Help! My child is having trouble with reading and spelling. I don’t know what’s going on! They know all of their letters, they have a great vocabulary and understand everything I say, but for some reason they just aren’t getting it!

Sound familiar? There are many different reasons why children might experience difficulties with reading or spelling, however there is one reason that is often overlooked… Phonological Awareness!

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological Awareness refers to the ability to attend to, analyse and manipulate sounds (phonemes) within words.

It is not the same as being able to hear, discriminate between sounds or say words, and it is not the same as phonics.

Phonics and Phonological Awareness…

Phonics, is a method of instruction that teaches children to make use of letter symbols. There are a variety of phonics programs available such as MultiLit, Jolly Phonics, Ants in the Apple, LetterLand, Spalding and THRASS.

Phonological Awareness on the other hand, requires children to be able to make judgments about sounds, segment words into sounds or manipulate the sounds of a spoken word.

Whilst phonics and phonological awareness are different, they do go hand in hand as a successful phonics program for young children should also include explicit instruction in phonological awareness.

Why is Phonological Awareness important?

Research has shown that phonological awareness is a powerful predicator of success in learning to read and spell. Good phonological awareness skills enable children to better develop their understanding of the alphabetic system, which is crucial in learning to read and spell.

Furthermore, vocabulary development has been consistently linked to phonological knowledge. As a child’s vocabulary becomes larger, particularly with words that have sounds in common, they need to be able to refine their internal sound representations for similar sounding words.

Finally, phonological awareness is one of the key factors in the development of automatic word recognition. It is important for children to get lots of practise in matching sound and letter patterns in order to build up their reading vocabulary. This leads to automatic word recognition and reading mastery. “Lack of automaticity will prevent students from becoming independent readers and will impact on their reading comprehension.” (Love & Reilly, 2009)

How does Phonological Awareness Develop?

Phonological awareness develops over time. It builds upon a child’s language and cognitive abilities and continues to grow through their language experiences at home and school and through reading.

There is a generally accepted developmental pattern of phonological awareness, however it is important to note that some of these skills may present as overlapping levels rather than sequenced stages one after another.

Early Phonological Awareness:

Involves awareness that:

  • Spoken language can be broken up into words
  • Compound words are a combination of individual real words (home-work)
  • Words can be broken up into beats or syllables (to-ma-to)
  • Words can rhyme (cat, fat, mat)
Later phonological awareness :

Often referred to as phonemic awareness, involves a deeper awareness that:

  • Words can start with the same sound (cold, cat, careful)
  • Words can be segmented into the first sound/sounds (onsets) and the rime pattern (car and star can be segmented into c-ar and st-ar)
  • Words can be formed by blending separate sounds together (d-o-g makes dog)
  • Words can be segmented into separate sounds (sh-ar-k)
  • Words are made up of sounds that can be changed or manipulated; removing, adding or reordering sounds within the word can create a different word (slip without the l is sip)

Some children appear to develop their phonological awareness ‘naturally’ through their experiences with oral language games such as nursery rhymes and exposure to written language. Other children however, require explicit and intense teaching to go from focussing on the meaning of what they are saying, to consciously thinking about the sound structure of language.

It’s important to realise that phonological awareness tasks can vary in difficulty even when it appears they are similar tasks. For example, it is easier to make a yes/no judgement about rhyme (e.g. Do “dog” and “log” rhyme?) than to produce rhyme (e.g., Say two words that rhyme with “book”).

Which children are at risk?

There are a number of different groups of children who are considered to be “at risk” of poor literacy development. These include children who do not have English as their first language, children from socially disadvantaged homes and children who have not been provided with rich language and literacy experiences at home.

Furthermore, children with early speech difficulties are also at increased risk of reading and spelling problems, and some remain at risk even if their speech errors have resolved by the time they start school (Aram and Nation 1980, Catts et al. 1994, Nathan et al. 2004).

Children with language impairments are also at risk and due to the lasting impact that language problems have on literacy development, these children will often require some degree of ongoing intervention and support.

You can read our previous post on Language Impairment: The “Hidden” Learning Disability here.

Interestingly, research has also revealed that some teachers perform poorly on phonological awareness tasks too. It is thought they may have had limited training regarding sounds (there are 45 English sounds and only 26 letters in the alphabet) but more so that their orthographic knowledge (understanding of the rules of written language) overrides their sound awareness skills. In order to teach early literacy skills, it is very important for teachers to bring sound awareness to a conscious level.

Phonological Awareness can be taught!

The good news is that phonological awareness skills can be taught! Young children arrive at preschool or school with a wide variety of levels of phonological awareness ability and early experiences with literacy. Fortunately, training in phonological awareness has been shown to positively influence the development of beginning reading and writing skills!

Remember- phonological awareness is still just one piece of the reading puzzle…

Whilst phonological awareness is an essential factor in children learning to read, it is not the only one. When the National Reading Panel released its research based findings about what is best practice in “Teaching Children to Read”, they identified 5 key areas… phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and phonological awareness.

Therefore, we must acknowledge the importance of phonological awareness but also keep it’s role in perspective and see its place within the broader focus of building good oral language skills.

Free and imaginative play, physical activities, real life experiences, learning about new words, reading to children and encouraging story telling and learning about questions are just as important!

Ultimately, if your child is experiencing difficulties with reading or spelling, speak to your child’s teacher and ask a speech pathologist for advice. What have you got to lose?


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References: “A Sound Way” – Elizabeth Love and Sue Reilly (2009). Pearson Australia.