Do You Hear That? Why Phonological Awareness is So Important for Preschoolers

Phonological Awareness is quite possibly my favorite early literacy  skill to discuss.  Partly because many people are already implementing it to some degree without recognizing it (remember: recognize, emphasize, maximize), but also because many resources and studies suggest that it is the #1 predictor of reading success.  Which is often surprising to people, since it has nothing to do with letters on a page.

I wrote about phonological awareness a while back , but this is a topic that could be written on for days!   Here are a few more insights to phonological awareness, what it is, why it’s important, and how it is learned.

A Few Definitions

Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness.  Phonological awareness has to do with the child’s ability to hear and manipulate the sounds within words.  This includes phonemes, syllables, rhyming, blending, segmenting, and even recognizing the number of words within a sentence.  Phonemic awareness has to do more specifically with the individual phonemes in words, and is therefore sort of a subheading under the larger, overarching term phonological awareness.  The two, however, are quite similar and are used interchangeably in most of the literature on the subject, and are often abbreviated as simply PA

What’s a phoneme?  Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in words.  The word “cat”, for example, has three letters, one syllable, but three phonemes, /k/ /a/ /t/.    The word “tree” is also one syllable, has four letters, but has only three phonemes as well, /t/ /r/ /ē/.  There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 phonemes in the English language.  (You can download a chart of the phonemes from docstoc here.)

Phonics vs Phonological Awareness.  Phonological awareness is a skill based solely on hearing and manipulating sounds.  It is not a written task and is not dependent upon meaning.  (So Zax and tracks do rhyme.  Just one more reason why Dr. Seuss is so great!)  Phonological awareness focuses on isolating the task of hearing the subtle sounds in words.  Phonics begins to connect those individual sounds to the written letters that create them.  It is necessary to have a solid foundation in phonological awareness to truly benefit from phonics training.

The Tasks

While there are many ways to categorize the skills involved in phonological awareness, Marilyn Jager Adams, a highly regarded literacy expert, outlined five tasks in relation to PA.  The progression of skill mastery projects through first grade, so don’t expect your preschoolers to do them all right now!  They are also not listed in a progressive order, but varying levels of mastery may be accomplished across each of the skills as individual children move towards proficiency.  And competency continues to develop, even after children have begun to read.  I’ll briefly outline those five tasks here, along with examples for each.

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Alliteration

  • Utilize a variety of poems, fingerplays,songs, nursery rhymes, and rhyming stories.
  • Encourage nonsense words in rhymes.
  • Clap, pat, and drum rhythms in songs and rhymes.
  • Substitute rhyming words in directions and transitions (“Pally can go to snack” –instead of “Sally”.)

Oddity Tasks

  • In a set, identify the object that differs phonemically in a specified position.  For example, in the set cat, can, and mouse, which word starts with a different sound?
  • Identify the word that does not rhyme in a given set.  For example: rock, pig, sock.
  •  Use a puppet or picture cut out to “eat” the object that doesn’t belong.
  • Use a giant felt X to X-out the picture of the “trickster”.

Orally Blend and Divide Words

  • Use visuals like a rubber band, slinky, or hands to “stretch” out the sounds in a word and then quickly and smoothly blend them together.  Break words up phonetically or by onset and rime.  (l-a-dd-er or l-adder, respectively)  Use it as a “sneaky word” activity, with you dividing and the children blending to guess the word!
  • Have children talk like a robot – they naturally divide along syllables.
  • Use rhythm sticks , drums, or simply clap to beat out syllables in names and words.  (I love to use a pumpkin as a drum for this task in the fall.)

Orally Segmenting Words

  • Have children use counters or Elkonin boxes to count the number of sounds in a word.
  • Have children sort pictures according to the number of sounds in the words.  (3= pot, cat, dad; 4= water, dance, jump)
  • Encourage children to talk like a turtle, slowing down to divide into phonemes.

Manipulation of Sounds

  • Children develop the ability to delete and substitute phonemes within words.
  • Give clues for a “mystery word.” (It rhymes with rose, but starts with /n/.)
  • If I said “book” without the /b/, what would it sound like?  (“ook”)

Two Tips

There are two things I feel are necessary to point out before you jump into more PA training.  First, it is very important to model correct pronunciation, especially when doing PA exercises.  For example, if you (as many around here do) pronounce “mountain” as “mou’en”, a child will not be able to correctly identify the phonemes in that word.  Secondly, since PA activities often rely on pictures rather than written words, it is important to clarify with your children, exactly what word each picture represents.  Children will have a hard time matching “bug” and “rug” if they are looking at them as a “beetle” and a “place mat”.

Great Activities!

Part of what makes phonological awareness so great is the fact that it really can be fun!  It’s all about playing with the sounds in words.  There are three books that I use, which are full of great activities as well as more information on the topic of PA.  You might want to check one out for yourself! 

How do you encourage the children you love and teach to get ready to read by playing with the sounds in words?

 Photo by Charlie Balch.
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Filed under Article, Building Readers, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience

13 responses to “Do You Hear That? Why Phonological Awareness is So Important for Preschoolers

  1. Wow! Wonderful tips that I just had not thought of before. Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. Awesome,
    Do you mind if I post a link to this page on my pre-reading skills page? I will wait to hear from you!

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  6. Catherine McMahon

    Love, love, love your site and blog. I teach 4K along with special needs children. I am just starting a Moodle site for our team and a blog for parents. With your permission, could I link or credit your work on either of these for my parents?
    Keep up the wonderful work!

    • notjustcute

      Of course! As long as you provide credit and a link, I am always happy to know that what I write is getting out there to the people who can put it to use!

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