Phonological Awareness and Literacy

Phonological Awareness is the ability to consciously reflect on or ‘tune into’ the sound (phonological) system of our language.
Phonological Awareness consists of many skills that are related to early reading development.
At a general level Phonological Awareness involves an ability to ‘tune into’:
• the beats or syllables in words (hel – i – cop – ter)
• rhyme patterns (cat, fat, mat, sat)
• separating the first sound (onset) from the rime pattern (eg s-ip; sl-ip; sn-ip; sk-ip)
• individual sounds in words:
starting sounds (“fish” starts with /fff/)
ending sounds (“sun” ends with /nnn/)
middle sounds (pot, cob, rock, all have the same middle sound)
We can then use these sounds we ‘tune into’ for:
• blending or sliding separate sounds together (sss-uh-nnn makes sun)
• segmenting or snipping words into separate sounds (s-l-i-p)
• removing, adding or reordering sounds within the word to make a different word (clap without the “l” says cap)
There is much research that shows that phonological awareness is an important component of early reading success. A child’s level of phonological awareness prior to school is one of the best predictors of their later reading development. Good phonological awareness enables children to more readily develop an understanding of the alphabetic nature of English – i.e. that there is a direct relationship between the sound of the spoken words and the letters that represent them in written language. Studies have also shown that training in phonological awareness has an impact on reading acquisition. This is particularly so when phonological awareness instruction is combined with letters. Much can be done during the preschool years to provide children with opportunities for developing sound awareness and to prepare them for literacy instruction.
It is also important to remember that although phonological awareness has been identified through research as being a vital component for developing literacy skills it is only one of five key components – phonological awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency.
Phonological awareness can appear to develop ‘naturally’ in some children through experience with oral language games such as rhyme and exposure to written language. For other children phonological awareness requires explicit and intense teaching.
Phonological Awareness is complex and requires abstract thinking. It is quite understandable that young children arrive at school with a wide variety of phonological awareness ability and early experiences with literacy.
When learning to read and spell children must understand that words are made up of sounds that can be sequenced, segmented, blended and rearranged. If they do not, they are unlikely to learn the mappings of letter-sound patterns and will find it difficult to tackle the reading or spelling of unfamiliar words. Phonological awareness is one of the key contributors to the development of automatic word recognition. Repeated matchings of correct sound and letter patterns help to build up the young reader’s reading vocabulary. This in turn leads to automatic word recognition and reading mastery. Lack of automaticity will prevent students from becoming independent readers and will impact on their reading comprehension.
In addition to performing poorly on phonological awareness tasks, some students have specific problems with a range of other phonological tasks, all of which contribute to the reading difficulty. They may:
• confuse similar sounding words such as cone/comb
• have problems recalling words especially names
• have difficulty remembering word sequences such as rhymes, songs and letters of the alphabet
• be inaccurate in their articulation of multi-syllabic words (eg saying cimanom for cinnamon; busgetti for spaghetti; hopsital for hospital).
These difficulties all have their basis in the inaccurate laying down, storage and retrieval of sounds – they are often referred to as phonological processing problems.
Home can be an ideal place to involve children in activities that will develop phonological awareness in a fun and relaxed way. Even if a child is not yet ready for reading, or know any letters of the alphabet, they can still develop good listening skills and build early levels of phonological awareness that will support them later when presented with formal reading instruction. Parents can encourage this development through reading and talking about books regularly with their children and introducing them to rhymes and sound games.
For those children who are having difficulty developing their phonological awareness skills a speech pathologist can provide specific, intensive, but fun activities to help develop a child’s phonological awareness and literacy skills.