What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate units of spoken language such as words, syllables, and individual sounds (phonemes).  Segmenting sentences into words, combining syllables to form words, and identifying words with the same beginning sound are just a few examples of phonological awareness skills.  Phonological awareness can begin early in language development, as children as young as two years of age become aware of rhyme and begin appreciating and finding delight in the rhymes heard in books and songs.

How Phonological Awareness Supports Reading

Since written words correspond to spoken words, children with strong phonological awareness skills are better equipped to learn to read and write. They possess a strong understanding of the relationship between the speech sounds of language and representative letters and letter combinations.  Awareness and understanding of the sounds in oral language is essential for learning letter-sound correspondence, blending sounds to decode words, and mapping words into long-term sight vocabulary, all of which are ultimately necessary for reading and spelling (Kilpatrick, 2015).  

What Research Confirms

  • Phonological awareness can be developed before reading, and it facilitates the subsequent acquisition of reading skills (Smith et al., 1998).
  • Phonological awareness training and instruction is beneficial for beginning readers starting as young as age 4 (Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991).  
  • Phonological awareness in kindergarten is a strong predictor of later reading success (Ehri & Wilce, 1980, 1985; Liberman et al., 1974; Kilpatrick, 2016; Perfetti, Beck, Bell, & Hughes, 1987).
  • Atypical speech sound errors and distortions in preschool are predictive of weak phonological awareness skills (Preston & Edwards, 2010). 
  • Many children with learning disabilities demonstrate difficulties with phonological awareness skills (Shaywitz, 1996).

Phonological Awareness Takeaway

Children benefit from training in phonological awareness beginning in preschool, and those with strong phonological awareness skills are more likely to become successful readers and writers later in their academic careers.

- Johanna Sims, M.S., CCC-SLP


Anthony, J. L., Aghara, R. G., Dunkelberger, M. J., Anthony, T. I., Williams, J. M., & Zhang, Z. (2011). What factors place children with speech sound disorders at risk for reading problems? American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 2011 May;20(2):146-60.

Bradley, L. L., & Bryant, P. E. (1985). Rhyme and reason in reading and spelling. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1991). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 451- 455. 

Ehri, L. C., & Wilce, L. S. (1980). The influence of orthography on readers' conceptualization of the phonemic structure of words. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1, 371-385.

Ehri, L. C., & Wilce, L. S. (1985). Movement into reading: Is the first stage of printed word learning visual or phonetic? Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 163-179. 

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (Essentials of psychological assessment). Boston: John Wiley and Sons.

Kilpatrick, D. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step by step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Casey & Kirsch Publishers.

Liberman, 1. Y., Shankweiler, D., Fischer, F. W. & Carter, B. (1974). Explicit syllable and phoneme segmentation in the young child. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 18, 2 01-212. 

O'Connor, R. E., Notari-Syverson, A., & Vadasy, P. F. (1998). Ladders to literacy: A kindergarten activity book. Baltimore: Brookes. 

Perfetti, C. A., Beck, I., Bell, L., & Hughes, C. (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33, 283-319.

Preston J, Edwards ML. Phonological awareness and types of sound errors in preschoolers with speech sound disorders. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2010 Feb;53(1):44-60. doi: 10.1044/1092-4388(2009/09-0021). Epub 2009 Aug 28. PMID: 19717651; PMCID: PMC2845283.

Shaywitz, B. A. (1996). The neurobiology of reading and reading disability. Unpublished paper prepared for the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. 

Smith, B. K., Simmons, D. C., & Kameenui, E. J. (1998). Phonological awareness: Bases. In D. C. Simmons & E. J. Kameenui (Eds.), What reading research tells us about children with diverse learning needs. Bases and basics (pp. 61-128). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 

Tambyraja SR, Farquharson K, Justice L. Reading Risk in Children With Speech Sound Disorder: Prevalence, Persistence, and Predictors. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2020 Nov 13;63(11):3714-3726. doi: 10.1044/2020_JSLHR-20-00108. Epub 2020 Sep 30. PMID: 32997596.

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Burgess, S., & Hecht, S. (1997). Contributions of phonological awareness and rapid automatic naming ability to the growth of word-reading skills in second- to fifth-grade children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1, 161-185.

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