Why Phonological Awareness Is Important for Reading and Spelling


Phonological awareness is critical for learning to read any alphabetic writing system. And research shows that difficulty with phoneme awareness and other phonological skills is a predictor of poor reading and spelling development.

The phonological processor usually works unconsciously when we listen and speak. It is designed to extract the meaning of what is said, not to notice the speech sounds in the words. It is designed to do its job automatically in the service of efficient communication. But reading and spelling require a level of metalinguistic speech that is not natural or easily acquired.

On the other hand, phonological skill is not strongly related to intelligence. Some very intelligent people have limitations of linguistic awareness, especially at the phonological level. Take heart. If you find phonological tasks challenging, you are competent in many other ways!

This fact is well proven: Phonological awareness is critical for learning to read any alphabetic writing system (Ehri, 2004; Rath, 2001; Troia, 2004). Phonological awareness is even important for reading other kinds of writing systems, such as Chinese and Japanese. There are several well-established lines of argument for the importance of phonological skills to reading and spelling.

Phoneme awareness is necessary for learning and using the alphabetic code

English uses an alphabetic writing system in which the letters, singly and in combination, represent single speech sounds. People who can take apart words into sounds, recognize their identity, and put them together again have the foundation skill for using the alphabetic principle (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989; Troia, 2004). Without phoneme awareness, students may be mystified by the print system and how it represents the spoken word.

Students who lack phoneme awareness may not even know what is meant by the term sound. They can usually hear well and may even name the alphabet letters, but they have little or no idea what letters represent. If asked to give the first sound in the word dog, they are likely to say "Woof-woof!" Students must be able to identify /d/ in the words dog, dish, and mad and separate the phoneme from others before they can understand what the letter d represents in those words.

Phoneme awareness predicts later outcomes in reading and spelling

Phoneme awareness facilitates growth in printed word recognition. Even before a student learns to read, we can predict with a high level of accuracy whether that student will be a good reader or a poor reader by the end of third grade and beyond (Good, Simmons, and Kame'enui, 2001; Torgesen, 1998, 2004). Prediction is possible with simple tests that measure awareness of speech sounds in words, knowledge of letter names, knowledge of sound-symbol correspondence, and vocabulary.

The majority of poor readers have relative difficulty with phoneme awareness and other phonological skills

Research cited in Module 1 has repeatedly shown that poor readers as a group do relatively less well on phoneme awareness tasks than on other cognitive tasks. In addition, at least 80 percent of all poor readers are estimated to demonstrate a weakness in phonological awareness and/or phonological memory. Readers with phonological processing weaknesses also tend to be the poorest spellers (Cassar, Treiman, Moats, Pollo, & Kessler, 2005).

Instruction in phoneme awareness is beneficial for novice readers and spellers

Instruction in speech-sound awareness reduces and alleviates reading and spelling difficulties (Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998; Gillon, 2004; NICHD, 2000; Rath, 2001). Teaching speech sounds explicitly and directly also accelerates learning of the alphabetic code. Therefore, classroom instruction for beginning readers should include phoneme awareness activities.

Phonological awareness interacts with and facilitates the development of vocabulary and word consciousness

This argument is made much less commonly than the first four points. Phonological awareness and memory are involved in these activities of word learning:

  • Attending to unfamiliar words and comparing them with known words
  • Repeating and pronouncing words correctly
  • Remembering (encoding) words accurately so that they can be retrieved and used
  • Differentiating words that sound similar so their meanings can be contrasted

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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Now I know the importance of the Diagnostic Assessment for first graders. I must take time to complete all with my students so I will know how to bridge the gap. Thanks for all the information provided. I have learned a lot.

This is exactly what my daughter's struggle is. Any app or book, or program to recommend?

This article stressed the importance of focusing on phonemic awareness from the start of a child's education in the early childhood grades and the prediction of how he or she grows will predict their individual reading success.

I learned to read without phonics. I was a very poor speller until I started teaching phonics. Now I understand how letters and sounds go together. I wish I had this when I learned to read.

I learned to read without phonics. I was a very poor speller until I started teaching phonics. Now I understand how letters and sounds go together. I wish I had this when I learned to read.

This is a great introduction to reflect that Phonemic Awareness is the foundation of readers in any alphabetic system. It is also important to know that when we developed solid phonological skills, students can easily be good readers and have the facility to spell words.

The prediction of whether a student will be a good reader or not by the third grade is amazing. I have dyslexia, I couldn't spell, write or read. I was frustrated with phonics, phonemes' and as a result struggled life long. Now I am a mum and don't want my LO's to struggle the way I did.
Thankyou for this very informative article. It will help me teach my children to read spell and write effectively and not to go through the same struggles as I did.

I think this article reinforces the need for assessing phoneme segmentation in early grades.

It is hard for me to believe that we can closely predict whether a student will be a good reader even before they are able to read. I will try to focus more on repeating and pronouncing words with students.

I think this article is talking specifically about me. I can't spell a lick. Hopefully, I can become a better speller by teaching these concepts to my classes.

" Students who lack phonema awaewnwss may not even know what it is meant by the term soud" This is an excellent point!

This is a great introduction to an important part of learning to read that is often overlooked.

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