Parents might assume that once young children learn their letter sounds, they should be able to read. However, just because children can associate letters with sounds (phonics), doesn’t mean they are ready to blend them together to read or ‘sound out’ words. Learning to read involves children coordinating their prior experiences, their oral language knowledge, phonics, and strong phonological awareness.

Ask your child what word this makes: /s/ – /a/ – /n/ – /d/ (say the sounds, not the letter name, leaving breaks between each sound). Can she identify the word sand? This task reveals a child’s level of phonological awareness. Children need to be able to blend sounds together—with their ears and voice only—before they can apply this skill to reading words. In fact, there is a range of related phonological skills that must be in place for children to become successful readers and writers.

What is phonological awareness?

Simply put, phonological awareness means understanding how our spoken language can be broken into sounds, and in different ways. It refers to a child’s ability to hear and recognise that our speaking is made up of words, and that words are made of smaller units of sound. Phonological awareness is critical for every child, as it provides foundational skills needed for reading, writing and spelling. 40 years of research confirms it is the best predictor of future literacy achievement.

Phonological awareness is made up of many skills, which range from easy to advanced. These include being able to hear, produce, and manipulate:

  • Rhyming words
  • Alliteration
  • Syllables
  • Onset & rime (‘breaking’ words after the first sound: c/at; j/ump; s/ing)
  • Beginning sounds
  • Individual sounds in words (referred to as phonemic awareness, this is the highest level of phonological awareness)

Check back in the coming weeks for more information about specific phonological skills. I will go into detail about each one and give suggestions on how to develop these in your child. If you can’t wait for that, here are some quick and easy games to start with!