Written by Dr. Jody Chong, Assistant Professor, Jackman Institute of Child Study at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto/ Special Education Teacher, TDSB
Phonological awareness is a crucial foundational skill in the journey of learning to read. All oral languages have a phonology, or system of sounds, and for a language such as English, where the alphabetic writing system was designed in large part to represent the speech system, being aware of the relationship between speech sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes) is essential (Juel, 1988). Phonological awareness is an umbrella term that encompasses the way oral language can be broken down into various-sized units; larger ones such as words and syllables, and smaller ones, such as onsets and rimes (e.g., ‘pat’ can be broken down into the onset “p” and the rime “at” and slip would be broken down into “sl” and “ip”). The sub-skill that is most closely related to reading and writing development is being aware of how words can be segmented into their smallest units of sounds – phonemes.
Phonemic awareness is a sub-category of phonological awareness, and instruction in this specific area helps children identify, isolate, blend, segment and manipulate the individual phonemes in spoken words. Phonemic awareness is an important cornerstone of literacy programs for both early-stage readers and those with written language disabilities. Research shows that challenges in phonemic awareness and other phonological skills both predict and cause poor reading and spelling development (Bryant et al., 2014; Ehri et al., 2001) and that decoding instruction may be ineffective unless children can first hear the sounds in spoken language (Juel, 1988; Perfetti et al., 1987). These challenges cut across IQ, race, and socio-economic status.
Decades of research on this topic indicate that this skill is highly teachable (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Bus & van Ijzendoom, 1999; Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Lundberg et al., 1988); and when done early, can help prevent reading difficulties. Here are 10 tips to help teachers, parents, and clinicians support its development:
Tip #1 Practice Regularly
You don’t need to spend hours a day developing phonological awareness. It should be introduced in kindergarten and grade 1. Devoting around 15 minutes, a few days a week, to whole class activities, with perhaps 10 minutes more in differentiated small groups for those who need additional practice, is ample. In their meta-analysis of research related to this topic, The National Reading Panel (2000) found that just 18 hours of instruction in total is sufficient for most learners, and this can be easily achieved over the course of several months.
Tip #2 Make it Playful
Starting in kindergarten or even pre-school, educators and parents can introduce games, songs, and activities in playful and developmentally appropriate ways. Phonemic awareness instruction should be engaging, and there are many excellent resources and ideas out there to inspire your practice (see Tip #10).
Tip #3 Seek out Professional Learning Opportunities
Louisa Moats (1999/2020) believes that teaching reading really is rocket science, and so it is important for teachers to have a deep understanding of what phonemic awareness is, why it is important, and to self-assess their own ability to perform phonological awareness tasks. Click here to test your knowledge and access further learning resources from Reading Rockets. If this is an area that is new to you, there are many excellent resources to help deepen your understanding and comfort level (e.g., Kilpatrick, 2015).
Tip #4 Use Assessment to Guide your Instruction
Using an assessment tool can help you screen your students and identify those who may need extra support, monitor their progress, and tailor your instruction to establish instructional priorities. As your students become adept at working with larger units of speech such as identifying individual words in sentences, clapping syllables within words, or dividing words into onset-rime, you can then progress to tasks that involve working with the phonemes in individual words.
A few tools to consider:
- Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (C-TOPP);
- Test of Auditory Analysis (Rosner, 1993);
- Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS-6; Good & Kaminiski, 2001); and the
- Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST; Kilpatrick, 2015).
Tip #5 Focus your Instruction
For typically developing children, it may be more useful to focus on one or two types of phoneme manipulation (e.g., blending and segmenting), as studies have indicated that children who were taught only one or two types of manipulation, instead of three or more, learned faster. And in some cases, students made stronger gains in reading and spelling (NRP, 2000; Ryder et al., 2008). Kilpatrick (2015), however, advises that children who struggle with phonemic awareness, or who may be at risk for developing literacy difficulties; may benefit from programming that is more comprehensive and that includes a larger variety of tasks (i.e., programs that train students to manipulate, delete, and substitute phonemes rather than only to blend and segment phonemes).
Tip #6 Make it Multi-Modal
There are many ways to incorporate more than one modality into your instruction: incorporating manipulatives such as bingo chips or counters that students can “push” as they segment or manipulate phonemes; using toy cars or slinkies as they stretch and blend sounds; using Elkonin boxes (sound boxes); providing picture supports for targeted words; augmenting sound play activities with pictures of mouth movements (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1998); and having students tap with their hands, fingers, small wands, or pencils as they segment words.
Tip #7 Connect it to Letter-Sounds
Research tells us that phonemic awareness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for skilled decoding and spelling and that instruction that combines phonemic awareness with letter-sound instruction (phonics) produces steeper gains/superior outcomes than phonemic awareness instruction in isolation (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Schneider et al., 2000).
Tip #8 Connect it to the learning of irregular words
A significant percentage of the most common words in English contain irregular spelling patterns (e.g., was, some, of) and many educators once believed that, because of this, high-frequency words were best learned through whole-word memorization. We now know that in order to learn these words efficiently and to be able to transfer some of this learning to other words, students need to understand the relationship between the sounds they hear in the spoken word and the letters they see in the written word, even when these are irregular or unexpected. When we teach children to look at every letter in a word and think about which letter patterns are expected or unexpected, their brains learn these relationships and retain them through a process called orthographic mapping. This mapping ability helps to “bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory” (Ehri, 2014, p. 5).
A helpful process for teaching children irregular words:
- Say the word out loud and have them repeat it (e.g., “said”),
- Ask the student to segment the word into phonemes (e.g., /s/ - /e/ - /d/),
- Draw 3 lines on a blackboard or piece of paper to show that we need to choose 3 graphemes to represent the 3 phonemes,
- Discuss which letters we might expect to see given our knowledge of sound-letter (phoneme-grapheme) associations,
- Highlight the part of the word that is irregular or unexpected.
A few ways to frame this process for the students are to highlight the letter(s) that “aren’t playing by the rules”, or to call them “heart words” and to highlight the irregular letter(s) by drawing a small heart above, as this is the part(s) of the word that needs to be learned “by heart”.
Tip #9 Don’t go overboard
Phonemic awareness is a means to an end – to help children read and spell – and it is possible to go overboard. Students just need to consistently demonstrate their awareness that spoken words are composed of phonemes, that these phonemes can be manipulated in different ways, and that they can apply this knowledge to decode and encode words (SEDL, 2008 as cited in Ehri et al., 2001).
Tip #10 Last but not least, build your toolkit of evidence-based (and engaging!) instructional resources
This list is far from exhaustive, but here are a few online favourites:
Balanced Literacy Diet Website – here are a few videos and lesson plan ideas from its collection. To access more like this, use the site search option or go to the phonemic awareness food group.
Florida Centre for Reading Research –- lesson ideas are organized by grade
- Pre-K Phonological Awareness Student Center Activities
- K-1 Phonological Awareness Student Center Activities
- Grades 2-3 Phonemic Awareness Student Center Activities
Reading Rockets - There are many resources on this website related to phonemic awareness. Here are a few to get you started:
- Elkonin Boxes
- Change a Letter
- 8 Ways to Build PA in Grade-Schoolers
- 8 Ways to Build PA in Middle-Schoolers
Armbruster, B. B., Lehr, F., Osborn, J., National Institute for Literacy (U.S.), & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read: kindergarten through grade 3. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Dept. of Education.
Ball, E., & Blachman, B. (1991). Does Phoneme Awareness Training in Kindergarten Make a Difference in Early Word Recognition and Developmental Spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26(1), 49-66.
Bradley, L., & Bryant, P.E. (1985). Rhyme and reason in reading and spelling (International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities Monograph Series No. 1). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Bryant, P., Nunes, T., & Barros, R. (2014). The connection between children's knowledge and use of grapho‐phonic and morphemic units in written text and their learning at school. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 (2), 211-225.
Bus, A. G., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Phonological awareness and early reading: A meta-analysis of experimental training studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 403–414. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.2063
Ehri, L. (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356
Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D. M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z. and Shanahan, T. (2001), Phonemic Awareness Instruction Helps Children Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250–287. doi:10.1598/RRQ.36.3.2
Good, R. H. III, & Kaminski, R. A. (Eds.). (2003). Dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skills (6th ed.). Colorado: Sopris West
Juel, C. (1988). Learning to Read and Write: A Longitudinal Study of Fifty-four Children from First through Fourth Grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken NJ: Wiley.
Kilpatrick, D.A. (2016). Equipped for Reading Success, Casey & Kirch.
Lindamood, P., & Lindamood, P. (1998). The Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program for Reading, Spelling, and Speech, Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
Lundberg, I., Frost, J., & Petersen, O.-P. (1988). Effects of an extensive program for stimulating phonological awareness in preschool children. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 263–284. https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.23.3.1
Moats, L. C. (1999/ 2020). Teaching reading is rocket science: What expert teachers of reading should know and be able to do. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers - https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/moats.pdf
National Reading Panel & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: reports of the subgroups. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.
Perfetti, C. A., Beck, I., Bell, L. C., & Hughes, C. (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33(3), 283–319.
Rosner, J. (1993). Helping children overcome learning disabilities, 3rd Ed. NY: Walker & Company.
Ryder, J.F., Tunmer, W.E., & Greaney, K.T. (2008). Explicit instruction in phoneme awareness and phonemically based decoding skills as an intervention strategy for struggling readers in whole language classrooms. Reading and Writing, 21, 349-369.
Schneider, W., Roth, E., & Ennemoser, M. (2000). Training phonological skills and letter knowledge in children at risk for dyslexia: A comparison of three kindergarten intervention programs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 284-295. doi:http://dx.doi.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1037/0022-06220.127.116.114
Wagner, R., Torgesen, J., Rashotte, C., & Pearson, N. (2013). Comprehensive test of phonological processing – second Edition (C-TOPP-2). Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed.
Dr. Jody Chong is an assistant professor at the Jackman Institute of Child Study at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. She is also a Special Education Teacher with the Toronto District School Board. Jody has been a member of the LD@school/TA@l'école Advisory Committee, providing input to support the planning and implementation of the LD@school and TA@l'école projects since 2019.