The Development of Phonological Skills

Basic listening skills and "word awareness" are critical precursors to phonological awareness. Learn the milestones for acquiring phonological skills.

Phonological skill develops in a predictable progression. This concept is important, as it provides the basis for sequencing teaching tasks from easy to more difficult. Table 1 outlines the relative difficulty of phonological awareness tasks. Table 2 is a more specific synthesis of several research reviews and summaries (Adams et al., 1998; Gillon, 2004; Goswami, 2000; Paulson, 2004; Rath, 2001) that ties specific ages to the typical accomplishment of those phonological awareness tasks.

Prerequisite to phonological awareness is basic listening skill; the acquisition of a several-thousand word vocabulary; the ability to imitate and produce basic sentence structures; and the use of language to express needs, react to others, comment on experience, and understand what others intend.

Table 1. Phonological skills, from most basic to advanced

Phonological Skill
Word awareness

Tracking the words in sentences.

Note: This semantic language skill is much less directly predictive of reading than the skills that follow and less important to teach directly (Gillon, 2004). It is not so much a phonological skill as a semantic (meaning-based) language skill.

Responsiveness to rhyme and alliteration during word play

Enjoying and reciting learned rhyming words or alliterative phrases in familiar storybooks or nursery rhymes.

Syllable awareness

Counting, tapping, blending, or segmenting a word into syllables.

Onset and rime manipulation

The ability to produce a rhyming word depends on understanding that rhyming words have the same rime. Recognizing a rhyme is much easier than producing a rhyme.

Phoneme awareness

Identify and match the initial sounds in words, then the final and middle sounds (e.g., "Which picture begins with /m/?"; "Find another picture that ends in /r/").

Segment and produce the initial sound, then the final and middle sounds (e.g., "What sound does zoo start with?"; "Say the last sound in milk"; "Say the vowel sound in rope").

Blend sounds into words (e.g., "Listen: /f/ /ē/ /t/. Say it fast").

Segment the phonemes in two- or three-sound words, moving to four- and five- sound words as the student becomes proficient (e.g., "The word is eyes. Stretch and say the sounds: /ī/ /z/").

Manipulate phonemes by removing, adding, or substituting sounds (e.g., "Say smoke without the /m/").

Table 2. Ages at which 80-90 percent of typical students have achieved a phonological skill

Skill Domain
Sample Tasks
4 Rote imitation and enjoyment of rhyme and alliteration pool, drool, tool
"Seven silly snakes sang songs seriously."
5 Rhyme recognition, odd word out "Which two words rhyme:
stair, steel, chair?"
Recognition of phonemic changes in words "Hickory Dickory Clock. That's not right!"
Clapping, counting syllables truck (1 syllable)
airplane (2 syllables)
boat (1 syllable)
automobile (4 syllables)
Distinguishing and remembering separate phonemes in a series Show sequences of single phonemes with colored blocks: /s/ /s/ /f/; /z/ /sh/ /z/.
Blending onset and rime "What word?"
Producing a rhyme "Tell me a word that rhymes with car." (star)
Matching initial sounds; isolating an initial sound "Say the first sound in ride (/r/); sock (/s/); love (/l/)."
6 Compound word deletion "Say cowboy. Say it again, but don't say cow."
Syllable deletion "Say parsnip. Say it again, but don't say par."
Blending of two and three phonemes /z/ /ū/ (zoo)
/sh/ /ǒ/ /p/ (shop)
/h/ /ou/ /s/ (house)
Phoneme segmentation of words that have simple syllables with two or three phonemes (no blends) "Say the word as you move a chip for each sound."
Phoneme segmentation of words that have up to three or four phonemes (include blends) "Say the word slowly while you tap the sounds."
Phoneme substitution to build new words that have simple syllables (no blends) "Change the /j/ in cage to /n/.
Change the /ā/ in cane to /ō/."
7 Sound deletion (initial and final positions) "Say meat. Say it again, without the /m/."
"Say safe. Say it again, without the /f/."
8 Sound deletion (initial position, include blends) "Say prank. Say it again, without the /p/."
9 Sound deletion (medial and final blend positions) "Say snail. Say it again, without the /n/."
"Say fork. Say it again, without the /k/."

Paulson (2004) confirmed the hierarchy of phonological skill acquisition in 5-year-olds entering kindergarten. Only 7 percent of 5-year-olds who had not yet had kindergarten could segment phonemes in spoken words. The production of rhymes was more difficult for 5-year-olds than commonly assumed, as only 61 percent could give a rhyming word for a stimulus. Only 29 percent could blend single phonemes into whole words. Although some young students will pick up these skills with relative ease during the kindergarten year — especially if the curriculum includes explicit activities — other students must be taught these metalinguistic skills directly and systematically.

Moats, L, & Tolman, C (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): The Speech Sounds of English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Phoneme Awareness (Module 2). Boston: Sopris West.

For more information on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) visit Voyager Sopris.


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Thank you so much for this article. I teach first grade and I have observed that phoneme deletion and substitution are always challenging to some students. It could be they missed some basic skills like listening in the previous years.

Both of my kids could read before they went to school. How we did it?

First, I read. A lot. I read my own books, I read to my children and we go to the library and take as many books as we can carry each time. We listen to books on tape in the car as well. Read things to them that are above their reading level.

Next, we had lots of educational toys that encourage reading, had letter tiles and magnetic letters and I also posted cards with words on them all over the house, labeling everything (Stove, Frame, Bookcase, Chair, etc.).

Also, I used a book I found at "". We only got to about lesson 65 or 70 and both of my boys were reading by then. We didn’t even do a whole lesson every day…as it got harder and my son was struggling, I only did a half or a third of a lesson a day.

One of my sons is now 12 and is only now picking up novels, until now he was happy to be read to and read comic books like the Far Side, Garfield, Baby Blues, . It took a long time. My other son is 14 and I still read to both of them at night. About an hour each time, sometimes more, if the cliffhanger is too exciting to put off until tomorrow.

Also, once they do learn to read, even a little, let them read ANYTHING. If they like comic books, get them comic books. Don’t worry that they aren’t reading important literature, the important thing is to get them reading…whatever it is, even magazines, on the ipad, etc. Eventually, they will pick up other types of books.

Remember: reading is the road to success!

Good luck!


This is a great resource that will help me develop my students language, comprehension and communication skills.


So helpful in my study for Praxis 2 Teaching Reading I could not find this information in any of my study guides.

I'm a teacher and refer to this site regularly for ideas to implement with my kiddos!

I teach first grade. It is amazing how young students develop as they learn to blend phonemes and to count sounds and syllables.

Thank you for this website. I thought my son 6 yr old was dyslexic. Now I have hope that he just needs to be tutored.

Please know that I am grateful for this newsletter. There's information contained therein that will help me to study for the Praxis Exam and your entire site is a compliment to my Literacy Across the Grades Course

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