How Phonological Awareness Leads to Literacy Success

Kathryn Starke
Kathryn Starke
Professional development expert and National Urban Literacy Consultant; M.A. in Literacy and Culture
A teacher sitting at a desk with a young student helping him read.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the overarching umbrella that focuses on the oral awareness of developmental reading skills. It is the teaching and learning process of hearing, listening, recalling, identifying, and distinguishing between letter sound relationships. Phonological awareness includes early literacy skills based around the alphabetic principle and phonemic awareness. Specific skills include syllabication, alliteration, segmentation, blending, and rhyme. Young readers should be able to identify the number of syllables in any given word. They should be able to both hear and recognize rhyme patterns. Readers should also be able to sort words by beginning, middle, and ending sounds. Each of these skills can be evaluated and assessed through guided oral listening tasks or the use of pictures and visuals. Phonological awareness should be a key component of a primary language arts classroom that significantly supports literacy success.

The Correlation Between Phonological Awareness and Reading

Phonological awareness skills are often an early indicator of a child’s reading success in school. In fact, when students in third grade or above are considered struggling readers, it is often because they are lacking in phonological awareness skills. The pertinent information can be used to help teachers understand what components students need more support in through direct instruction. The oral understanding of phonemes and word family patterns are essential in teaching students to read.  These concepts are present in reading through phonics, more specifically in the decoding and encoding of words in print.

While phonological awareness is most often associated with a kindergarten or first grade classroom, each phonological awareness skill directly correlates to a child’s reading success from kindergarten to twelfth grade. For example, alliteration is also a literacy device used in poetry. End rhyme is also a feature that appears in poems. Syllabication helps students not only in spelling but also in reading unknown, multisyllabic words in any given text. Understanding beginning, middle, and ending sounds including consonants and short vowels as well as letter sound relationships like long vowel patterns, digraphs, and blends only make the reading and writing process easier for students of all ages. So, how do we ensure that students receive developmentally appropriate instruction in phonological awareness on a daily basis?

How to Implement Phonological Awareness in the Classroom

Primary classroom teachers in pre-K, kindergarten, first, and second grade should plan phonological awareness activities in both whole group and small group instruction. All teachers should consider how to implement phonological awareness skills for reluctant or struggling readers, children with challenges in phonics, or children who are considered English Language Learners (ELL) or require special education services. Implementing nursery rhymes and weekly poetry books are an effective and engaging way to incorporate all of the components of phonological awareness for readers of all ages. Traditional songs, jump rope chants, hand claps, and tongue twisters are also fun ways to implement phonological awareness in whole group instruction in a primary language arts classroom. Students can clap, march, stomp, or pat out syllables of a variety of words including classmate names, animals, fruits, vegetables, and months of the year.

While students can often identify a rhyme pair, they need more practice in identifying end rhyme in read aloud experiences including poetry and picture books. They also should be able to sort a variety of pictures by rhyme-a great independent activity or literacy station- and supply multiple words that match a rhyme pattern. Nonsense words are a fun way to see if children can actually hear and distinguish between many sounds features and patterns. Students should also be able to sort and classify words by initial sounds, middle sounds, and final consonants. Blending and segmenting are two ways students can practice the manipulation of letter sounds in words.  Learning how to put these sounds in sequence later support readers in decoding and encoding.

Repetition is key when it comes to phonological awareness, so providing practice opportunities for students during independent work or literacy stations makes an impact in literacy success. Teachers can create a bin of pictures that be used on a regular basis to sort by a specific sound or feature or skills like rhyme or syllables. When students begin to implement their phonological awareness knowledge in reading and writing and begin to observe similarities of words in text, it is evident that phonological awareness is a strength. Strong phonological awareness skills lead to literacy success. Phonological awareness begins as soon as children begin to hear language and enjoy a read aloud experience at home. The foundations of reading instruction continues with a focus on phonological awareness in the primary classroom.

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