Phonological awareness and early writing

The reciprocal relationship between learning to read and learning to write has been well documented (Clay, 2014; Hill, 2015). As early writers invent spelling to represent words, they are contending with sound-letter relationships and concepts of print.

Similarly, early readers assimilate the structures and features of texts as they read and can draw on this knowledge when they compose (Hill, 2015). In doing so, early literacy learners use their knowledge of letters to decode or encode words as they draw on their phonological knowledge (the ability to identify the sound structure of words which encompasses rhyming patterns, stress patterns and manipulation of sounds in words) (Goswami, 2014).

The act of composing requires early learners to bring their knowledge of letters and sounds to the fore to enable a purposeful message to be written. It is during this process where students see the direct link between hearing and identifying phonemes and matching to graphemes.

Goswami (2014) argues that it is through the motivation of young literacy learners to write down their thoughts that the development of phonological awareness truly occurs. Although there has been conflicting research on whether spelling follows a developmental progression (see, for example, Daffern 2017 for discussion), it is widely accepted that a young literacy learner must draw on their growing control of phonological awareness, orthographic and morphological knowledge to be a successful writer (Daffern, 2018).

Early writers typically:

  • articulate or rehearse their thoughts, talking and drawing about what they want to write   
  • draw on the known formation of letters in their name to guide their early attempts at composing (Mackenzie, 2016)
  • use a small range of strategies to help them spell words such as known high frequency words and segmenting unknown words into phonemes by:
    • saying a word slowly to segment the dominant sounds, often building a consonant framework containing initial and final sounds (hf=have, fns=fence). Medial sounds prove more tricky as they require a greater processing skill (Daffern, 2017)
    • matching the sound to a known letter (e.g. vare=very, cum=come)
  • use a known word to help them get to another word like it (e.g. I know how to write day so I could use that to help me write play)
  • break words up into syllables to help them hear the parts (e.g. but.ton). However, segmenting and encoding words with more than one syllable is a more complex skill (Daffern, 2017)
  • consider how the letter is visually represented and reproduce it with guidance from reference to:
    • an alphabet strip
    • a classroom display
    • the assistance of the classroom teacher, adult or peer.

Building phonological knowledge

Oral language underpins all literacy learning (Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2014). An early writer calls on their developing ability to hear and isolate speech sounds in the language they are surrounded by (either receptively or expressively).

Simple activities such as talking and engaging in conversation, playing word games, singing songs, learning nursery rhymes and poems all contribute to the development of phonological awareness (Daffern, 2018; Goswami, 2014; Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2014). Once an early writer can hear the individual speech sounds in a word (i.e. can segment sounds in words) they are ready to visually match to letters. Students will have varied phonological awareness knowledge.

Some students beginning schooling may have participated in frequent and wide experiences which contribute to a well-developed phonological awareness whilst others may have limited or no knowledge of sounds or letter correspondence. Moreover, students from an EAL/D background will have different experiences from the sounds and symbols associated with English as first language speakers. It is very important for every teacher to ascertain the individual needs of each student and tailor the phonological awareness teaching to them.

The English Online Interview administered to all Government primary students in their Foundation year and recommended for students in Year One and Two, provides substantial data for educators to tailor individual learning for every student.

Pedagogical strategies to assist phonological awareness and early writing

As phonemes are not tangible items, early writers are required to store the word and then the individual sounds in their working memory whilst analysing, reflecting on and matching to graphemes (Berninger, Abbott, Nagy & Carlisle, 2010). The following strategies support early writers to use their emerging phonological awareness and grapheme knowledge to compose texts.

Strategy 1

Elkonin boxes to explicitly teach hearing and recording sounds (Clay, 2016; Ehri & Roberts, 2014).

  • Through teaching practices such as modelled or shared writing, the teacher identifies a word and articulates it slowly. By articulating slowly, students are more able to hear the segmented sounds and the order of the sounds.   
  • The teacher can provide a visual prompt by drawing a row of boxes that match the number of phonemes in a word. When first introducing the boxes, consonant, vowel, consonant [CVC] words are recommended. For example, if the teacher wanted to model how to write dog, they would articulate the word slowly and use their fingers to signal how many sounds they hear in the word. They would follow up this visual prompt with drawing Elkonin boxes (Ehri & Roberts, 2014) to visually represent the number of phonemes in dog.

Strategy 2: Using analogy to write new words (Clay, 2016; Hill, 2015)

When students have some known words they can write automatically, teachers can use that information to scaffold early writers to write new words that look like or sound like what is known.

To model this strategy, the teacher could make the known word with magnetic letters and then show how they use that information to help them spell a new word. For example, the teacher makes the known word me with magnetic letters.


They then say “I can use the letters in me to help me write we. When I say me and we I can hear they both have the same last sound /e/. I am going to underline the part that I think is in both words”.


“I know ‘we’ starts with a /w/ sound. A ‘w’ makes /w/. I am going to take away the ‘m’ at the start of me and put a ‘w’ there instead”. I can make we.


To increase the complexity of this strategy, Clay (2016, p. 45) suggests teacher should supply all the letters and models required, asking students to:

  • substitute onsets (e.g. me→we→be→he→she)
  • substitute rimes (e.g. shop→shut→shed→ship)
  • think of a word they know to help them write their new word
  • make another word that sounds like the known word (e.g. cat→mat)
  • make another word that looks like the known word (e.g. star→start)
  • make another word that starts the same way (e.g. drop→drink)
  • make another word that ends the same way (e.g. her→father)
  • use part of a word they know to help them with the tricky bit of their new word (e.g. phone→elephant)

Strategy 3: Breaking words into syllables to assist writing polysyllabic words (Daffern, 2018)

An effective way for early writers to compose polysyllabic words is for them to first break the word into syllables and then identify the sounds within each syllable. To introduce this strategy, a suggested sequence might be:

  1. Teacher models saying their name, listening to the beat and clapping the number of syllables (each syllable must have a vowel or vowel-like sound in it). Students practise with their name and identify how many syllables. Find another student with the same number of syllables in their name/more/less syllables in their name.
  2. Teacher models, orally labelling pictures and listening for the beat in each word. The teacher uses clave sticks to play the number of syllables for each picture label. Students practise with pictures and clave sticks.
  3. Teacher models writing words from the identified pictures. This time the teacher articulates the word, breaks the word into syllables and claps the parts. The teacher then attempts to match letters to the sounds in each syllable. The teacher records the process where all students can view. Students practise with small whiteboards and pictures. See series of syllable lessons in the Literacy Teaching Toolkit for elaboration.


Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Nagy, W. & Carlisle, J. (2010). Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39(2), 141-163.

Clay, M.M. (2014). By Different paths to Common Outcomes. Heinemann.

Clay, M.M. (2016). Literacy lessons Designed for Individuals, 2nd ed. Heinemann.

Daffern, T. (2017). Linguistic skills involved in learning to spell: An Australian study. Language and Education, 31(4), 307-329.

Daffern, T. (2018). Developing editorial skills. In N.M. Mackenzie and J. Scull (Eds.), Understanding and Supporting Writers from Birth to 8. (pp. 116-136), Abingdon, UK.: Routledge.

Ehri, L.C. & Roberts, T. (2014). The Roots of Learning to Read and Write: Acquisition of Letters and Phonemic Awareness. In David K. Dickinson and Susan B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy Research. (pp. 113-131). New York: Guilford Publications.

Goswami, U. (2014). Child Psychology-A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Hill, S. (2015). Developing early literacy: Assessment and teaching (2nd Ed.). South Yarra, Australia: Eleanor Curtain Publishing.

Mackenzie, N. & Hemmings, B. (2014). Predictors of success with writing in the first year of school. Issues in Educational Research, 24(1), 41-55.

Mackenzie, N.M. (2016). Becoming a Writer. In J. Scull and B. Raban (Eds.). Growing up literate

Australian literacy research for practice. (pp. 177-194). South Yarra, Australia: Eleanor Curtain Publishing.

Ritchey, K.D. (2008). The building blocks of writing: Learning to write letters and spell words. Reading and Writing, 21(1-2), (February 2008), 27-47.​