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Developing Phonological Awareness for Literacy

What is phonological awareness?

Written by Jan Polkinghorne, Jolly Phonics Trainer

A person with strong phonological awareness should be able to recognise and use rhyme, break words into syllables, blend phonemes (sounds) into syllables and words, identify beginning and ending sounds in a syllable and see small words in larger words (e.g. cat in catalogue). In the strictest sense, phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and only deals with one aspect of sound: the phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. For example, if we change the first phoneme in sit from /s/ to /h/, we change the word from sit to hit.

Those who are unable to identify separate sounds in words can’t relate the sounds to the letters of the alphabet. This means they have no ability to read and write words they have not seen before and are left to rely on rote learning for both reading and spelling.

Phonics refers to the relationship between individual sounds (phonemes) and the letters which represent them (graphemes). Most phonemes are represented by a single letter, but others are represented by two or more letters (e.g.,sh, ch, ck, igh, ough etc.)

Why do some people struggle with phonological awareness?

Phonological ability is a blend of genetic ability (some are born more able to discern these sounds than others) and learned skills. The earlier children develop these skills the better, as phonological awareness is a predictor of later ability to read and write effectively. Early exposure to rhyme and activities that encourage identifying initial, final and middle sounds in words helps develop these skills and should be part of a child’s speech development from a very early age.

Phonological activities should be part of every preschool course. Regular short, fun activities built into the routine of the day are most effective. Ideally we should not teach letters until a person can hear individual sounds in a word. As they progress to phonics and matching letters with sounds, phonological skills should be an integral part of every lesson and continue throughout primary school. Phonemic awareness development should definitely not cease at the end of junior primary.

Why do adults find phonemic awareness tasks difficult?

Adults who have learnt to spell by rote often do not find these tasks easy. Their ability to spell gets in the way. They need to temporarily regress and focus on the sounds in the word, not the letters. To be able to help a child learn these skills we first need to master them ourselves. We also need to remember that young children learn much faster if we refer to the letters by their sound name rather than the alphabet name. (/a/ as in apple rather than /ai/ as in rain.) We and the children we work with, need to say the sounds accurately and clearly. (You Tube – The Sounds of English.)

Before trying to help others, test your own phonemic awareness. (Answers Below)

  1. How many syllables are in each of the following words?
    animal, elephant, vision, caution, cat
  2. How many sounds (not letters) in each the following words?
    flag, bump, phone, tower
  3. What is the 2nd sound (not 2nd letter) in the following words?
    hide, whale, shell, that
  4. What is the last sound (not letter) in the following words?
    though, giraffe
  5. Join the rhyming pairs of words.
    scruff, sky, come, enough, high, thumb

Activity Sheet - Develop phonemic & phonological awareness at home, preschool or school

Links to Phonemic and Phonological Activities for Preschool and Reception

Apps for iPad

Sounds Lite:- Free + paid version
Partners in Rhyme – Preschool University – free
Rhyming Words - paid version
Syllables Splash free or paid version
Phonics Awareness, 1st Grade free
Reading Magic- by Preschool University


The APAR was designed to assess the Phonological Awareness (PA) and reading skills of adult participants in the project Web Access for Literacy Development in Individuals with Disability, funded through AccessAbility, Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts.


Phonological Awareness Skills Test

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