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Phonological Awareness: The Sounds of Reading

SRI International
   Stephanie Nunn & Sara Rutherford-Quach

It is fun to sing if you sing with a Ying.
My Ying can sing like anything.
I sing high and my Ying sings low,
and we are not too bad, you know.1

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is not only a beloved children's book, but it is also a good way for children to practice phonological awareness, a foundational reading skill. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of spoken words. It is an umbrella term that encompasses both the basic levels of awareness of speech sounds (such as rhyming, alliteration, and the syllables within words) and more advanced levels of awareness, such as identifying the beginning and ending sounds within words. The included segment of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish provides material for children to practice rhyming, onset-rime manipulation, and to a more limited extent, identifying the syllables within words.

Developing phonological awareness is an essential step in learning to read.2 REL Appalachia (REL AP) staff partnered with Goochland County Public Schools (GCPS) to use data to understand the factors that contribute to third grade literacy outcomes in GCPS and identified early phonological awareness as a key predictor of success. REL AP staff then provided coaching on the importance of phonological awareness for all learners and suggested techniques to support students who struggle with phonological awareness.

Teaching Phonological Awareness

The National Reading Panel report3 states that explicit phonological awareness instruction is highly effective for developing phonological awareness in children, which in turn prepares them to read words and comprehend text. Phonological awareness instruction teaches students to hear all the separable sounds within words and helps them hold these sounds in memory and do things with them (like separate them or delete them). Developing the ability to isolate sounds and then link those sounds to letters is a significant step in the process of students becoming proficient readers.

Research supporting the importance of phonological awareness to students' decoding and later comprehension also informs a systematic approach for teaching these skills. In the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Practice Guide on early reading,4 Foorman and colleagues lay out a developmental trajectory for beginning phonological awareness instruction and building students' phonological and phonemic awareness:

Arrow diagram depicting trajectory for beginning phonological awareness instruction

Diagram depicting the three steps for beginning phonological awareness instruction.

Helping Students Who Struggle

Students who struggle persistently with phonological awareness often benefit from smaller group (two to three students) or one-on-one intervention to help them isolate sounds in speech and link the sounds to letters.5 If teachers determine through ongoing progress monitoring measures [such as Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) 1–3 Quick Checks or other formative assessment practices] that a student is struggling to demonstrate phonological awareness after receiving instruction in whole and small group settings, it is important to provide differentiated instruction in an even smaller group or one-on-one.

To support struggling students during these instructional activities, effective teachers provide additional modeling and guided practice before allowing students to move on to independent practice.6 In addition, evidence shows that it is important for student fluency (their ability to read accurately, quickly, and with expression) and automaticity (their ability to see words and read them without thinking) that teachers provide additional opportunities for student practice with teacher supervision, support, and continuous feedback.7 Students may also benefit from mini-lessons, where information is broken down into smaller chunks. For example, when introducing word-building exercises, teachers can present sound substitution (such as changing cat to hat by changing the initial phoneme) and sound addition (such as adding /s/ to the end of cat to make cats) separately. Teachers can also consider using a narrowly focused activity when introducing and practicing a skill; for example, it is often helpful to use compound words when introducing syllables or to begin with two-syllable words before systematically increasing the syllable length. Using this technique to explicitly introduce smaller pieces of the skill can be an effective way to support struggling learners' mastery of these concepts.8

Interested in learning more about effective early literacy practices?

The resources below provide more guidance and information on instruction to support children in phonological awareness and other key literacy skills.



1 Seuss, D. (1960). One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. New York: Random House.

2 National Research Council (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from

3 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. NIH Publication No. 00–4769. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

4 Foorman, B.R., Beyler, N.K., Borradaile, K.E., Coyne, M., Denton, C.A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J.R., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L.M., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S.A., Streke, A., Wagner, R.K., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade. Educator's Practice Guide. NCEE 2016–4008. What Works Clearinghouse.

5 Foorman et al., 2016; Ryder, J. F., Tunmer, W. E., & Greaney, K. T. (2008). Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonemically based decoding skills as an intervention strategy for struggling readers in whole language classrooms. Reading and Writing, 21(4), 349–369 .

6 Webb, S., Massey, D., Goggans, M. & Flajole, K. (2018). Thirty-five years of gradual release of responsibility: Scaffolding towards complex and responsive teaching. The Reading Teacher, 73(1), 75–83.

7 McKenna, J. W., Shin, M., & Ciullo, S. (2015). Evaluating Reading and Mathematics Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Synthesis of Observation Research. Learning Disability Quarterly, 38(4), 195–207.

8 Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Scammacca, N., Gatlin, B., Walker, M. A., & Capin, P. (2016). Meta-analyses of the Effects of Tier 2 Type Reading Interventions in Grades K–3. Educational Psychology Review, 28(3), 551–576.