Phonological Awareness:
Why This Skill Set Is So Important for Young Readers

by Lindsay Barrett

Photo credit: Getty Images

If you have a little one in your life, you’ve likely received advice like, “Teach them animal sounds!” and “Read rhyming books!”

Okay, so you can moo, quack, and read about Llama’s pajamas again and again—but why?

Besides being enjoyable, playing with vocal sounds develops a set of skills called phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and work with sounds in spoken language. Children must have this awareness of sounds in spoken words before being able to read or write them. A strong foundation in phonological awareness prevents reading difficulties later.

Levels of phonological awareness
Anyone who’s tried to understand someone speaking a foreign language knows it’s hard to tell where one word ends and another begins. Word awareness is the ability to separate a stream of speech into individual words. Thinking about each word as a distinct unit is an essential skill when kids start writing sentences.

Hearing and comparing parts of words is another important aspect of phonological awareness. Identifying the three syllables “but,” “ter,” and “fly” in “butterfly” is essential to read or write that word. Hearing how “bake” and “cake” rhyme because they both end in “-ake” is a helpful precursor to learning how to spell those (and similar) words and recognize them in print.

The most complex level of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness—hearing individual sounds within a word. Phonemic awareness goes hand in hand with another skill set you’ve probably heard about: phonics. Phonics skills help kids attach written letters to vocal sounds. A child can use phonemic awareness to hear that the word “cat” has three sounds, /c/ /a/ /t/, and can use phonics knowledge to attach a letter to each sound. Ta-da! That’s when reading and writing magic happens.

Easy ways to build kids’ phonological awareness
Since phonological awareness deals only with uttered sounds, it’s easy to playfully develop it in young children during everyday moments like driving in the car, walking the dog, or chatting during bath time. Next time you have a few minutes of downtime with your kids, try one of these phonological awareness-boosting activities:

Sing songs
Load up your kids’ playlist with songs that experiment with sounds, like Raffi’s classic Willoughby Wallaby Woo. Or, share a sweet song book together and let your kiddo chime in with some words.

Read aloud books that play with sounds
Reading books that include onomatopoeia calls kids’ attention to how words sound (literally!). When you find a family favorite, reread it often; when kids are familiar with the sounds, encourage them to participate.

Play sound games
Sound games are fantastic for filling wait time or injecting a bit of silly fun into your day—and, of course, building kids’ early literacy skills without them suspecting a thing! Here are a few games that encourage phonological awareness:

  • Word list challenge:
    Pick a starting word and see how many rhyming words you can think of. When you run out of actual words in a rhyming set like goat, coat, moat, and float, think of nonsense words like “zoat” and “joat.” (Remember, phonological awareness is about sounds, not written letters, so in this scenario, if kids say words like “note” or “rote,” they count!) You can also play this game with words that start with the same sound or end with the same sound.

  • Talk like a robot:
    This one is fun if you do it by surprise. Talk in a “robot voice” by enunciating each syllable of a word—“Please hur-ry up and buck-le your seat-belt.” (If your kid gives you successful robot voice directions back, like “Let’s get ba-na-na splits af-ter soc-cer,” you should probably reward them!)

  • Talk like an alien:
    Once you’ve mastered robot syllables, mix things up by speaking “Alien.” Enunciate each sound in a word and have kids guess what you’re saying, like “Do you want an /ah/ /p/ /ul/?” for “Do you want an apple?”

  • Guess my word:
    Choose a word and give clues related to its sounds. For instance, “It starts with the sound /d/ and rhymes with frog” for “dog.” If guessing random words is too hard, you can also play this like “I Spy.” Give easy, silly clues about items within eyesight, like “it starts with /sss/ and it rhymes with ‘meatbelt’” for “seatbelt.” When kids get good at this game, mix in clues about ending sounds and the number of syllables.

  • Change my word:
    Manipulating sounds in words builds flexibility and solidifies phonological awareness knowledge. Pick a starting word and give cues to change the beginning sound, like “Start with map and change the beginning to /l/” to get “lap.” Once kids get good at changing beginning sounds, you can cue them to change the ending sound, like, “Start with map and change the /p/ sound to a /d/ sound” to get “mad.”