Phonological Awareness

After several years as a grade one teacher, I was very fortunate to meet and work with an inspiring Speech and Language Pathologist. I was frustrated with some of the progress my children were making in learning to read and didn’t know what I was missing. A few conversations and some great resources led me to understand that children who enter the school system with strong oral language background and experiences with music, rhyme, rhythm, song and books, have a “natural-like” understanding of the sound structure of language (Phonological Awareness). They are able to play with words and sounds, and learn quickly the pre-phonics skills necessary for later word decoding and spelling. I assumed that all children had this ability in varying degrees, and were therefore ready to begin reading and writing as expected in grade one.

I soon learned that some children were missing these foundational oral language experiences. As time goes on, for many different reasons, there are more and more young learners lacking these opportunities (which is another blog topic). Students who struggle with word recognition instruction (especially phonics) and spelling, require further investigation of their phonological awareness (pre-phonics). Oral assessment activities  which “play with words” can identify areas of strength and areas of need within the component of Phonological Awareness. Follow-up instruction may include whole class activities, games and simple tasks for small groups, or one to one explicit instruction. We can (and must) fill in these language voids, if that is indeed what intentional assessment and observation determines.

Quality Literacy Instruction encourages and embeds phonological awareness through playful oral language experiences in all the early years. Phonological Awareness may also continue be taught and practiced in conjunction with sound/symbol instruction (phonics), once students are beginning to learn to read and write.

At times, the expertise of a Speech and Language Pathologist is necessary in assessing children’s oral language understandings, especially when everything we try appears to not result in progress. Common use of terminology is important amongst professionals, therefore these are suggested definitions (Simons, Harn, & Kame’enui, 2003):

Phonological Awareness: The ability to hear and manipulate the sound structure of language. This is an encompassing term that involves working with the sounds of language at the word, syllable, and phoneme level.

Phoneme: A phoneme is a speech sound. It is the smallest unit of language and has no inherent meaning.

Phonemic awareness: The ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992, cited in Yopp, 1995)

Phonics: The process of using the code (sounds-symbol relationships) to recognize words. Phonics is included within Word Recognition in this blog’s Transfer Goals, as the written symbol is introduced with the sound(s).

Breaking down the actual parts of phonological awareness enables easier assessment and follow-up learning activities. To help young readers Understand and Manipulate the Speech Sound System, below are some suggested ideas for developing and practicing different areas of phonological awareness.

1. Concepts of word, syllable (word parts) and phoneme (sound)

Knowing the difference between these important terms and understandings can be confusing for some learners, so we use different practice techniques for each concept.


How many words am I saying? Students touch or make a bingo marker dot to represent each word in a given sentence.

How many syllables, we simply clap the sound parts.

How many sounds?  The students use blocks or coloured chips to represent different sounds (Elkonin boxes).

2. Blending, Segmenting sound units

Stretchy bands or elastics are a great way to demonstrate the stretching out of sounds, and bringing them back (blending). Blocks or coloured chips can be manipulated to represent different sounds, stretched out and blended back together.

3. Rhyme: identification and generation

Favourite mentor texts, songs/chants/raps are great for practicing rhyme: Say What? by Angela DiTerlizzi and Joey Chou; Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas; Here Comes the Big, Mean Dust Bunny! by Jan Thomas

4. Isolating, Deleting and Substituting sound units

Favourite songs such as Raffi’s, Willaby, Wallaby, Woo, is a terrific way to substitute and change sound units (along with rhyme). Take Away the A by Michaël Escoffier is a fun book, even for older students.

Numerous playful activities are readily available (eg., phonological and are quick and easy to use for practicing sounds, syllables and words. Phonological awareness is a critical foundation for learning the read and write.




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