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What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds of language. As students begin to understand the connection between speech and print, they are able to segment sentences into words, then syllables, and finally to phonemes, or the sounds in our language. Alliteration and rhyming are also two phonological awareness tasks. Phonological awareness is often referred to as a continuum, however, not all skills are developed sequentially. While students need to be able to break a sentence down into words before breaking the word into phonemes while writing, they are able to work on phoneme tasks concurrently. Rhyming can be developed in conjunction with some other skills.

A child’s responsiveness to phonics is largely determined by the child’s phonological skills (Kilpatrick). Students that fail to develop phonological and phonemic awareness often struggle in their reading development. In fact, according to Dr. David Kilpatrick, phonological awareness is the single most important factor in differentiating struggling from successful readers. It’s a critical skill during early reading development in pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade. Explicit teaching of phonological awareness in young students can prepare students for future reading success.

Another important distinction to note- phonological awareness is oral. You may have heard the saying, “Phonological awareness can be done in the dark”. But, it should be developed alongside phonics. It’s typical for beginning readers in kindergarten to work on learning letter names and sounds (phonics) while they’re also working on rhyming, alliteration, and segmenting onsets and rimes. To be successful with using phonics to read and spell words, students need strong phonological awareness to connect with their letter-sound knowledge. Phonological awareness, or more specifically phonemic awareness, continues to be built and supported through word building activities in conjunction with phonics. This post looks at phonological awareness as a whole. You can read more about phonemic awareness itself in my What is Phonemic Awareness and Phonemic Awareness Activities posts.


Phonological awareness work in preschool, kindergarten and first grade can result in significant benefits to children’s reading and spelling skills- even with as little as 5 hours of practice (Ehri, 2004). Some children, especially those with decoding difficulties or dyslexia, may continue to need instruction or intervention beyond first grade. This additional work should be targeted to the skill or skills students demonstrate deficiency. The phonological awareness chart below identifies some of the key skills moving from simple to complex. The earliest skills can begin to be worked on before traditional schooling- in pre-k or even at home. Skills like counting words in sentences, clapping syllables, listening for rhyming words, blending onsets and rimes are easily incorporated through oral word-play. More complex phonological awareness skills, like blending and segmenting phonemes, are more traditionally done in academic settings.

Phonological Awareness Continuum


As mentioned above, phonological awareness is often done outside of print. Especially when working on skills beyond the individual sound, or phoneme, level. However, it is very beneficial for students to connect this work to something concrete. Using manipulatives like bingo chips, Unifix cubes, counting bears, and drawing lines helps young students connect that one word to something concretely one. It may also be helpful for students to use their fingers to count one-by-one. I have a more in-depth post on Phonemic Awareness Activities that continues where this one left off.

  • Counting Words in Sentences: While technically a language comprehension activity, it’s important for young students to hear that sentences are composed of individual words. Once students can hear the separation between the words in a sentence, they are ready to start breaking those words into syllables.


  • Counting Syllables: For many students, they are able to identify syllables based on the opening and closing of the mouth. Give one word, have students repeat it, and model how your mouth opens and closes as you say that word. Clapping also helps students identify the syllables within a word.


  • Segmenting and Blending Syllables: A good beginning step for this is using compound words- students can readily hear the separation of /rain/ and /bow/ since it’s a word they are familiar with. After students are able to separate compound words, the next step is with two syllable words such as begin and basket before moving onto 3 syllable words.


  • Manipulating Syllables: Beginning with adding, then deleting, and finally substituting, also is a bit easier to begin when using compound words. It helps young students hear the separation between syllables. After quickly moving to multi-syllable words, students add, remove, and replace syllables to form new or nonsense words. Using something tactile as a placeholder, such as a cube or counting bear, helps students think of each syllable separately. Have students repeat each syllable after you before completing the final task (i.e. removing).


  • Blending Onset and Rimes: A rime is the vowel and any consonants following. In short, you rhyme the rime. Blending onsets and rimes is a precursor to later segmenting and blending phonemes. I find picture cards to be helpful when working on this task so students have a reinforcement of the word. Begin by modeling as you blend an onset (use only onsets with one singular sound) and rime. “I can blend parts to make a word. /c/ /at/ /cat/.”


  • Identifying Rhymes: Identifying rhymes should be done much in the same way as blending onsets and rimes- with that separation between the two so students can hear that they’re the same. “Words rhyme when they have the end with the same sounds. Listen /c/ /at/ /cat/, /b/ /at/ /bat/. Cat and bat rhyme because they both end in the sounds /at/. Initial rhyme identification should include words that are easily identifiable as rhyming but should then move to more complex words. For example, don’t begin with “jam” and “can” because the difference between /m/ and /n/ is not as easy to identify as /m/ and /t/, for example.


  • Generating Rhymes: Generating rhyming words can be a complex task for students still struggling with phonological awareness. With that said, nonsense words should be accepted for rhyming generation so that the focus is on hearing the rime.


Activities for students to practice phonological awareness independently can be difficult to find. My favorite go-to resource is the Florida Center for Reading Research. I have used the activities from this site for almost years to target beginning reading skills. Here are some of the phonological awareness activities they offer.

Digital Rhyme Identification center

I also have a digital activity for rhyme identification: Odd One Out. To download it for free, fill out the form below. You will get the file with the link to create a copy for your own files along with directions on how to use the Google Slides activity. There are 30 Slides included- or easily break it apart into two smaller activities.



In primary grades, phonological awareness if not often assessed. It’s often only assessed in future years when students are struggling. As a deeper understanding of phonological awareness has grown, the push for assessments have also. My first experience with a phonological awareness assessment was the initial sounds assessment in DIBELS. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive phonological awareness assessment, however, the links below are well researched and validated. They are especially helpful for identifying a students’ weakness with phonological awareness- which is typically at the phoneme level.

Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Assessments

The PAST Test from David Kilpatrick

Phonological Awareness Assessments from Reading A-Z

If you’re feeling like you have a strong understanding of phonological awareness and want to take a closer look at phonemic awareness click the image below. It’ll take you to my What is Phonemic Awareness post. Want to learn more about the Science of Reading? My Introduction to Science of Reading series walks you through some of the most respected pieces based on the science.

What is Phonemic Awareness

For additional reading on Phonological Awareness:

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness from Reading Rockets

Phonological Awareness & Intervention By: David Kilpatrick

What is Phonological Awareness: Why and How for beginning reading success



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