Do You Know Key Phonological Awareness Concepts? Test Yourself.

Guest Blog by Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan, Ed.D. CCC-SLP

If you are working with the school-aged population, you’ve probably heard the term “phonological awareness” quite a bit.

We need phonological awareness to read and write, and training these skills can have a positive impact on the decoding skills of students of all ability levels (Yeh & Connell, 2007).  Measuring phonological awareness as early as preschool or Kindergarten can help us predict which students will be stronger readers and who may be at risk (Sprugevica & Hoien, 2003).   

Although these skills are critical, many professionals working with school-aged children lack the necessary knowledge of phonological awareness skills (Spencer, Schuele, Guillot, & Lee, 2008)

Before we go any further, let’s test your skills to see where you stand.  


How did you do? If you aced the quiz, great job! You’re well on your way!

Here are five important things you need to know.

1. Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are not the same thing.

Phonological awareness is the conscious awareness of and ability to manipulate sound segments in words (Blischak, Shah, Lombardino, Chiarella, 2004). Phonological awareness includes phonemic awareness, syllabic awareness, segmental awareness, rapid naming, and working memory (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Sprugevica & Hoien, 2003).

Phonemic awareness refers only to the awareness of sounds, also known as phonemes.  It’s important to make this distinction so that we know how to move from easier to more difficult phonological awareness skills.

2. Blending and segmentation skills are needed to learn reading and writing.

There are a number of skills that fall under the phonological awareness umbrella; such as phoneme isolation, rhyming, or other phoneme manipulation tasks.  Two phonological awareness skills that are critical for reading and writing are blending and segmentation.

Here are some examples of blending and segmentation at the syllable, onset-rime, and phoneme level:

Poor phonological blending and segmentation are red flags for future reading difficulties.  However, if we teach students to blend and segment, we can have a positive impact on decoding skills (Schuele &  Bodreau, 2008). 

3.  Smaller the linguistic unit, the more difficult the task.

Phonological awareness tasks involve manipulation of linguistic units in words.  Examples of linguistic units include syllables, onsets, rimes, or phonemes. 

Tasks that involve manipulating larger linguistic units are easier than those involving smaller units.  For example, it’s easier to segment words into syllables than segment them into phonemes (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Schuele & Bodreau, 2008).

Here are some comparisons between phonological segmentation tasks to illustrate this point:

There are other factors that can impact the difficulty of phonological awareness tasks, such as the type of phonemes in words or syllable structure; but these examples can provide a starting point.

4. We learn sounds before letters

Our brains are built in a way that helps us to grasp the spoken sound units in a language. This means children may be able to complete phonological awareness tasks (e.g., segmentation, blending, rhyming) before they learn to read and spell.

For example, children may be able to tell you the word “hat” starts with the “h” sound before they can tell you it starts with the letter H. They may also be able to tell you the sounds in the word are “h…a…t,” before they can spell the word.  This means we may want to make sure a student can answer the question, “What sound is at the beginning of hat?” before we ask “What letter is at the beginning of hat?”

5. We need to explicitly tie sounds to written symbols.

Many professionals mistakenly introduce letters or ask students to spell and read “sight words” without drawing attention to the sound units in words.  This is problematic because written symbols will lack meaning if we don’t teach students how to associate them with the sounds they are hearing.

What we should be doing is incorporating written symbols into our phonological awareness instruction.  Adding emphasize on orthography to our phonological instruction will actually make it more effective than doing phonological awareness without written symbols (Ehri et al., 2001).  

One way to do this is to have the students vocalize the sounds in words as they are working on spelling. For example, if a student were writing the word hop, they would say, “h…o…p” as they were writing.

Here’s another simple activity that can help children associate sounds with letters:

  • Start by drawing one line for every phoneme in a word.  Then have students write the letters that correspond with each phoneme on each of the lines.  Here are some examples of some CVC words and how they would look after completing this task:
  • bat: bat
  • sheep: sh  eep
  • feast: f  east
  • You may have to model this a few times first.

When we draw attention to the sounds in the words, we are helping students understand why words are spelled the way they are using students’ existing phonological awareness skills.  If we do this, students will be more likely to remember how to spell and read words

As an SLP, you have extensive knowledge of language and phonology

This makes you well-equipped to deliver effective phonological awareness instruction.  Remember these five things, and you will get your students on the path to success.

To get a free phonological awareness screener to assess your students’ skills so you can get started, click here

Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan, Ed.D. CCC-SLP, has been a practicing speech language pathologist since 2004, and has worked in the schools and medical settings with adults and children, has supervised clinical students, and has taught college courses in Special Education and Communication Sciences and Disorders. She currently works in the school systems and runs, a website with innovative resources for treating language disorders with an emphasis on metacognition.


Anthony J. L., & Lonigan, C. J. (2004). The nature of phonological awareness: Converging evidence from  four studies of preschool and early grade school children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 43-55.  doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.96.1.43

Blischak, D. M., Shah, S. D., Lombardino, L. J., Chiarella, K. (2004). Effects of phonemic awareness instruction on the encoding skills of children with severe speech impairment. Disability and Rehabilitation, 26, 1295–1304.

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Willows, D.M., Schuster, B.V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250-287.

Schuele, C. M., Boudreau, D. (2008). Phonological awareness intervention: Beyond the basics. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 39, 3-20.  

Spencer, E.J., Schuele, C.M., Guillot, K.M., & Lee, M.W. (2008). Phonemic awareness skill of speech-language pathologists and other educators. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 39, 512-520. 

Sprugevica, I., & Hoien, T. (2003). Early phonological skills as a predictor of reading acquisition: A follow-up study from kindergarten to the middle of grade 2. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 44, 119-124.

Yeh, S.S., & Connell, D.B. (2008). Effects of rhyming, vocabulary and phonemic awareness instruction on phoneme awareness. Journal of Research in Reading, 31, 243-256. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2007.00353.x