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Mass Literacy

Phonological Awareness

Reading is the act of processing text in order to derive meaning. To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer,1986). Fluent word reading stems from underlying skills: phonological awareness, phonics and decoding, and automatic word recognition.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is "the recognition that words have constituent sounds. Constituents of a word (e.g., book) may be distinguished in three ways: by syllables (/book/), by onsets and rimes (/b/ and /ook/), or by phonemes (/b/ and /oo/ and /k/)" (Massachusetts 2017 English Language Arts and Literacy Framework ).

Phonological awareness, or the awareness of and ability to work with sounds in spoken language, sets the stage for decoding, blending, and, ultimately, word reading. Phonological awareness begins developing before the beginning of formal schooling and continues through third grade and beyond.

How Phonological Awareness Contributes to Reading Development

Phonological awareness is essential for reading because written words correspond to spoken words. Readers must have awareness of the speech sounds that letters and letter combinations represent in order to move from a printed word to a spoken word (reading), or a spoken word to a written word (spelling) (Moats, 2010). Awareness of the sounds in spoken language is required to learn letter-sound correspondences; to blend sounds together to decode a word; and to "map" words into long-term sight vocabulary (Kilpatrick, 2015).

Problems with phonological awareness have been identified as a major cause of reading difficulties (Share, 2011). Dyslexia is thought to stem from phonological difficulties that lead to severe problems decoding words (Vellutino et al., 2004).

"Students with good phonological awareness are in a great position to become good readers, while students with poor phonological awareness almost always struggle in reading" (Kilpatrick, 2016).

Nadine Gaab
"What usually happens is that children have to fail to learn to read over a significant period of time before someone pays attention and says, 'this child seems to have a reading difficulty.'… This 'wait to fail' approach really is detrimental to the child's academic outcome, but also for the child's mental health."

Nadine Gaab
Associate Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education

How Phonological Awareness Develops

Early phonological skills include awareness of syllables and onset-rime segments. Later, children develop the ability to blend and segment individual phonemes. Advanced phonemic awareness includes the ability to manipulate phonemes by substituting, reversing, and deleting phonemes and continues to develop into third grade and beyond.

Promoting Phonological Awareness in the Classroom

The National Reading Panel (2000) found that phonological awareness can be developed through practice activities as part of core instruction. Phonological and phonemic awareness practice activities can be brief, engaging, and woven into whole-group and small-group instruction based upon students' needs.

Learn More About Phonological Awareness

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all foundational skills instruction. These recommendations and resources will further support English learners to develop phonological awareness. Also, please refer to WIDA Can Dos and WIDA Instructional Supports.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

  • "Young English learners can acquire age appropriate phonemic awareness skills even when their English proficiency is not fully developed and teachers need to provide students opportunities to develop these skills as early as possible" (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007).
  • It can be a challenge for English learners to hear and produce a sound in a new language. Students who cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words will have a difficult time learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words. ELs cannot develop phonological awareness in English until they are familiar with the sounds of English (Bear et al., 2003; Helman, 2004).
  • Phonological skills are more closely related to word reading ability than is language-minority status (Lesaux et al., 2008).
  • Phonological awareness developed in one language has been shown in studies to translate into English, enabling children who have developed awareness in their home language to utilize those skills in English as well (International Literacy Association , 2020).
  • Beginning phonemic awareness practice with the sounds and patterns that the two languages share is supportive. Instruction can then progress to sounds and patterns that exist in English but not the student's home language (Helman, 2004).
  • Since it takes multiple years for students to become proficient acquiring a second language, English learners are often still developing their understanding of phoneme relationships. To become fluent readers, however, ELs must master advanced phonemic awareness skills. ELs without advanced phonemic awareness will place higher demands on their working memory to decode. Doing so limits access to working memory for comprehension (Bear et al., 2003; Helman, 2004).

Supports for English Learners:


Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Helman, L. A., & Baren, T. (2003). Orthographic development and learning to read in two different languages. In G. G. García (Ed.), English learners: Reaching the highest level of English literacy (pp. 71–95). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Helman, L. A. (2004). Building on the sound system of Spanish: Insights from the alphabetic spellings of English-language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57 (5), 452–460

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (Essentials of psychological assessment). Boston: John Wiley and Sons.

Kilpatrick, D. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step by step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Casey & Kirsch Publishers.

Lesaux, N., Geva, E., Koda, K., Siegel, L.S., & Shanahan, T. (2008). Development of literacy in second language learners. In August, D. and Shanahan, T., Eds. Developing Reading and Writing in Second-Language Learners: Lessons from the Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. New York: Routledge.

Linan-Thompson, S. and Vaughn, S. (2007) Research-based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Learners, Grades K–4. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.Moats, L. C. (2010). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Pub.

Share, D. L. (2011). On the role of phonology in reading acquisition: The self-teaching hypothesis. In S. A. Brady, D. Braze, & C. A. Fowler (Eds.), New directions in communication disorders research. Explaining individual differences in reading: Theory and evidence (p. 45–68). Psychology Press.

Vellutino, F., Fletcher, J., Snowling, M., & Scanlon, D. (2004). Specific reading disability (dyslexia): What have we learned in the past four decades? Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines. 45. 2–40. 10.1046/j.0021-9630.2003.00305.x.

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Last Updated: July 17, 2024

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