Some notes from A Basic Guide to Phonological Awareness

I recently picked up this book very cheaply on Amazon and have been blown away its clarity. It is succinct enough to easily read within a couple of days, yet jam-packed with information that will keep you learning for weeks.

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I particularly like Chapter 1: What Phonological Awareness Is and Why It Is Important in Reading. I think that this short chapter is a fantastic introduction to phonological awareness and its role in reading, so I decided to take some notes and share them here so that teachers (new teachers particularly) can clarify their understanding of this important concept.

Naturally, I highly recommend the book. You can find it here.



What is phonological awareness?

One must first understand the concept of a phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that makes a difference to its meaning.

It is possible to acquire language without explicit knowledge of phonemes; however, because phonemes are represented by letters in print, we need to know and understand them in order to read.

Phonological awareness defined

Phonological awareness is one’s sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of speech in one’s language. It involves the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate the sounds in words. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and is the ability to notice, think about or manipulate individual speech sounds in words.

It is an oral language skill.

Phonological awareness is a broader, encompassing term, and can be used when referring to all levels of awareness of the phonological structure of words. Phonemic awareness refers to tasks or activities that focus solely on the individual phonemes in words.

Measures of phonemic awareness are more predictable of reading growth.

How phonological and phonemic awareness develops

An early sign of emerging sensitivity to the phonological structure of language is the ability to play and enjoy rhyming games and participate in wordplay.

Acquiring phonemic awareness involves learning two things:
1) It involves learning that words can be segmented into parts of speech smaller than a syllable.
2) It involves learning about the individual phonemes themselves

Why is it important?

PA is important because it is necessary for understanding how words in our language are represented in print. This is because words are represented at the level of the phoneme.

Two main challenges face early readers:
1) Individual phonemes are not readily apparent as individual speech sounds in spoken words. They are part of a speech stream, making them hard to discern
2) There is not always a one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes

Despite the challenges, we know that children who quickly understand the graph-phon relationship, and who learn to use this relationship to decipher words, invariably become better readers in the long run (Share & Stanovich, 1995).

Phonemic awareness has its primary impact on reading growth through its primary impact on children’s ability to phonemically decode words. This is a critical step along the path to fluent reading.

The normal development course for PA

Children who fall far behind the normal rate of development will be at risk of reading failure

Note: data is pre-2000. Check new sources for a refined developmental sequence

Benchmarks of normal development in phonological awareness
Grade Level Average Child’s Ability
Beginning Kindergarten Can tell whether two words rhyme
Can generate a rhyme for a simple word (cat)
Or can easily be taught to do these tasks
End of Kindergarten Can isolate and pronounce the beginning sound in a word (/n/ in nose)
Can blend the sounds in two phoneme words
Midway through First Grade Can isolate and pronounce all the sounds in two- and three-phoneme words
Can blend the sounds in four-phoneme words containing initial consonant blends
End of First Grade Can isolate and pronounce the sounds in four-phoneme words containing initial blends

Can blend the sounds in four- and five-phoneme words containing initial and final blends

What causes developmental differences amongst children?

There is substantial variability amongst children when they enter Kindergarten, and this continues to grow with their relative responsiveness to instruction through the year.

Two broad factors contribute to variability:

  1. Genetics
  2. Linguistic experiences pre-school

About half the variability in linguistic skill is inherited, but phonological processing can vary quite independently from other areas of intellectual disability. It is possible to be above average in general intelligence while being deficient in the ability to acquire phonological awareness.

Knowledge of nursery rhymes correlates strongly with early PA. Early experience with nursery rhymes can help children to begin to think about the phonological structure of words. More broadly, students who are exposed to literacy related activities – exposure to letters and their names, readings – show more advanced PA upon school entry.

After children enter school, the growth of PA depends on what the child is taught and on how the child responds to instruction (how ready they are). PA therefore is both a cause and consequence in differences amongst children in their rate of learning to read.

Direct Instruction and PA

Research shows that it is possible to stimulate growth in PA through explicit instruction. Further, research has also shown that the effectiveness of oral language training is significantly improved when the tasks are linked directly to simple reading and spelling tasks. Stimulation of PA should never be an isolated instructional end in itself. It should be combined with explicit, systematic phonics instruction.

PA activities must draw the children’s attention to individual phonemes in words – not just syllables, rhyme etc. 

It is likely that classroom-based instruction will not be enough to remediate the most severe reading disabilities in children with serious PA deficiencies. More intensive, extensive and detailed explicit instruction is necessary to achieve the required level of PA for these children.