What is Phonological Awareness and How to Develop It?

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of spoken words. Phonological awareness is an important and reliable predictor of laterreading ability and has, therefore, been the focus of much research.

Phonological awareness involves the detection and manipulation of sounds at three levels of sound structure: syllables, onsets and rimes, and  phonemes. Awareness of these sounds is demonstrated through a variety of tasks (see below). Although the tasks vary, they share the basic requirement that some operation (e.g., identifying, comparing, separating, combining, generating) be performed on the sounds. It is assumed that the individual performing these tasks must have awareness of the units of sound in order to perform the operation.

Phonological awareness is one component of a larger phonological processing system used for speaking and listening. Phonological awareness is different from other phonological abilities in that it is ametalinguistic skill, requiring conscious awareness and reflection on the structure of language. Other phonological abilities: such as attending to speech, discriminating between sounds, holding sounds in memory: can be performed without conscious reflection. However, these other phonological abilities are prerequisite to the development of phonological awareness. Therefore, general listening skills are often among those included in phonological awareness instruction.

The terms phonemic awareness and phonics are often used interchangeably with phonological awareness. However, these terms have different meanings. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that focuses specifically on recognizing and manipulating phonemes, the smallest units of sound. Phonics requires students to know and match letters or letter patterns with sounds, learn the rules of spelling, and use this information to decode (read) and encode (write) words. Phonological awareness relates only to speech sounds, not to alphabet letters or sound-spellings, so it is not necessary for students to have alphabet knowledge in order to develop a basic phonological awareness of language.

How to Develop Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness tasks (adapted from Virginia Department of Education (1998): and Gillon (2004)

Listening skills

The ability to attend to and distinguish environmental and speech sounds from one another

  • Alertness: Awareness and localization of sounds
  • Discrimination: Recognize same/different sounds
  • Memory: Recall of sounds and sound patterns
  • Sequencing: Identify order of what was heard
  • Figure-ground: Isolate one sound from background of other sounds
  • Perception: Comprehension of sounds heard
Syllable-structure awareness tasks
  • Syllable segmentation: e.g., “How many syllables (or parts) are in the word alligator?”
  • Syllable completion: e.g., “Here is a picture of a rabbit. I’ll say the first part of the word. Can you finish the word ra_____?”
  • Syllable identity: e.g., “Which part of complete and compare sound the same?”
  • Syllable deletion: e.g., “Say finish. Now say it again without the fin
Onset-rime awareness tasks
  • Spoken word recognition: e.g., “Do these words rhyme: shell bell?”
  • Spoken rhyme detection or rhyme oddity task: e.g., “Which word does not rhyme: fish, dish, hook?” 
  • Spoken rhyme generation: e.g., “Tell me words that rhyme with bell?”
  • Onset-rime blending 
Phonemic awareness tasks
  • Alliteration awareness (aka phoneme detection and sound or phoneme categorization): e.g., “Which word has a different first sound: bed, bus, chair, ball?”
  • Phoneme matching: e.g., “Which word begins with the same sound as bathorn, bed, cup?”
  • Phoneme isolation: e.g., “Tell me the sound you hear at the beginning of the word food” 
  • Phoneme completion: e.g., “Here is a picture of a watch. Finish the word for me: wa_____ “
  • Phoneme blending with words or non-words: e.g., “What word do these sounds make: m…oo…n?” 
  • Phoneme deletion, also referred to as phoneme elision: e.g., “Say coat. Now say it again but don’t say /k/”
  • Phoneme segmentation with words or non-words: e.g., “How many sounds can you hear in the word it?
  • Phoneme reversal: e.g., “Say na (as in nap). Now say na backwards”
  • Phoneme manipulation: e.g., “Say dash. Now say it again, but instead of /æ/ say /I/”
  • Spoonerism: e.g., felt made becomes melt fade