Phonological awareness (emergent literacy)

Phonological awareness is children's awareness of how sounds are put together to form words.

Overview

It includes children’s ability to recognise:

  • syllables (for example pla.ty.pus)
  • rhymes (for example rain/Jane; pouring/snoring)
  • sounds at the start/end of words (for example cup/kit, drink/stuck)
  • sounds within words (for example starch —> s t arch)

Phonological awareness is an important set of skills to develop throughout early childhood and primary school. It is strongly linked to later reading and spelling success.

We can think about phonological awareness as a sequence from basic phonological awareness skills, to more complex ones.

See the Phonological Awareness: Staircase to success diagram.

Important note: Most children start school with an awareness of syllables, rhyme, and alliteration, but are not expected to have attained competency in other phonological/phonemic skills (for example blending, breaking words up, playing with sounds). These later phonological awareness skills can be targeted to extend children who have a strong interest in sounds and words.

When working on phonological awareness with early  communicators and earlylanguage users (birth – 36 months), the relevant phonological awareness skillsare syllables and rhymes.

With older ages, educators may introduce more complex phonological awareness skills (for example alliteration, onset/rime), but the focus of phonological awareness experiences should be informed by current assessment of each child’s learning.

The importance of phonological awareness

The awareness of the sounds that make up words is critical to being able to blend sounds together for later reading, and segmenting words into sounds for later spelling.

Educators can introduce these concepts to young children through:

  • songs
  • rhymes and games
  • shared book reading
  • collaborative emergent writing experiences (for example drawing with annotation).

We can also explicitly discuss phonological awareness concepts by explaining what syllables, rhymes, and sounds are.

Phonemic awareness is the phoneme (“speech sound”) part of this skill and involves children blending, segmenting, and playing with sounds to make new words.

Note: You can do experiences for phonological awareness without using any written words. It is about the sounds that the words make, not about the letters we use to spell them.

Key developmental milestones

The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but doesn’t limit the expectations of every child . VEYLDF practice principle: high expectations for every child goes into further detail.

It is always important to understand children’s development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

Early communicators (birth - 18 months):

  • enjoy book reading
  • enjoy nursery rhymes and songs
  • may attempt to sing or chant rhymes/songs.

Early language users (12 - 36 months):

  • start to hear gaps between words in sentences
  • showing interest in syllables and rhymes.

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):

  • start to break up words into syllables (for example clapping syllables)
  • start to recognise/produce rhymes
  • from 36 months: start to recognise words with the same initial sound
  • from 36 months: start to break words up into onset and rime (sun= s+un).

The 44 sounds

English is analphabetic language. We only have 26 letters, but there are actually 44 speech sounds (phonemes).This includes 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds. These sounds form part of the phonology of English.

You can learn how these sounds (phonemes) map onto letter patterns (graphemes) in the phonics section.

Syllables

Syllable awareness involves activities like counting, tapping, blending or segmenting syllables.
Every word can be broken down into syllables. For example, helicopter —>he.li.cop.ter (4 syllables).

Compound words (for example doghouse, footpath, lifetime) are words that combine two separate words to create a new word. These are great introductions to syllable counting.

Syllable examples

Here are some example words, grouped by the number of syllables.

One syllable:

  • jump
  • thought
  • cup
  • range

Two syllables:

  • ki.tten
  • a.pple
  • co.met
  • sun.set
  • vel.cro
  • zig.zag
  • fo.ssil

Three syllables:

  • ma.gi.cal
  • In.di.an
  • vi.si.tor
  • po.pu.lar
  • i.ma.gine
  • di.no.saur
  • op.po.site
  • ex.er.cise

Four syllables:

  • in.te.res.ted
  • e.lec.tri.cal
  • es.pe.cial.ly
  • im.me.di.ate
  • e.qua.li.ty
  • u.su.al.ly
  • per.son.al.i.ty
  • el.ec.tri.ci.ty
  • a.ppre.ci.a.ted
  • i.ma.gin.a.tion

Rhyme

Rhyme awareness is about knowing when words do and do not rhyme. For example, children with good rhyme awareness would be able to identify the two rhyming words from this group below.

pictures of a cat, hat and tap
Which of these words rhyme? Cat, hat, tap? Photo: Pixabay

In this example, the educator and children would say the words "cat" "hat" and "tap", and children would identify "cat" and "hat" as the rhyming words.

Rhyme production is where children have to think of examples which rhyme with a given word.

For example, children would be asked to hear the rhyme in the words below:

images of a hand and musical instruments
Hand and band. What’s another word that rhymes? Photo: Pixabay

Through reading books, singing songs, nursery rhymes and other games, children will be able to start thinking of their own rhymes:

  • ‘Sand’ rhymes with ‘hand’ and ‘band’.

More complex rhymes

Some rhymes are more complex than others. For an extra challenge, educators can choose words with more complex rhymes. For example, the words in the second and third columns have multiple syllables in their rhymes:

One syllable rhyme (with syl.la.ble breaks):

  • cop
  • top
  • mop
  • stop
  • drop
  • seek
  • peek
  • streak
  • sneak

Two syllable rhyme (with syl.la.ble breaks):

  • na.tion
  • sta.tion
  • dal.ma.tian
  • sca.ry
  • hai.ry
  • fai.ry
  • ca.na.ry
  • nec.e.ssa.ry

Three syllable rhyme (with syl.la.ble breaks):

  • a.qua.ri.an
  • ve.ge.ta.ri.an
  • se.ri.ous
  • mys.te.ri.ous
image of laughing face and phone
Fun and phone have the same initial sound (but one is spelt with an ‘f’ and the other a ‘ph’). Photo: Pixabay

Alliteration

Relevant for language and emergent literacy learners, alliteration is another early phonological awareness skill. This involves sorting words by their initial and final sounds.

Note: sorting words by sounds is not about the letters. In a phonological awareness experience, remember that the goal is for children to hear the sounds (phonemes) within words, rather than see the letter patterns (graphemes).

When sorting by initial and final sound, remember to listen to see if the words have the same sound.

images of a pillow on a bed, phone, pancakes and body ibn bending posture
Phone and physical are not sorted under the /p/ sound. Instead they both have an initial /f/ sound. Photo: Pixabay
image of stting figure, sun and sleeping bear, shark and ship
All these words start with the letter ‘s’, but sit, sun, slept have a /s/ sound, and shark and ship both have a /sh/ sound spelt with the ‘sh’. Photo: Pixabay

Alliteration experiences can also focus on the last (final) sounds in words. You could ask children to help sort out which words end in a /t/ or a /d/ sound in this example:

images of a bat, tiger, sleeping bear, figure under a cloud, ear and glider
Which words end with a /t/ sound, and which ones end with /d/ sound? Bat, cat, sleptall end with a /t/; bad, heard, and glide all end with a /d/ sound. Photo: Pixabay

Onset-rime

Onset-rime involves breaking words into their onsets (consonants before the vowels), and the rime (everything left in the word). This phonological awareness skill is more advanced and is more suitable for language and emergent literacy learners.

downward arrow and shades of green
The onsets in these words are /d/ in down and /g/ /r/ in ‘green’. Onsets always come before the vowel of the syllable. Photo: Pixabay

For example the rime "own" as in "down" could have the following onsets to make these words:

  • D (onset), own (rime), down (word)
  • Br (onset), own (rime), brown (word)
  • Cl (onset), own (rime), clown (word)
  • Dr (onset), own (rime), drown (word)
  • G (onset), own (rime), gown (word)

Finding initial and final sounds

image of a bat and sleeping bear
The final sounds in bat and slept is the /t/ sound. Photo: Pixabay

Note: This phonological awareness skill is more advanced and is more suitable for children soon to transition to school.

It is also important for children to find and name the initial and final sounds of words. This is a more sophisticated version of alliteration. Instead of just sorting words by their sounds, children are encouraged to identify and name the initial or final sounds in words.

images of a pilloe on a bed, phone, pancakes and body ibn bending posture
Here, children need to say what the first sound of pillow and pancake is. The answer would be the /p/ sound (as in pet). For phone and physical, the answer is /f/ (as in fan). Here, children would name the final sound in bat, cat, sleptas the /t/ sound (as in tip). Photo: Pixabay
images of a bat, tiger, sleeping bear, figure under a cloud, ear and glider
Here, children would name the final sound in bat, cat, slept as the /t/ sound (as in tip). For bad, heard, and glide the answer is /d/ (as in dip). Photo: Pixabay

Blending sounds into words

Note: This phonological awareness skill is more advanced and is more suitable for children soon to transition to school.

phone and phonetic text
The sounds /f/ /o_e/ /n/ blend together to make ‘phone’. Photo: Pixabay

Blending sounds into words is a critical component of phonemic awareness. In later years, when children start to read, blending is how we “sound out words” we don’t know.

Blending sounds is a fun game to play before ever having to “read” words. It helps prepare children for the phonemic skills they need once they do start reading. For example, we can guess the word ‘cap’ by blending the sounds /c/ /a/ /p/.

Note about phoneme counters

In these sections, counters will be used to count the sounds (phonemes) in words:

Blue circle = consonants.Red circle =vowels.
These are only one way of representing sounds. Photo: Pixabay
  • blue counters represent consonants
  • red counters represent vowels.

It is useful for teachers to use a different colour or shape to distinguish between vowels vs. consonants when children are blending and segmenting sounds.

The sounds /s/ /l/ /e/ /p/ /t/ blend together to make ‘slept’. Photo: Pixabay

You can come up with your own system for representing consonants and vowels.

Physical counters or other small objects (for example buttons) can be used to represent phonemes. These can be useful to help children count and keep track of the number of phonemes in each word.

Counters can also be used to count sounds on paper, or on the wall, to demonstrate the number of speech sounds in each word.

Blending sounds

One of the best ways to encourage early blending is through sound games where educators sound out a word (from a book or picture), then see if the children can blend them together:

When educators sound out words, children can see if they can blend them together. . Photo: Pixabay
These sound games can be played during book reading, early writing, play or other experiences. Photo: Pixabay

When educators sound out words, children can see if they can blend them together.

These sound games can be played during book reading, early writing, play or other experiences.

Breaking words up

Note: This phonological awareness skill is more advanced and is more suitable for children soon to transition to school.

Breaking words up into their sounds is the reverse of blending sounds into words. So we can say the three sounds in ‘phone’: /f/ /o_e/ /n/:

phone and phonetic text
Breaking words up into their sounds can be a fun game to play with children. It is also very beneficial for emergent writing skills. Photo: Pixabay

Breaking words up into their sounds can be a fun game to play with children.

It is also very beneficial for emergent writing skills.

You can work on segmenting sounds as a sound game. Educators need to first model how to break words up into sounds:

Using pictures or real objects is very important so that children know what words they are breaking up:

phone and phonetic text
Can you play this sound game? What are the sounds in ‘dog’? /d/ /o/ /g/! Photo: Pixabay

Deleting or playing with sounds

Note: This phonological awareness skill is more advanced and is more suitable for children soon to transition to school.

Deleting or playing with sounds is the trickiest phonological awareness skill. It involves deleting or swapping the sounds in words, to make new words.

phone and phonetic text
What is ‘beat’ when you take away the /t/? Bee! Photos: Pixabay

Educators can play these advanced sound games with older children.
Deletion example:

  • "What is 'swing' without the /s/?"
  • ‘wing!’

Playing with sounds (manipulation) example:

  • "What happens when you take off the /g/ in 'dog' and swap it with /k/?"
  • ‘dock!’

You can play these sound games with any word. You might find that children think of interesting and humorous new words!

It’s important for children to have a chance to play with words. You can talk about what is a real word and what is not.

See Phonological Awareness: Getting Started for a downloadable version.

Theory to practice

Phonological awareness is a key early competency of emergent and proficient reading and spelling. It involves an explicit awareness of how words, syllables, and individual speech sounds (phonemes) are structured.

Together with phonics, phonological awareness (in particular phonemic awareness) is essential for breaking the code of written language (Luke and Freebody, 1999).

Differences between phonological awareness and phonics

Phonological awareness includes the awareness of speech sounds, syllables, and rhymes.

Phonics is about sound-letter patterns — how speech sounds (phonemes) can map onto letter patterns (i.e. graphemes). Phonological Awareness and Phonics are therefore not the same, but these literacy foci tend to overlap.

Evidence base

Numerous studies support that phonological awareness is a key predictor (along with alphabet knowledge) for success with decoding the written word into speech. This research includes studies into successful phonological awareness programs in early childhood settings (Lefebvre, Trudeau, & Sutton, 2011; Milburn et al., 2015), and the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading (Rowe et al., 2005), which supported the teaching of phonological (including phonemic) awareness as an effective approach for early reading skills.

There is also research suggesting that music may be a useful teaching tool for phonological awareness development Degé & Schwarzer, 2011).

Also, Hattie's (2009) Visible Learning, the US National Reading Panel (2000) and the UK Rose Review (2006) support phonological awareness as an important component of rich literacy programs.

Getting started

Early communicators (birth - 18 months):

  • nursery rhymes, songs, and poems
  • shared book reading
  • drawing children’s attention to the sounds of spoken language, including:
    • syllables (beats)
    • rhymes
    • individual sounds

Early language users (12 - 36 months):

  • nursery rhymes
  • songs
  • poems and riddles
  • shared book reading
  • finding patterns of syllable, rhyme, initial/final sound by:
    • Matching pictures to other pictures: dog/log
    • Matching objects to pictures: tap/toe
    • Matching objects to actions: rope/jump

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):

  • nursery rhymes
  • songs
  • poems and riddles
  • shared book reading
  • emergent writing experiences (drawings with annotations)
  • using games to practise awareness of syllables, rhyme, initial/final sound, and individual sounds in words (see below for ideas)
Syllables
  • Beats in My Name: At group time, move around the circle, each child claps the syllable in their name: Lu-cy (clap, clap)
    • This could also be done with claves, other forms of body percussion
  • Group time rhymes with movement: stamping feet for the beat or syllable - e.g. feet, feet, feet, feet, march-ing up and down the street
  • Mystery bag: fill with familiar objects, children pull out an object, name it, clap the syllables - e.g. 'lion' – li.on, 'ball' - ball, 'octopus' – oct.o.pus
  • Sorting syllables: Set up a t-chart on the carpet (could use string or masking tape):
    • children choose an object from around the room to bring to the carpet
    • can each sort into 1-syllable or 2+ syllables
    • children place their objects accordingly (hat in 1 syllable, pen.cil in 2+ syllable)

Compound words are a great way to introduce syllable counting:

  • Educators can present two words separately
  • Then show how they blend together
  • This makes one word with two syllables
Rhyme:
  • Rhyming card games
  • Sorting objects by rhyme
  • Storybooks with rhyme:
    • e.g. Hairy Maclary, Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo
  • I have, who has?
    • Children have a card/object
    • They need to find the other student in the class that has a card/object that rhymes with theirs 
    • e.g. the student with a frog needs to find the student with a dog
  • Book with song - One Elephant Went Out To Play
  • Using songs with actions to highlight rhyming:
    • My hands a feeling chilly, I think they're turning blue I need something to warm them up but what can I do? I can rub them, rub them, wriggle them around, I can shake them, shake them and bang them on the ground.
Alliteration:
  • Poetry reading and writing
  • Looking at a poem and finding all the alliteration (this can be highlighted visually for children to look at: Concepts of Print)
  • Book reading
    • e.g. Fox in Socks (Dr Seuss), Hairy Maclary
  • Making up own alliteration poems in a small group
  • Saying tongue-twisters during group time
  • Choose the first sound in your name to make a funny alliteration poem

Finding initial and final sounds:

  • Sorting objects or pictures by the initial or final sounds
  • Filling in the Blanks - initial or final sound of a word - this could be done with a picture or aurally
  • Bingo

Blending sounds and breaking words up:

  • Robot talk: use robot talk and ask the children to help blend the words the robot is saying
    • Children can also be robots by breaking words up into robot talk and the other children to blend the words
  • Guess-the-word game: Educator says a word’s individual sounds and children have to guess the word
  • Race car blending: Children drive a car along a picture and say the sounds in that word
  • Using bead bracelets to blend sounds together - or beads on a string
  • Playing with magnetic letters, showing how words are put together and then broken up 
  • Sound boxes: Providing pictures of words, and asking children to place a counter in a box for each sound they can hear.

Deleting or playing with sounds:

  • Make a New Word: Ask children to take one word and make a new one by changing a sound
    • e.g. what is ‘dawn’ without the /n/? ‘Door!’
    • Remember you don’t need to use letters to play these games. It’s about hearing the sounds in spoken words.  

Links to VEYLDF

Outcome 4: learning

Children develop a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry, experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating:

  • make predictions and generalisations about their daily activities, aspects of the natural world and environments, using patterns they generate or identify, and communicate these using mathematical language and symbols

Outcome 5: communication

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context:

  • sing, chant rhymes, jingles and songs
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:

  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them
  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme use symbols in play to represent and make meaning.

Experience plans and videos

    For age groups: early communicators (birth - 18 months):

    For age groups: early language users  (12 - 36 months):

    For age groups: language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):

    Learning foci and teaching practices

    References

    Degé, F., & Schwarzer, G. (2011). The effect of a music program on phonological awareness in preschoolers. Frontiers in Psychology, 2 (June), 124.

    Hattie, J 2009, Visible Learning; a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, London.

    NRP, National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

    Lefebvre, P., Trudeau, N., & Sutton, A. (2011). Enhancing vocabulary, print awareness and phonological awareness through shared storybook reading with low-income preschoolers. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 11(4), 453–479.

    Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). Further notes on the four resources model. Reading Online, 3.

    Milburn, T. F., Hipfner-Boucher, K., Weitzman, E., Greenberg, J., Pelletier, J., & Girolametto, L. (2015). Effects of Coaching on Educators’ and Preschoolers’ Use of References to Print and Phonological Awareness During a Small-Group Craft/Writing Activity. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 46(2), 94.

    Rowe, Ken and National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Australia), Teaching Reading (2005).

    Rose Review. Department for Education, 2010, Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper Executive Summary, TSO, London, England.

    Schuele, C. M., and Boudreau, D. (2008). Phonological awareness intervention: Beyond the basics. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 39(1), 3-20.

    Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016, Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (2016), Retrieved 3 March 2018

    Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10.Retrieved 3 March 2018.