Phonological Awareness

One of the critical requirements for decoding, and ultimately word recognition, is phonological awareness (Snow et al., 1998). Phonological awareness is a broad term encompassing an awareness of various-sized units of sounds in spoken words such as rhymes (whole words), syllables (large parts of words), and phonemes (individual sounds). Hearing “cat” and “mat,” and being aware that they rhyme, is a form of phonological awareness, and rhyming is usually the easiest and earliest form that children acquire. Likewise, being able to break the spoken word “teacher” into two syllables is a form of phonological awareness that is more sophisticated. Phoneme awareness, as mentioned previously, is an awareness of the smallest individual units of sound in a spoken word—its phonemes; phoneme awareness is the most advanced level of phonological awareness. Upon hearing the word “sleigh,” children will be aware that there are three separate speech sounds—/s/ /l/ /ā/—despite the fact that they may have no idea what the word looks like in its printed form and despite the fact that they would likely have difficulty reading it.

Because the terms sound similar, phonological awareness is often confused with phoneme awareness. Teachers should know the difference because awareness of larger units of sound—such as rhymes and syllables—develops before awareness of individual phonemes, and instructional activities meant to develop one awareness may not be suitable for another. Teachers should also understand and remember that neither phonological awareness nor its most advanced form—phoneme awareness—has anything whatsoever to do with print or letters. The activities that are used to teach them are entirely auditory. To help remember this, simply picture that they can be performed by students if their eyes are closed. Adults can teach phonological awareness activities to a child in a car seat during a drive. The child can be told, “Say ‘cowboy.’ Now say ‘cowboy’ without saying ‘cow.'” Adults can teach phoneme awareness activities as well by asking, “What sound do you hear at the beginning of ‘sssun,’ ‘sssail,’ and ‘ssssoup’?” or, “In the word ‘snack,’ how many sounds do you hear?” or by saying, “Tell me the sounds you hear in ‘lap.'” Notice that the words would not be printed anywhere; only spoken words are required. Engaging in these game-like tasks with spoken words helps children develop the awareness of phonemes, which, along with additional instruction, will facilitate future word recognition.

Why phonological awareness is important

An abundance of research emerged in the 1970s documenting the importance of phoneme awareness (the most sophisticated form of phonological awareness) for learning to read and write (International Reading Association, 1998). Failing to develop this awareness of the sounds in spoken words leads to difficulties learning the relationship between speech and print that is necessary for learning to read (Snow et al., 1998). This difficulty can sometimes be linked to specific underlying causes, such as a lack of instructional experiences to help children develop phoneme awareness, or neurobiological differences that make developing an awareness of phonemes more difficult for some children (Rayner et al., 2001). Phoneme awareness facilitates the essential connection that is “reading”: the sequences of individual sounds in spoken words match up to sequences of printed letters on a page. To illustrate the connection between phoneme awareness and reading, picture the steps that children must perform as they are beginning to read and spell words. First, they must accurately sound out the letters, one at a time, holding them in memory, and then blend them together correctly to form a word. Conversely, when beginning to spell words, they must segment a spoken word (even if it is not audible they are still “hearing the word” in their minds) into its phonemes and then represent each phoneme with its corresponding letter(s). Therefore, both reading and spelling are dependent on the ability to segment and blend phonemes, as well as match the sounds to letters, and as stated previously, some students have great difficulty developing these skills. The good news is that these important skills can be effectively taught, which leads to a discussion about the most effective ways to teach phonological (and phoneme) awareness.

Phonological awareness instruction

The National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) report synthesized 52 experimental studies that featured instructional activities involving both phonological awareness (e.g., categorizing words similar in either initial sound or rhyme) and phoneme awareness (e.g., segmenting or blending phonemes). In this section, both will be discussed.


Figure 2. Oddity task featuring rhymes (top row) and initial sounds (bottom row). Used with permission from Microsoft.

Figure 3. Sample of an Elkonin Box featuring the word “fan.” The picture of the word eases the memory load for students as they concentrate on segmenting the individual sounds. Used with permission from Microsoft.

Figure 3. Sample of an Elkonin Box featuring the word “fan.” The picture of the word eases the memory load for students as they concentrate on segmenting the individual sounds. Used with permission from Microsoft.

A scientifically based study by Bradley and Bryant (1983) featured an activity that teaches phonological awareness and remains popular today. The activity is sorting or categorizing pictures by either rhyme or initial sound (Bradley & Bryant, 1983). As shown in Figure 2, sets of cards are shown to children that feature pictures of words that rhyme or have the same initial sound. Typically one picture does not match the others in the group, and the students must decide which the “odd” one is. For instance, pictures of a fan, can, man, and pig are identified to be sure the students know what they are. The teacher slowly pronounces each word to make sure the students clearly hear the sounds and has them point to the word that does not rhyme (match the others). This is often referred to as an “oddity task,” and it can also be done with pictures featuring the same initial sound as in key, clock, cat, and scissors (see Blachman, Ball, Black, & Tangel, 2000 for reproducible examples).

Evidence-based activities to promote phoneme awareness typically have students segment spoken words into phonemes or have them blend phonemes together to create words. In fact, the NRP (2000) identified segmenting and blending activities as the most effective when teaching phoneme awareness. This makes sense, considering that segmenting and blending are the very acts performed when spelling (segmenting a word into its individual sounds) and reading (blending letter sounds together to create a word). The NRP noted that if segmenting and blending activities eventually incorporate the use of letters, thereby allowing students to make the connection between sounds in spoken words and their corresponding letters, there is even greater benefit to reading and spelling. Making connections between sounds and their corresponding letters is the beginning of phonics instruction, which will be described in more detail below.

An activity that incorporates both segmenting and blending was first developed by a Russian psychologist named Elkonin (1963), and thus, it is often referred to as “Elkonin Boxes.” Children are shown a picture representing a three- or four-phoneme picture (such as “fan” or “lamp”) and told to move a chip for each phoneme into a series of boxes below the picture. For example, if the word is “fan,” they would say /fffff/ while moving a chip into the first box, then say /aaaaa/ while moving a chip into the second box, and so on. Both Elkonin boxes (see Figure 3) and a similar activity called “Say It and Move It” are used in the published phonological awareness training manual, Road to the Code by Blachman et al. (2000). In each activity children must listen to a word and move a corresponding chip to indicate the segmented sounds they hear, and they must also blend the sounds together to say the entire word.