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kindergarten teacher helping students make the sounds in words

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: In Depth

Learn more about the development of phonological awareness skills in young children, why it’s so important to teach this skill, and the value of multisensory instruction. You’ll also find sample lessons for teaching phonological awareness.

The development of phonological awareness skills

Phonological awareness refers to a global awareness of, and ability to manipulate, the sound structures of speech.

The diagram below shows the development of phonological awareness in typical children, from the simplest, most rudimentary phonological awareness tasks, to full phonemic awareness.

Phonological awareness skills from simplest to most complex
Word*Counting words in a sentenceSimplest
SyllableCounting syllables  
Segmenting syllables  
Identifying first, last, middle syllables  
Blending syllables  
Manipulating syllables (adding, deleting, substituting)
Onset-rime**Blending onset and rime  
Onset and rime completion  
Do words rhyme?  
Generating rhyming words
Phonemic awarenessSaying sounds in isolation  
Identifying sounds in words (e.g., first, last)  
Blending sounds to form a syllable  
Segmenting sounds in a syllable  
Manipulating sounds (adding, deleting, substituting)
Most complex

*Concept of word (counting words in a sentence) is not a phonological awareness skill but it is included in the continuum for a reason. Children with low-language skills and English language learners may struggle with language at this level, and it can affect their phonological awareness skills.

**The onset is the initial consonant or consonant cluster of a one-syllable word, and the rime is the vowel and any consonants that follow it.

Benefits of teaching phonological awareness

Our brains are wired to process the sounds of speech in oral language There is an area of the brain devoted to this task, which occurs unconsciously when we are listening. However, our brains aren’t pre-wired to translate the speech sounds we hear into letters. When children learn to read they must become consciously aware of phonemes, because learning to decode in English requires matching the sounds in spoken words to individual printed letters.

Children with dyslexia often struggle with phonological awareness. They have trouble processing the sounds in spoken language and need additional explicit instruction to strengthen their phonological awareness skills. Learn more about reading, the brain, and dyslexia in this article by Professor Guinevere Eden: How Reading Changes the Brain (opens in a new window).

English language learners may also have difficulties with phonological and phonemic awareness. Learn more in this article: What Does Research Tell Us About Teaching Reading to English Language Learners (opens in a new window)?

Phonological awareness skills are best taught in kindergarten and early Grade 1 so they can be applied to sounding out words as phonics instruction begins. Research summarized in the National Reading Panel report suggested that even very modest amounts of instruction — as little as 5 to 18 hours in total — in phonological awareness at this stage can yield significant benefits to children’s reading and spelling achievement (Ehri, 2004).

Dr. David Kilpatrick identifies phonological awareness as the single most important factor in differentiating struggling from successful readers and in differentiating between effective and ineffective interventions. In Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (opens in a new window) Kilpatrick (2015) tells us that research suggests that “phonological manipulation tasks are the best measures of the phonological awareness, skills needed for reading because they are the best predictors of word-level reading proficiency” because phoneme manipulation (adding, deleting, and substituting) is actually the layer of phonemic awareness that is the most closely related to reading connected text. Learn more in this article by Kilpatrick: Phonological Awareness & Intervention (opens in a new window).

Some children, particularly those who have serious decoding difficulties, may continue to need instruction to help strengthen phonemic awareness beyond an early Grade 1 level.


The activities for teaching phonological awareness in intervention are the same as teaching it to pre-readers, although children who need intervention may require much greater intensity of instruction (e.g., smaller group size, more opportunities for practice) to develop phonological awareness. For children who are old enough for formal reading instruction (i.e., kindergarten and up), phonological awareness instruction should generally be integrated with phonics instruction.

For example, as children learn to segment spoken words into phonemes, they also learn to match the appropriate letters to those phonemes. The most important phonological awareness skills for children to learn at these grade levels are phoneme blending and phoneme segmentation, although for some children, instruction may need to start at more rudimentary levels of phonological awareness such as alliteration or rhyming. As skills are mastered, instruction moves to more difficult skills.

Blending sounds in syllables with Autumn, kindergartner

In this video, reading expert Linda Farrell works one-on-one with Autumn to master specific pre-reading skills, with a focus on strengthening her phonological awareness and giving Autumn extra practice with onset and rime. See more videos here: Looking at Reading Interventions.

Multisensory instruction

Instruction is supported by using the body and manipulatives. Students benefit from watching our mouth positions. They can also watch their own mouths with hand mirrors. Instruction is described in detail in the In-Practice section of this module.

Phonological awareness lessons

Phonological awareness lessons occur concurrently with teaching letter names and sounds. Teaching should include the following elements, taught concurrently:

Orthographic Pre-reading SkillsPhonological Pre-reading Skills
Letter names: smallPrinting small lettersSyllable ActivitiesSingle phonemes (no print)
Letter names: capitalsPrinting capital letters Teach consonant sounds, and identify each consonant in the initial and final position
  Onset-rimeTeach each short vowel sound, label each one, and identify each one in the initial position
   Teach the long vowels, label each one, and identify each one in initial and final position
  Phonemic AwarenessTeach the r-controlled vowels, label each one, and identify each one in initial and final position *
   Teach other vowels (e.g., /oy/, label each one, and identify each one in initial and final position *

* Teaching r-controlled and other vowel sounds in isolation can wait until after phonics instruction has started — this may depend on the amount of time available and whether students have mastered prior skills.

Mastering short vowels and reading whole words with Calista, first grader

In this video, reading expert Linda Farrell works one-on-one with early stage reader Calista on short vowel sounds, blending and manipulating sounds, reading whole words, and fluency. See more videos here: Looking at Reading Interventions