A Parent’s Guide to Phonological Awareness

Do you know what makes a good reader? It’s not what you think! Phonological awareness prepares your child up for reading success.


Most parents believe learning to read starts with the alphabet – but guess what – it starts even earlier!

When you sing nursery rhymes with your children, you’re developing important pre-reading skills.

This is because written language is really a code that humans created to represent speech sounds.

So reading in English begins with an awareness of spoken language called phonological awareness.

You won’t see phonological awareness mentioned in any parenting books, though. How are non-teacher parents going to know what it means?

I’m going to demystify this important part of learning to read with this parents’ guide to phonological awareness.

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What Does Phonological Awareness Even Mean?

Simply, phonological awareness is an understanding of different types of sounds in spoken language.

Long before your child starts to notice the alphabet or written words in books, your child is picking up on parts of spoken language that are the foundation of learning to read.

English is a code of 26 letters that can represent 44 different speech sounds. But before children can crack that code, they need to really hear language and speech sounds.

While some children pick up on phonological awareness on their own, many children need to be taught these important skills.

How to Teach Phonological Awareness to Your Child

While the term phonological awareness represents a big, broad idea, you can teach it to your child in a lot of small, tangible ways.

You might already be building phonological awareness by:

  • reciting nursery rhymes like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,”
  • singing songs like “Down by the Bay,” and
  • reading books with alliteration and rhyming.

You probably noticed these are all done aloud – and that’s right.

Since phonological awareness is all about spoken language, it is practiced with speaking and hearing. There are no letters or words involved.

But I can make it even more concrete for you! We can break down phonological awareness into five separate skills.

Five Phonological Awareness Skills

If this still seems pretty abstract, you can separate phonological awareness into five concrete skills.

These skills move from the largest to the smallest units of speech:

  • word awareness
  • alliteration
  • rhyming
  • syllables
  • onset and rime

You can read an explanation of each one below, and you don’t need to be a reading teacher to do it.

1 – Word Awareness

Word awareness is a child’s ability to hear words as the largest individual units of speech.

Your child can demonstrate word awareness by first listening to words and choosing the one that doesn’t belong.

For example, you might say, “ball, ball, truck, ball.” Your child will eventually recognize that truck is the word that doesn’t belong.

Eventually, older children can even count the number of words they hear in a simple sentence like, “I like to eat chocolate ice cream.” Your child will be able to tell you that the sentence has seven words.

2 – Alliteration

Alliteration is when initial sounds are repeated in words. An example of alliteration is:

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

This saying uses alliteration by repeating the /p/ sound.

Children understand alliteration when they hear and identify those repeated initial sounds.

You can say silly sentences or phrases like “Hairy hamburgers have horns” and see if your child can name the /h/ sound.

3 – Rhyming

Rhyming is when two words end with the same sound.  Note that the sounds can be spelled differently but still rhyme. For example, pale and mail rhyme.

Most children will be able to hear the rhymes in a book long before they can come up with their own rhymes – this is typical.

You probably have a rhyming book at home already. Start reading it to your child.

Once that you’ve read it dozen times or so, read the all words except the last rhyming word and see if your child can fill it in.

For example, “Timmy was not small, Timmy was so very —-.” Your child can say “tall.”

4 – Syllables

Words are made of syllables. So syllables are the next largest unit of languages.

Syllables are the groups of sounds that make the units in words. Syllables have one vowel sound.

For example, in the word “rabbit,” the syllables are rab and bit. Both syllables have a vowel.

Start with easy two-syllable words for your child like bunny or kitten. Show your child if they put their hand under their chin, that their mouth moves down for each syllable.

Ask your child to count the syllables in tree, chicken, and submarine.

5 – Onset and rime

Onset and rime are the two parts of words.

The onset is the consonant sounds prior to a vowel in a word. The rime is the vowel sounds and any consonants that follow after it.

Here’s some examples of onset and rime:

  • cat – /c/ /at/
  • flap – /fl/ /ap/
  • chips – /ch/ /ips/

You can tell your child you’re going to play a game with them. Set out a few objects:

  • car
  • block
  • spoon

Say each object by separating the onset and rime. You can say, “Hand me the /sp/ /oon/.”

These five skills and activities are simple, but they truly develop a deep understanding of speech and language to help your child be a strong reader.

Phonological Awareness vs Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness skills come under the umbrella of phonological awareness.

While phonological awareness is an understanding of sounds in spoken language, phonemic awareness is the skill of identifying, isolating, and manipulating sounds within words.

A simple example is asking your child to name all the sounds in “cat.” Your child would say /c/ /a/  /t/.

Then you might ask your child to substitute /b/ for /c/. Your child should be able to hold those sounds in his memory and say “bat.”

After a child has strong skills with onset and rime, you can practice phonemic awareness with your child.

What’s the difference between phonics and phonological awareness?

Phonics is connecting speech sounds to letters. When children struggle with “sounding it out,” or applying phonics rules, it likely means that phonological awareness is weak.

Your child needs to understand and hear speech sounds long before they can connect sounds to letters and then blend them into words.

boy reading a green book with words "good readers have strong phonological awareness."

What Parents Need to Know about Phonological Awareness

The research about phonological awareness hasn’t made its way into many reading programs. So it’s totally possible your child’s teacher is unfamiliar with it.

This is not the teacher’s fault.

As your child learns to read, it’s important that you are certain your child has developed these skills.

If you have an elementary child who is struggling to learn to read, first check their phonological awareness.  Making sure it is strong is the first step in helping your child become a more confident reader.


I know hearing the term “phonological awareness” can be confusing. But it is pretty simple to work on with your child.

Start with word awareness and work your way through the five skills. You’re supporting your child to be an excellent reader!

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