Phonological awareness is the ability to hear word sounds and to pronounce words and parts of words. Children who have phonological awareness can recognize the sound structure of speech and manipulate those sounds.
Phonological awareness requires meta-linguistic skill. This means that the person can think about language in an objective way, as well as use language to communicate to others.
Children, who are learning to read and write in an alphabetic language like English, need to have phonological awareness to use the alphabetic principle. Those who don’t have this skill will have much more difficulty.
Phonological awareness includes phonemic awareness, as well as the perceiving and pronouncing of rhyming words, syllables, word segments, on-sets and rimes.
For many years researchers have theorized and argued whether the development of phonological awareness is a hierarchical process. That is, do children become aware of the syllable first, then the onset-rime, and finally the phoneme? After lots of research it seems that phonological awareness is a developmental and sequential process which usually begins to develop at about age three.
The extent of children’s phonological awareness understanding is closely linked to their general language ability.
Teaching practice needs to reflect the age appropriate and developmental abilities of the children and not require them to understand language constructs which are beyond their capabilities. There is much for young children to learn, and the teaching can be done in fun and exciting ways.
Few children develop phonological awareness without help. And, for some it is a very difficult task. Young children who are 4 to 5 years of age and aren’t beginning to develop phonological awareness (e.g., can’t make rhymes, or segment words into syllables), need deliberate phonological awareness training.
This could make a huge difference for these children because they will likely have difficulty learning to read due to their lack of phonological awareness skill. It is very important that staff of any preschool program (daycare, nursery school, home daycare, or children’s program in an adult literacy program), understand how phonological awareness develops and purposely plan activities which promote it in all the children.
In the primary years, as children are taught about the alphabetic principle and phonological awareness, a dual process begins to happen. That is, their growing understanding about the alphabetic principle seems to drive their phonological awareness beyond what they have been already been specifically taught.
As well, there is a correlation between reading and phonological awareness. It has been argued that skilled phonological decoding of words helps the reader figure out unknown words when combined with vocabulary knowledge and the context of that which is being read.
Phonological awareness starts the first time we talk and sing to children and continues to develop during the preschool years. In general, most children, who have had good teaching and language rich environments in the early years (by caregivers and/or parents); can develop this very useful and powerful tool. Children who come from less language rich environments need more help to develop phonological awareness.
Children whose first languages are not English, but are or will be learning to read in English, need help to develop phonological awareness as it pertains to English. To become proficient readers in English or any other alphabetic language, children, whose emergent literacy skills have been developed in a language which is not alphabetically based, will need to learn the alphabetical principle and develop phonological awareness.