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Phonological Awareness: The First Reading Component

A picture of a phonological awareness chart. The chart includes the words rhyming, blending, segmenting, and manipulating.

Phonological awareness is the awareness that spoken language, or sounds, make up words. It is a crucial foundational skill needed for reading success. Phonemic awareness is the most advanced component of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the smallest unit of sounds found in words.

Phonological awareness skills may include rhyming, blending, segmenting, and manipulating. The more basic skills are typically taught before phonemic awareness skills, due to the level of difficulty of identifying the smallest unit of sounds in spoken language. Phonological awareness is all about oral language and should not be confused with phonics, which is all about print. Making a clear differentiation between letters and sounds when teaching students how to read will set them up for success.

Phonological awareness activities should also be taught explicitly and systematically, just like all the other components of reading. These skills are usually taught in pre-k and continue up until about first grade. According to the Rollins Center for Language & Literacy, there are three levels in the phonological awareness category. The categories are word, syllable, and phoneme.

1. Word (Segmenting words in sentences) is a really good introduction and baseline to phonological awareness. The objective is to help students identify the number of words they hear in sentences. They can do this by clapping out the words, snapping out the words, or jumping to each word. Whatever works for the student and the person giving the instruction. (Compound word blending) is when you take two separate words and put them together to make a compound word. This activity can be done in several different ways. Students enjoy movement with these types of activities and they tend to retain information when engaged in multi-sensory activities.

2. Syllable (Syllable segmentation) The objective of syllable segmentation is to identify syllables in words. Dividing words into parts, or syllables, help with decoding, spelling, and accuracy when reading. (Syllable deletion) is when you take away a word-part from a compound word or a two-syllable word, and say the remaining part aloud. Worksheets are a good way to introduce this skill due to the visuals it provides. After students have mastered segmenting, blending, and deletion, they are ready to move on to manipulating syllables using (onset-rime) activities. The objective for onset-rime is to help students identify the first consonant, or a consonant cluster, in words and the rime (or from the vowel and the consonants after the vowel), to form a word. This is different from compound word blending because onset-rime words are not compound words. A good way to demonstrate this is by using your hands to separate the onset and rime and clapping your hands together to form the word. Remember to follow the I do, we do, you do method so students can have a good understanding of their expectations.

3. Phoneme (Phoneme isolation) is identifying the initial, final, and medial sounds in words, in that order. During phoneme isolation activities, students are asked to identify the sounds they hear in words. No need to show the students the words, just say the words aloud. Just a reminder, phonological awareness is all about the spoken language and not written. Phoneme-related activities do not need to be completed in one sitting. Teachers can work on identifying the beginning sounds in words one week and the final sounds in those same words the following week. (Phoneme deletion) is when you delete one phoneme, or sound, in a word. This is a pretty tough skill to master for some students. It requires a lot of thinking and when you delete some sounds in words, you get a nonsense word. Students may have a hard time saying nonsense words because it isn't a word they use in their everyday language. Giving demonstrations and telling students that they may not say a real word when deleting a sound, will help them understand the objective. (Phoneme substitution) is when you take out a phoneme in a word and replace it with a new phoneme to get a new word. This is the most advanced skill to learn in phonological awareness-related activities. It may take several practice rounds for students to master this skill.

So in summary, there are several different phonological awareness objectives. Start with word-related activities and move along until you reach phoneme-related activities. Some schools have even changed their scope and sequence to working only on phonological awareness skills during the first half of a school year and then moving on to phonics in the second part of the school year. Please do not underestimate the importance of explicitly teaching phonological awareness. Visit the resources tab on the blog to get free phonological awareness activities and assessments today (

I hope this blog post on phonological awareness helped you understand the definition as well as the importance of having a great foundation in these skills. Stay tuned for the second component of reading: Phonics.

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