Phonological Awareness

What is it? And why does it help us learn to read?

Phonological Awareness: What is it?

Phonological awareness is the ability to detect the sounds in language without thinking about the meaning. Stated more concisely, a child who has developed phonological awareness understands that words consist of parts.

They are able to demonstrate this understanding when they can:

- tell if two spoken words rhyme

- hear that words begin or end with the same sound

- count the number of syllables in a word

- identify phonemes in a word (e.g. mop consists of /m/—/o/—/p/)

The Phonological Awareness Developmental Continuum shown below is my attempt to synthesize all of the journal articles and books I have read on this subject into a succinct visual.   The continuum shows how phonemic awareness is encompassed by the term phonological awareness. It gives multiple skills for each column and shows how we move from larger chunks to smaller ones.


what is phonological awareness developmental continuum tuneful teaching foundation for literacy phonemic awareness

These skills develop from bottom to top and from left to right simultaneously. They do not develop in a lock-set fashion meaning that one skill does not have to be fully developed before another may emerge. 


Playing With the Sounds of Language

It is important to know that these skills develop both orally and aurally (hearing and speaking) without connecting the sounds to printed text. We are simply playing with the sounds of language without thinking about the meaning or how they connect to print.

However, for children who are strong visual learners, it is helpful to pair sounds with images. This helps them to comprehend the skill and to attend when they are struggling. Once they are making progress, it is critical to test their ability to manipulate the sounds of language without the visual prompts. With a consistent music cue for each skill, fading of the visual cues is much more successful.

When we reach the phonemic awareness columns on the far right of the continuum, it is important to make the connection to print. It's okay to be introducing a child to letters and their sounds throughout childhood, but this is not the beginning of literacy development. Without a strong foundation of phonological awareness, a child will struggle with learning to read even if they know every letter and the sounds they make. 


Why Does Phonological Awareness Help Us Learn to Read?

There is plenty of research clearly demonstrating that a child's level of phonological awareness predicts their future success in reading and writing.

It was helpful for me to think about our ancestors figuring out a writing system. They started with pictures for each word, but quickly figured out this wasn't going to be enough. To put words on paper, the process involved breaking the spoken words into smaller chunks. These patterns could then be translated into writing. 

If you're interested in learning more on this topic, I recommend this book: Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It by Mark Seidenberg. It is a fascinating read.

How Much Time Should We Give to Phonological Awareness?

In recent years, there has been some debate about how much time should be spent at the phonological awareness stage. Once children are in kindergarten, it is recommended that only about 10 minutes per day is devoted to the larger chunks as it is important to spend most instructional time at the phoneme level.

However, for kids who are struggling, it may be necessary to explicitly teach all of the developmental stages of phonological awareness. Learning to manipulate syllables and onset-rime is effective for helping children "get to the phoneme." This is especially true if we are structuring this instruction with rhythm and music.


Video Resource for You

Here is a video going into detail about phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and the developmental continuum. If you are already familiar with these terms, feel free to skip ahead to a detailed explanation of the developmental continuum at 4:45.

Music Based Strategies for You

If you are looking for resources to build these early literacy skills with a struggling reader, check out the ebook Alphabet Stew and Chocolate Too: Songs for Developing Phonological Awareness, Literacy and Communication Skills available here.

For those of who learn more easily from video, there is a 5-credit professional development course available here. Learn at your own pace and see videos of the songs and resources in action with children!

I'd love to connect with you and learn more about your literacy journey! Feel free to email me with questions or comments. If you are a literacy professional who would like to include the Developmental Continuum graphic in your work, I'd be happy to send you a high quality digital version.


This blog post was originally published on September 23, 2021; it was updated on December 12, 2023.


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