What Is Phonological Awareness?
Linda K. Swank, Ph.D., and Hugh Catts, Ph.D.
At first glance, rhyme and alliteration (each word begins with the same sound) may seem to be the tools of poets and songwriters only. Research today, however, suggests that children’s familiarity with rhyme and alliteration may serve as the basis for learning to read. The ability to pay attention to rhyme, alliteration, and other speech sound properties is part of what is called phonological awareness, awareness of the sounds of speech. This awareness is an important bridge between speaking and reading.
Phonological Awareness and Reading
During the preschool years, most children begin to focus some attention on the sounds in speech. For example, a child may initially notice that “Cat in the Hat” sounds “funny.” The parent might say, “Yes, those two words sound alike. They rhyme.” Later, children may start making up their own rhymes, such as, “hat, cat, sat, bat.”
Eventually, a child may notice that word begin with the same sound (“Daddy, Doggie, David, they all sound alike,” meaning that they begin with the same sound). This awareness prepares the child to focus on individual speech sounds that will be matched to the written alphabetic symbols. A child who has well-developed appreciation for the sounds in words will more quickly understand how the alphabet is used to spell and read words. Such an understanding of the alphabet is the key to becoming a good reader and speller.
Some children are not as aware of the sounds of speech as others are. Children who show limited phonological awareness may need assistance in the development of this skill. Studies show that these children may be taught to be more aware of speech sounds and that this increased awareness will have a positive influence on reading development.
How to Help Your Child Develop Phonological Awareness
You can play an active role in helping your child acquire phonological awareness. Begin drawing you child’s attention to the sounds of speech as you read books or poems that contain speech sound play. Look for nursery rhymes and books that emphasize speech sound play, such as Dr. Seuss books. (Check the book Sounds Abound, listed at the end of this article, for a comprehensive resource list.)
Use Rhyme to Develop Phonological Awareness
When you are reading books, stories, poems, and riddles, emphasize and stress the words that rhyme. You can also provide rhymes yourself, or ask the child to give rhymes to words in the story. You might also use songs or finger plays to illustrate the sounds of speech. (Songs such as “The Name Game,” rap songs, or children’s songs by the folksinger Raffi lend themselves to this type of activity.)
You can also play games that highlight the rhyming aspect of words. To play “I Spy,”, for example, ask your child to “spy” an object and come up with word(s) that rhyme with it. During a car trip, children can say names of objects and places that rhyme (such as “car” and “star” or “hat” and “cat.”)
Making up your own rhyming riddles is also fun. (“A fish names Jim is learning to _____”). Say a string of rhyming words, and ask your child to think of another word that rhymes with them (fall, call, hall, etc.). For fun you could have the family or party group sit in a circle. Say a word that rhymes with several other words, and then toss a ball to one child. The child must say a word that rhymes with the first word before throwing the ball to another person in the circle, who continues the rhyme pattern (such as pie, bye, eye, sigh, and so on). Remember, make the rhyming games fun! Don’t “drill” rhymes. The child should enjoy these activities.
Use of Alliteration to Develop Phonological Awareness
When you feel that your child is ready for more of a challenge, ask the child to choose word that has the same beginning or ending speech sounds. Play the games described above, but this time matches beginning or ending sounds in words. Examples of alliterative phrases include: “Millie makes milk shakes,” “Peter the pink pig was Pam’s pet,” “Willie wished the weather was warm.” Change the “I Spy” game to match words by their beginning sounds. It is important to emphasize the sound, not the letter name, when playing with alliteration (for example, “genie” and “jelly” start with different letters but the same sound).
Make a picture board or page with your child, using only pictures that start with the same sound. Sort through catalogues and magazines with your child to find pictures that start with the same sound. The child cuts out these pictures and pastes them on a “speech sound board” or page. Another fun activity is to have the child match a word you say with a word that begins (or ends) with the same sound (for example, you say “boy” and the child says “bag”).
A fun game for parties is to have each child give a word from a specific category (food, tools, animals) that has the same beginning sound as the child’s name (for example, Linda-lemon, Susan-salt).
Card games such as “Fish” can also help the child focus on speech sounds. Make up a set of cards with pictures that have the same beginning sounds (sun, soap, seal, and sock) and some pictures that start with another sound (fish, food, foot, face). Duplicate pictures can be made to provide more cards, but the focus of the game is more than making exact word matches. The child makes a match each time two cards begin with the same sound. So, “soap” and “sun” are considered matches, as are “fish” and “foot.”
Again, remember to make alliterative games fun for your child. After all, talking and playing with your child are the best ways to develop lifelong communication between parent and child. Besides developing good communication with your child, you, as a parent, can help the child learn about speech sounds. Learning about speech sounds helps your children have an easier time learning to read and spell.
In sum, phonological awareness is important to children’s development as it relates to beginning spelling and reading. Children who are aware of speech sounds seem to do better when reading is introduced. Conversely, children with limited phonological awareness often have problems with spelling and reading. Studies have found that emphasizing such activities as rhyming, alliterative games, and speech sound games results in better spelling and reading. Following the sequence of activities provided in this article, can help your child develop phonological awareness that may help your child’s reading skills.
Alliteration- the use of same speech sound at the beginning of a string of words: “lovely lilies lay on the lake.
Alphabet symbols- the written letters used to represent speech sounds (for example, “s” says “s-s-s.”
Phonological awareness- the awareness of sounds in words
Speech sounds- the individual sounds that make up words (for example, /k/, /a/, /t/)