Phonemic Awareness For Literacy - How Can We Help Develop It?

Written by Jan Polkinghorne, Jolly Phonics Tutor

This is not intended to be a theoretical discourse but a rather a practical list of suggestions for parents, SSOs and teachers. However, before practical suggestions can be considered, a basic level of understanding is needed.

What is phonological awareness?

A person with strong phonological awareness should be able to recognise and use rhyme, break words into syllables, blend phonemes (sounds) into syllables and words, identify beginning and ending sounds in a syllable and see small words in larger words (e.g. cat in catalogue). In the strictest sense, phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and only deals with one aspect of sound: the phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound which can make a difference to the meaning of a word. E.g. if we change the first phoneme in sit from /s/ to /h/, we change the word from sit to hit and change the meaning of the word. Those who can’t hear separate sounds in words can’t relate the sounds to the letters of the alphabet. This means they have no ability to read and write words they have not seen before and are left to rely on rote learning all words for both reading and writing. The above two skills are oral/ aural and do not need a knowledge of written letters. Phonics refers to the relationship between individual sounds (phonemes) and the letters which represent them (graphemes). Most phonemes are represented by a single letter, but others are represented by two or more letters (e.g.,sh, ch, th, ck, igh, ough etc.)

Why do some people struggle with phonological awareness?

Phonological ability is a blend of genetic ability (some are born more able to hear these sounds than others) and learned skills. The earlier children develop these skills the better. Phonological ability has very definitely been found to be a predictor of later ability to read and write effectively. Those not born with these skills can develop them with training. Some need more training than others. Many say reading poetry and rhyming stories to children in the womb has an influence on phonological ability. Certainly, very early exposure to rhyme, to encouragement to hear initial, final and middle sounds in words helps develop these skills and should be part of a child’s speech development from a very early age. Phonological activities should be part of every preschool course. Regular short, fun activities built in to the routine of the day are most effective. Ideally we should not teach letters until a person can hear individual sounds in a word. As they progress to phonics and matching letters with sounds, phonological skills should be an integral part of every lesson and continue throughout primary school. Phonemic awareness development should definitely not cease at the end of junior primary.

Why do adults find phonemic awareness tasks difficult? 

Adults who have learnt to spell by rote often do not find these tasks easy. Their ability to spell gets in the way. They need to temporarily regress and focus on the sounds in the word, not the letters. To be able to help a child learn these skills we first need to master them ourselves. We also need to remember that young children learn much faster if we refer to the letters by their sound name rather than the alphabet name. (/a/ as in apple rather than /ai/ as in rain.) We and the children we work with, need to say the sounds accurately and clearly. (You Tube – The Sounds of English.)

Before trying to help others, test your own phonemic awareness. (Answers Below)

1. How many syllables in each of the following words?

animal, elephant, vision, caution, cat

2. How many sounds (not letters) in each the following words?

flag, bump, phone, tower

3. What is the 2nd sound (not 2nd letter) in the following words?

hide, whale, shell, that

4. What is the last sound (not letter) in the following words?

though, giraffe

5. Join the rhyming pairs of words.

scruff, sky, come, enough, high, thumb

How can we help develop phonemic awareness at home, preschool or school?

Nursery rhymes, Dr Seuss Books, I Spy (sound names not alphabet names), Pig Latin (milk becomes ilk-may), Tongue twisters (Sammy saw seashells at the seaside). Do not use written words. Use pictures or real objects as aids;

Rhyming Nursery Rhymes. Dr. Seuss books, picture books containing rhyme, pictures, toys, rhyming bingo.


Does hat rhyme with cat?


Which one sounds the same as milk? (silk, moon, tell)


Which one does not belong? cat, milk, hat


Make a word that rhymes with hat. Complete with a rhyming word “Jack & Jill went up the ……..


Dr Seuss books, story books, poetry books, tongue twisters, toys, foods picture cards. Do tree, top, and tiger begin with the same sound? Find me a toy that begins with the same sound as teddy. Which words begin with the same sound? dog, cat , door.

Initial Sounds:

Does cat begin with d? What does milk begin with? Does pie begin with the same sound as panda?

Final Sounds:

Does cat end with t? What does tin end with? Does spoon end with the same sound as fan?

Blending: (Joining sounds together to make words.)

Oral first. No written letters involved. Find some toys or pictures or go for a walk in the garden. Say the words slowly; stretch the sounds out when you start, then gradually leave a space between the sounds; (e.g. sat s s s s a a a a t t t). Activities such as find me the ddoogg. For children who struggle, start with a choice of two objects or pictures. Gradually increase the number of choices available.

Segmentation: (Breaking a word into individual sounds.)

Oral first. No written letters. Find some toys or pictures or go for a walk in the garden. What are the sounds in dog? At first help and stretch the sounds out but run them into each other ddddooooogggg? As you progress leave a space between the sounds. D-o-g. Next hold up a finger for each sound or put out a counter for each sound as you say it out loud. Clap the sounds. Even better take a big step for each sound. The bigger the movement- the better the learning.

Once children have learnt the letter sound correspondences then have letter cards or magnetic letters available and as they call out the sounds find the letter they call out. Begin with 2 and 3 sounds and gradually increase. They do not have to be real words. Children love playing with sounds putting them together and pulling them apart. It is the beginning of comprehension to be able to discern whether they are real words or not.

Manipulation: Only move to this skill once blending and segmenting are mastered either orally or with letters.
Initial Sound:

Say or make hat. Now change h to s. What does it say? sat.

Ending Sound:

Say or make tin. Now change n to p. What does it say? tip

Middle Sound:

Say or make sat. Now change a to i. What does it say? sit.

Initial Sound:

Say or make hat. Take away h. What does it say? at. Say or make smile. Take away s. What does it say? mile.

Middle Sound:

Say or make nest. Take away the s. What does it say? net.

Ending Sound:

Say or make taps. Take away the s. What does it say? tap.

Phonemic Activities for the Preschool and Reception (click picture to download) (click picture to download)

Sounds Like Fun CD-Rom

SPELD SA Phonological Awareness Course

Older Students (any age) Apps

Free Phonemic Awareness Tests

Apps for iPad

1. Sounds Lite:- Free + paid version

2. Partners in Rhyme – Preschool University – free

3. Rhyming Words - paid version

4. Syllables Splash free or paid version

5. Phonics Awareness, 1st Grade free

6. Reading Magic- by Preschool University


Answers: 1. a-ni-mal (3) e-le-phant (3) vi-sion (2) cau-tion (2) cat (1)

2. flag (4), bump (4), phone (3), tower (3)   3. ie, ai, e, a   4. ow, f   5. scruff/ enough, sky/ high, come/ thumb



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