Development of Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Skills

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Students learning to read need to be aware of sounds in speech. This lesson outlines these phonemic awareness skills and details age ranges for their development.

What Is Phonological Awareness?

Learning to read is a complicated process. Children first need to be able to hear and identify individual sounds in speech, then remember the letters of the alphabet that correspond to each sound, then blend the letters together to decode words.

If that weren't enough, letters represent different sounds depending on their usage. Think about the letter 'h' that can make the sound as in 'hat', or blend with /t/ to make 'both', or the letter /g/ as in tough, and so on. How do teachers make sure students keep all this information straight?

They start with the basics. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, recognize, and manipulate sounds in speech. Phonological awareness is a more comprehensive skill set that involves the ability to understand and manipulate various parts of language, including syllables and words, and the ability to see the connections between similar words.

Phonological and phonemic awareness skills develop at different ages according to a natural progression. When teachers start to work with young children, they use screenings to assess the development of these skills and provide specific instruction as needed.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: 2-4 Years

Very young children are just learning to speak and don't typically have any phonological awareness skills until around their second birthday. Their earliest phonemic awareness skills involve rhymes.

Between two and three years, children begin to recognize rhymes - such as cat, bat, and hat. Between three and four years, they begin to make rhymes themselves.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: 4-5 Years

Between four and five years, children's phonemic awareness begins to accelerate. They can:

  • Identify and count syllables in words, such as three syllables for the word 'awareness'
  • Recognize and create their own onset sounds, like/b/ for 'back' and 'book'
  • Segment onset sounds and blends, such as /c/ + /at/ is 'cat'
  • Hear, count, and identify individual sounds in speech, phonemes, as in the word 'back' has three phonemes - /b/a/k/.

Note that all these skills are oral - at this point children are relying on their auditory skills to hear, process, and manipulate sounds in speech. They'll take these skills to the next level soon.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: 5-6 Years

The late preschool and early kindergarten years are jam-packed with learning phonemic awareness skills. It is usually at this point that children are introduced to putting together their phonemic awareness and phonics skills. In other words, they're introduced to how letters represent sounds and to written letters and words, beginning to read.

Teachers are still focused, though, on creating and reinforcing phonemic awareness. What are the new phonemic awareness skills at this age? Children can:

  • Discriminate between words that rhyme and don't in a set. For example, in the set 'run, fun, and fat' the non-rhyming word is 'fat'.
  • Isolate and identify beginning and ending sounds. In the word 'fat' a child this age could say the beginning sound is /f/ and end is /t/.
  • Identify an odd word in a set. In the set 'fat, cat, and cat' the different word is 'fat'.
  • Blend and segment words with 3-4 phonemes. The word 'hats' would be identified with four sounds - /h/a/t/s/.
  • Create a list of words that begin with the same sound, such as 'car, candle, cake, cookie, crash'.

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