the number of sounds in a word, or learning sound-letter associations

Grade one

trouble isolating sounds in words, blending sounds together to make words, or matching words by the final sound.

Effects of phonological difficulties on learning in the classroom

When a child has difficulties with phonological awareness, they will have problems cracking the sound-to-symbol code for reading. This will slow the learning of early reading skills, in particular, the ability to sound out words in print. This is known as “decoding.”

Difficulties with phonological awareness may also result in spelling problems. Spelling requires that a child have the ability to map the sounds of words to letters and clusters of letters that make sounds.

How to help with phonological problems

There are specific games and exercises that parents can do to help increase phonological awareness in their child.

Toddlers and preschoolers

  • Play games associating different sounds with different objects or animals, for example, “moo,” car sounds, doorbell.
  • Read books that rhyme.
  • Make up rhymes with your child.
  • Give your child’s toys rhyming names such as Brian Lion or Fat Cat.
  • Teach songs that focus on sounds, for example, Old MacDonald had a Farm.

Junior and senior kindergarten

  • Have your child give words that rhyme.
  • Name objects, and have your child tell you the first sound in the name. Emphasize and drag out the sound if child has trouble: “mmmother starts with m.”
  • “I spy something that starts with ‘m’.”
  • Once your child is able to identify words that begin with the same first sound, begin working on the final sound.

Senior kindergarten and Grade One

  • Continue working on isolating beginning and ending sounds in words.
  • Teach sound-letter associations explicitly. Reinforce this by playing variations of “Go Fish” or “Concentration.”
  • Develop the ability to mix sounds by making sounds and asking your child to guess the word. For example, "What sound does c-a-t make?" If your child has trouble initially, take three objects or pictures, give the sounds for one of the objects, and have your child pick the appropriate object. Increase the number of objects as your child’s skill improves.
  • Review rhyming word families (mat, rat, fat, sat, cat, hat, bat, and so on).



The Phonics Handbook

by Sue Lloyd
Publisher: Jolly Learning, Essex, UK (2000)
ISBN: 1870946952

A+ Activities for First Grade: Hundreds of Fun and Creative Activities that Will Help Kids Advance in Math, Language, Science, and More

by Naomi Singer and Matthew Miller
Publisher: Adams Media Corp., Avon, MA (2000)

Predicting and Preventing Early School Failure: Classroom Activities for the Preschool Child

by Marvin L. Simner
53 pages
Publisher: Canadian Psychological Association
ISBN: 1-896538-33-9

Help your child read phonic reading books such as:

  • Primary Phonics
  • Bob Books

Help your child complete simple phonic workbooks. Some examples include:

  • Primary Phonics and Thinking about Mac
  • Tab, Get Ready for the Code
  • Explode the Code
  • Beyond the Code
  • Handprints

Computer programs

Have your child complete “Earobics,” a computer program designed for children four to six years. It contains six activities that become increasingly difficult as the child’s skills improve.

The GRADE-Preschool and Kindergarten CD Rom Libraries contain phonological awareness activities for classroom or individual use. Available from Psycan.

Last updated: October 31st 2009