Explicit teaching of Phonemic Awareness

When should we introduce phonological and phonemic awareness activities?

It’s widely recognised that phonemic awareness training is effective for assisting children who may be at risk for reading disability (Rehfeld et al., 2022). Preschool children can begin to appreciate the rhythm and rhyme of the English language. When we ask children to clap beats in their name or a word, they are tuning in to the rhythm of our spoken language and identifying syllables. Being able to identify syllables is an important strategy for both later reading and spelling. These skills can be taught through reading high quality children’s literature and oral word play rhyming games.

When children become aware of how words rhyme, they are  demonstrating phonological awareness. If they can recognise and produce patterns such as man, pan, can, ran they are deleting the first phoneme (onset) in the syllable and replacing it with another. Rhyming skills can be helped along by sharing high quality rhyming picture story books. Enjoying rhyming stories and games provides children with an opportunity to become aware that words do not just represent meanings, but they are also patterns of sound that can be manipulated. This awareness is an essential first step to the understanding of the alphabetic principle.

Phonological awareness activities that focus on the larger units of sound, such as syllables and onset-rime segmentation are usually easier for children than the more complex skills of segmenting, blending, deleting and manipulating sounds.

Powerful phoneme awareness development programs have the following characteristics:

  • A gradual, systematic progression through a developmentally and linguistically appropriate sequence of activities
  • Brief, fun, active manipulation of oral language
  • Minimal or carefully chosen use of print in the beginning lessons
  • Gradual introduction of print as children become aware of sounds
  • Instruction in how to blend sounds together as well as how to take them apart or substitute them for one another
  • Use of modelling, demonstration, and application rather than lengthy explanations
  • Use of active responses from children, such as moving counters into boxes, showing syllables or sounds with blocks, matching objects, moving cards in a pocket chart, clapping, speaking, and singing (Worksheets are seldom effective during PA lessons).
Louisa Moats (2010) Language Essentials for Teachers. (2nd ed) Baltimore: Brookes Publishing

For children starting school, there is no evidence that long periods of isolated phonemic awareness activities have a significant effect on a child’s reading and spelling performance (Neilson, 2019). Rather, once basic phonemic awareness has been established in the first weeks of school, further phonemic awareness instruction should occur in tandem with systematic phonics instruction (Brady, 2020). Phonemic awareness when combined with systematic phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension instruction, or the 5 keys of reading, has the potential to increase reading and spelling performance of all students, including those individuals at greatest risk of reading failure or those with reading disabilities.

For older struggling readers with a phonological core deficit,  phonemic awareness continues to play a role in helping them make progress with word-reading skills. These students are often referred to as ‘treatment resistors’. Since phonemic awareness plays a central role in developing sight word vocabulary, phonemic awareness for older readers must involve more than just the skills of segmenting and blending. Phoneme addition, deletion and substitution are used for reading and spelling; however, it should always be kept in mind that proficient phonemic awareness is a route to reading and spelling, not an end in itself.


Brady, S. (2020).
A 2020 perspective on research findings on alphabetics (phoneme awareness and phonics): Implications for instruction.
The Reading League Journal

Neilson, R. (2019).
The phonemic awareness vs. phonics debate: Avoiding friendly fire.
Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin

Rehfeld, D. M., Kirkpatrick, D., O’Guinn, N., & Renbarger,  (2020).
A meta-analysis of phonemic awareness instruction provided to children suspected of having a reading disability.
Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools

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