Is Phonological Awareness for parents or for schools to worry about?
I will show you why it’s important for parents to think about Phonological Awareness as well as teachers. I’ll also give you lots of easy and fun ideas for ways that you can support and build this crucial skill with your child.
What is the difference between ‘Phonics’ and ‘Phonological Awareness’… and why should you care?
I wonder how familiar you are with these terms, and more importantly, what they actually mean for your child’s achievement in reading. Are these terms for the teachers to worry about? Or what if there were some easy ways for as a parent to also understand phonological awareness and more importantly, to support your child to develop skills in this area?
PHONICS is about mapping speech sounds to letters. This is often the first thing we think about when we want to start teaching our child to read and write- drilling them in the ABCs until they know it inside out will sort that, right?
It is important to know the names of the letters, and even better to know the sound the letter actually makes, but there is still so much more that children must develop to have the skills they need for literacy.
PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS is a broad term for the skills that are required to understand and be able to manipulate the sound patterns of language.
Some of the specific skills include:
- Being able to detect rhyming words
- Ability to segment words into syllables
- Being able to identify the letters of the alphabet and their sounds
- Knowing the letters that words begin and end with
- Being able to recognize blended sounds
- Being able to manipulate sounds in words by adding, substituting or deleting letters
Phonological Awareness has been well documented as one of the most powerful predictors of early literacy.
Phonological Awareness in School
A study by Carson et al shows that just a short amount of phonological awareness intervention in the classroom has a positive impact on young children (both for children with and without a language disorder).
The children in this study were five years old. They received 10 weeks of input in school which involved four 30-minute sessions each week which focused specifically on phonological awareness skills and were delivered by the classroom teacher.
At the end of the ten weeks, these children showed improvements in phonological awareness, and in both reading and spelling measures compared to the control group. And this advantage was maintained until the end of the school year (3-6 months).
In other words, improving the children’s Phonological Awareness improved their overall achievement in literacy.
But the teachers are covering it, right?
Although this study highlighted the benefits of working directly on Phonological Awareness at school, this is not something we can take for granted that every school does, or if they do, that it is being done well.
Dr Jane Carroll, tested the phonological awareness skills of 699 education professionals and paraprofessionals working in primary schools and early childhood centers. There was a large amount of variability in the results, and she stated that overall teachers demonstrated limited knowledge of phonological awareness, although they self-evaluated their knowledge positively.
Maybe this means that Phonological Awareness is something for parents to take more ownership of!
Phonological Awareness in Pre-School
The question of when to start thinking about this topic was also a major question from Dr Jane Carroll’s studies, as she points out that a child’s phonological awareness ability at school entry can reliably predict their early literacy success.
This shows that Phonological Awareness is something for us as parents to think about long before our child’s first day of school.
Jane Caroll’s research into early childhood teacher’s ability to even define Phonological Awareness compared to Phonics was consistently low. She also found that when early childhood teachers engaged in reading with children, they mainly focused on content and did not place emphasis on developing the early phonological skills important to word reading.
A Shortfall in the System
Carroll finished up her article by stating the need for professional development in the area of phonological awareness for both early childhood and school teachers to enhance children’s early literacy development.
So, this research is telling us that:
- It is not guaranteed that schools are implementing phonological awareness programmes consistently and to a high level.
- Phonological Awareness is rarely introduced at the pre-school level- but it is arguably even more important at this stage.
Don’t panic- you have power as a parent!
As parents, we are willing to go above and beyond for our children. We’ll happily reinforce the learning from school in any way we can. And while we work in partnership with teachers to practise reading, and even phonics (What letter is that? What sound does it make?), a very small percentage of parents are taught what phonological awareness is, or given any tips and suggestions on how to teach their child this valuable skill.
And as a parent, you are a crucial educator for your child. Through their life, you have given them learning opportunities and modeled language.
The great news is that you can develop your child’s Phonological Awareness. Have a look at these key areas of Phonological Awareness that have lots of practical ideas for what you could do.
- Back to basics: teach your child Nursery Rhymes and read simple rhyming books with them.
- Repetition is key- nursery rhymes are entertaining, predictable, and very easy to repeat over and over. They are especially useful for teaching the foundations of phonological awareness, especially rhyme.
- Your natural voice is always much better than a recording- you can speed up and slow down as needed, and you can emphasize the rhyming words with your voice.
- Once your child is familiar with the rhyme, use pauses to see if they will say the next word.
Incy wincy spider climbed up the water spout
Down came the rain and washed the spider… (Pause and look expectant- give 5 seconds then fill in the word for your child if they don’t say it).
- Make rhyming into a game: I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with something in the kitchen. My word is ‘hair’. What am I thinking of?
- When your child is a little older, you can start to explain rhyme- “these words sound the same- they have the same ending.”
- Make syllables into a game: Clap out the syllables in the names in your family, or clap out the syllables in the things that you see while on a walk, at dinner time, or any time that works for you.
Look a butterfly! Let’s clap it- bu/tter/fly
A caterpillar- ready to clap it- ca/ter/pill/ar
- Try to make this game fun and interesting, and not a ‘lesson.’
Identifying Letters and Sounds
- Remember that the sound of a letter and the name of the letter are very different things. You can raise your child’s awareness of this by adjusting your mind-set and finding opportunities to highlight it.
“oh, a spider- that starts with a sssss- sssspider. That sound is called S.”
Or “that starts with a letter M- that letter makes the sound- mmmm.”
- Make it a game: Play ‘I Spy’ with sounds instead of letters.
For example, “I spy with my little eye something that starts with ssss”. Be careful to say the sound the letter makes instead of saying the name of the letter.
- Go on a ‘Sound Hunt’ in the house or garden- how many things beginning with ‘mm’ can you find?
- This is about training your child to break words up into sounds- you could use a fun action for each sound that you hear.
For example- “CAT- what sounds can you hear- c/a/t” go slow and leave a gap between each sound. Your child will needs lots and lots of practise to be able to do this on their own. Start with the short words.
- When you are doing this with your child, practise listening really hard to just the sounds that you hear, and then splitting them up. You can do words together or take turns. Pick motivating words such as pet names, or things that your child is interested in when you are out and about.
- Also be aware that each letter is not necessarily its own sound. For example- ‘sh’ is just one sound. We say ‘sh’ not ‘ss…hh’. The same is true for ‘ch’, ‘th’ and a few others.
- When you are ready, you can start to do the reverse (start with the sound split up and practise blending it together).
- Make it a game: one of you picks a word and says the sounds, and the other blends it together and says what the word is.
First person: “Sh….i…p”
Second person: “sh..i..p… ship!”
- Play ‘I Spy’ with your child- take turns breaking down words and tapping them out- you can use counters as an aid if it helps.
For example: I spy a C..U…P…) Again, remember it’s about the sounds that the letter makes, not the name of the letter.
Adding, Substituting, Deleting Sounds
- The ability to manipulate sounds is pretty tricky skill, and develops after the other Phonological Awareness skills I’ve talked about so far. You can add in a new sound (add ‘s’ to ‘it’ so it becomes ‘sit’); substitute a sound (substitute the ‘d’ sound for a ‘l’ sound in the word ‘dog’ so it becomes ‘log’); or delete a sound (delete the ‘s’ from ‘sand’ so it becomes ‘sand’).
- You can add, delete, or substitute sounds from the beginning, end or even middle of the word.
- When your child is ready for this stage, and you want to introduce it without any pressure, you can try the ‘I wonder’ approach.
For example, “look, a seat… I wonder what would happen if we took the ‘ss’ sound out of that word. Ssseat… sss…eat… Eat! We made a different word!”
- When your child has learnt this skill, you can make it a game to ‘change words’ when you are in the car, or out and about, or doing an activity- it can even be a great way to make chores into a fun learning opportunity!
With these top tips and games, you don’t have to cross your fingers and hope that your pre-schooler or schoolchild is picking up the foundation skills that they need for literacy, or hope that it’s somewhere on the teaching team’s agenda- YOU can proactively develop Phonological Awareness in your awesome role as a parent… and watch the benefits in your child’s reading achievement.
Does reading ability really matter that much?
Maybe you’ve been reading this thinking, ‘it’s good to know, but my child’s better at other subjects. Reading isn’t their interest.’
In early years, the focus is on ‘learning to read’. But as the years pass, the focus very quickly switches to ‘reading to learn.’ Pretty soon, reading is being used in every single area of the curriculum as a platform for learning. Almost every subject area becomes highly dependent on reading. This increases the further through school your child progresses. Think of those heavy science textbooks and all the complicated language inside!
Children are increasingly expected to become more independent in their learning- to read to learn. This is in more than just English, it’s across subjects! Strong literacy skills are needed also for every exam with a written component.
Hopefully this post convinces you of the far-reaching impact of strong literacy skills through all of education.
Phonological Awareness for parents is a lot of fun, and more importantly, the benefits for your child are so worth it!
You might also enjoy:
- Essential Strategies to Boost Speech and Language for Busy Parents [+printable]
- 5 Powerful Ways to Improve Your Child’s Vocabulary
- 11 Incredible Children’s Books That Teach Positive Behavior