Phonological awareness is the explicit knowledge of the sounds and sound structure of spoken words. It is part of our metalinguistic ability which allows us not only to understand and use language for communication, but also to think about the form and structure of language we use or hear.
Very young children (aged 1-2 years) may be able to understand short sentences and use words or simple sentences, but they are not yet able to take a step back and “look at” the language they use: they don’t yet know that when we speak, we use words that we string together into sentences in an organized way following grammatical rules and they don’t yet realize that words are made up of a small set of speech sounds or phonemes.
The first sign of that recognition is usually the appreciation of rhymes in nursery rhymes, songs and poems. Recognizing two words as having similar ending (rhymes) and being able to generate rhyming words is usually the first step in becoming aware of the sound structure of words. Breaking words up into parts/beats (syllables) is a typical next step.
The understanding that words and syllables consist of speech sounds that can be produced separately or in isolation is often the next step in awareness. Being able to produce two sounds in a continuous flow or to blend sounds together usually follows. The opposite skill, segmenting a word into its component sounds comes next. Once these are mastered, dropping or deleting a sound from the end/beginning/middle of a word and substituting it with another sound (sound manipulation) is the level of phonological awareness that a helps a child when they start literacy education.
Phonological awareness is the ability to isolate and manipulate sounds in words: in other words playing with sounds in words. It includes the ability to:
- recognize when words rhyme
- break a word into syllables
- recognize when words start with the same sound
- recognize when words end with the same sound
- break a word up into its individual sounds
- blend individual sounds together to create a word
Why is it important?
Phonological awareness skills have been shown to predict reading ability. When you test a child’s phonological awareness skills just before they enter school, you can predict the children who will find learning to read easier: they will be better at phonological awareness tasks.
This correlation with reading has been found in typically developing children at all ages from preschool to young adults; it has also been found in special populations, such as children and adolescents with Down syndrome, adults with head injury and even for Braille users (tactile alphabet for the blind).
How does phonological awareness relate to reading?
Being able to isolate sounds in words and relate these sounds to letters is a part of learning to read. It is especially important in learning to read new words. If a child is able to sound out the letters and then blend together these sounds to form the word, then they can recognize the word and read it much easier.
While there are some words which are irregular, that is they don’t spell exactly as they sound (eg. yacht, sword, two), sounding out the word is much more efficient than trying to guess what the word is from the rest of the sentence. Guessing unknown words from the rest of the sentence is useful about 10% of the time, and mostly for words that are short, easy to read and contribute little to the meaning of the story, for example: “and” “is” “the” etc.
Children need to have another strategy to help them tackle unfamiliar words and learn to read them in text. Phonological awareness skills with letter-sound correspondence and blending together sounds give early readers the ability to attempt new words and learn them all by themselves.
Share and Stanovich (1995) proposed that the ability to phonologically decode words acts as a self teaching mechanism, enabling children to progress through the stages of literacy development. Each successful attempt at text decoding provides an opportunity to strengthen letter-sound relationships, which are the “foundation for skilled word recognition and spelling”.
Who are at risk for phonological awareness delays?
Children who have:
- Hearing loss – they might miss out on hearing some of the sounds in words. Fluctuating hearing loss, such as glue ear, fluid in the middle ear, otitis media, can be worse than permanent hearing impairment. It can go unnoticed, and the acoustic information is unreliable, resulting in poor representation of sounds in the brain.
- Speech difficulties – leaving out or changing sounds in their speech makes it difficult for children to build accurate phonological representations of words due to the inconsistency of acoustic information.
- Language difficulties – lack of experience with playing with words and sounds and a general low level of metalinguistic knowledge (the ability to think about language, words and sounds).
- Short term memory challenges – some children have difficulty storing information in short term memory and they might forget the first sounds by the time you get to the end of the word.
What can we do about it?
Rhyme skills are very useful in helping children with their spelling. If the words sound the same then chances are, they might be spelt the same at the end. Play games for rhyme both with and without the words written down. Bear in mind that if they can see the word is spelt the same way at the end then it will help them to learn about how they sound the same as well. Ultimately, seeing the words written down will be the most useful in terms of learning to read and spell, because this links what they hear with the letters on the page. Here are some activities to try:
- rhyming bingo
- memory and snap
- compare the words cards
- odd one out – match together the ones which rhyme and “throw out” the odd one
This goes well with rhyming, because it’s the bit of the word you left when you rhyme, so the word is already split up into the initial sound and the rhyme, e.g.: f-ish, b-ed. The aim of this is to help the child isolate a single sound in the word and relate it to the right letter or letters. The easiest sound to isolate is often the first one, and sometimes the skill of recognizing or finding initial sounds that are the same is called “alliteration”. You can try the following activities:
- letter stacks
- tell me the first sound – using pictures or objects
- matching letters to words, or letters to objects
- which ones start with the same sound – using words, pictures, or objects
Ideas to consider
- Some single sounds are represented with two letters, such as: ch, sh, th, ng
- Ask questions like, “What sounds can you hear in that word?” “I can hear two sounds at the end of sent, what do you think they are?”
- When doing spelling words give them sound clues instead of letter-name clues. You can break the word up into the individual sounds e.g.: “s-p-l-a-sh”
- Try to relate what they are hearing to what they see on the page, encourage them to try to sound out words when they’re reading.
Share, D. & Stanovich, K. (1995). Cognitive processes in early reading development: Accommodating individual differences into a model of acquisition. Issues in Education, 1, 1 – 57.