Rethinking Phonological Awareness

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Maybe for this one, it isn’t re-thinking as much as just thinking about Phonological Awareness.  This is the least known, most misunderstood component of reading.  So, let’s break it all down!  Phonological Awareness is the foundation of all language and reading.  It is the vital ability to be able to hear, recognize, and manipulate the sounds of language.  

Phonological awareness is the understanding that oral language is comprised of smaller components of sound.  The components of sound can be broken down into words in a sentence, on-set rime, syllables, and finally phonemes.  See below for precise, easy-to-understand, definitions. 


Too often we jump into phonics and blending before kids have mastery of the ability to just hear and distinguish language at the sound level.  Struggling readers, of all ages, often have a weakness in P.A.

We have found that when you identify a phonological deficit and give systematic, direct instruction at this foundational level, everything can fall into place!  Your student will be able to think about sentences and words differently. They will be able to capture the individual sounds in a word and break them down.  This encoding and decoding is what literacy is all about! 


Phonological Awareness can be done in the dark.  It requires no letter recognition or reading.  One fun way to get this idea across is to buy funny animal sleep masks.  This takes the visual input out and helps kids tune into their sense of hearing. Even intermediate kids love to put them on and play with the sounds of language!  We also pair each component of PA with the famous “Baby Shark” Song.  This connects new information to old and helps solidify long-term understanding.  Check out our posters here: BABY SHARK PA

Phonological Awareness: the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds in a language

Phonemic Awareness: the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in a single word

Word (Grandpa Shark): words are the largest unit of sound and the smallest unit of meaning in a language.

Onset rime (Daddy Shark): the onset is the first sound in a word, the rime is the vowel, and the following sounds.  (This is helpful when learning word families and increases familiarity in language patterns.  c-at,  b-at, s-at)

Syllable (Mama Shark):  a single, unbroken sound of a word. Every syllable has a vowel sound.  (When you hum a word, you can hear the syllables sounds)

Phoneme (Baby Shark): the smallest unit of sound in a word. Phonemes combine to create a word that has meaning. (Compare to an atom, a single Lego, or the individual ingredients of a cookie. There are 44 phonemes in the  English language.) 

Click here for our FREE visual of our Phonological Awareness Umbrella

Ideally, children should be doing lots of “language/ sound play” at very young ages.  Nursery rhymes, silly songs, rhyming games, sound copying games, and all oral language activities are not only fun but necessary!  We are finding that with the increase of screens and technology, there has been a decrease in these language activities.  Unfortunately, kids are entering school without knowing the once-beloved nursery rhymes. 

If a student in early elementary is struggling AT ALL with literacy activities, looking at their phonemic awareness is critical.  Our favorite screening measure is the PAST (Phonological Awareness Screening Test).  It can be found HERE. The newest versions assess all levels of PA and also measures how automatically a person can do these skills.  

Once you have assessed a child and have identified areas of weakness, direct and systematic instruction should be given. The good news is that PA is something that can be taught and learned.  It can change the way a student hears language and can be the missing puzzle piece in identifying root causes of reading difficulties. Click here for an example of a multi-sensory lesson that you can use to teach PA. ELKONIN BOXES

Recent studies show that 20% of the population has been identified as having difficulties with phonological awareness.  Dyslexia, a common reading disability, is a phonological processing disorder.  It is so important that we as parents and educators, learn to recognize the early signs or red flags and know how to help!

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