Sound Manipulating: The Importance of Phonological Awareness for Reading Success


What Is Phonological Awareness and What Are Its Implications for Future Reading Success?

Let’s try an activity together: Say the word “cat”. Now say “cat” again, but substitute (k) with (b). What word did you just say? (bat). If you were able to do this activity with ease, congratulations! You just completed an area of phonological awareness known as phoneme substitution in the initial position. 

Did you know this type of activity is an important precursor to reading skills? 

What Is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness skills are important to any alphabetic writing system and are needed for deciphering the alphabetic code. In fact, phonological awareness skills are strongly linked to later reading/writing success. Phonological awareness, at its core, is the ability to identify, distinguish, and manipulate spoken sounds in a word. 

The root “phono” means sound. Phonological awareness occurs at the sound level, meaning no print is needed. If a student is unable to distinguish between the different sounds in words, reading and writing skills can be severely diminished. Researcher Dr. David Kilpatrick explains the importance of strong phonological awareness skills: “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”. According to the National Reading Panels report (2000), phonological awareness is the first instructional component that should be in place for beginning readers. If it is not secure, other reading aspects such as decoding, fluency, morphology, and comprehension can not be fully developed. 

Accommodations vs. Modifications

Once a student demonstrates an understanding and mastery of the various phonemic awareness components, phonics instruction can begin with a solid foundation

The Hierarchy of Phonological Awareness Instruction

An instructional sequence that helps students learn to hear the sounds of speech involves progressing from easier activities to those that increase in difficulty. Teachers can explicitly instruct their  students how to identify the following:

  • words within sentences through segmentation and later deletion
  • syllables within words (segmentation and deletion)
  • the first and last sounds within words and,
  • all of the individual sounds in a word, through segmentation, deletion, and substitution in initial, medial, and final positions

Daily instruction that lasts anywhere from five to fifteen minutes a day can significantly increase a student’s phonological awareness, which, in turn, can bolster their future reading success. Moving through the instructional sequence requires mastery of the previous instructional component.

How Does Phonological Awareness Support Phonic Instruction?

Once a student demonstrates an understanding and mastery of the various phonemic awareness components, phonics instruction can begin with a solid foundation. Phonics instruction relies on print, whereas phonological awareness depends on sound manipulation. Phonics involves the direct, explicit, and systematic instruction of letters and letter combinations (graphemes) and their sounds. Phonics instruction teaches students the relationship between letters of a written language and the sounds of the same spoken language. Phonic instruction should be conducted in an explicit and systematic manner, leaving nothing to be inferred or implied.

Key Take-Aways

    • Phonological awareness is the manipulation of sound.
    • Phonological awareness should be introduced in an instructional hierarchy that moves from easier skills to more difficult ones.
    • Once a student has a solid foundation in phonological awareness, phonics instruction can begin.
    • Phonics is the instruction of letters/graphemes and their sounds, but phonic instruction can not be secured without a solid phonological awareness foundation.
Aimee Rodenroth

Aimee Rodenroth

Aimee Rodenroth is the Subject Matter Expert on Dyslexia for Amplio. She has 30 years of experience in public education in Texas, 27 of those years were spent in some form of dyslexia education. She received her CALT (Certified Academic Language Therapist) certification in 2006 from LEAD, and later obtained her QI (Qualified Instructor) certification in 2018 from Southern Methodist University. Aimee is trained in multiple dyslexia curricula.

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