Many children struggle when learning to read. It can be challenging to understand how letters come together to form words and words form sentences. Struggling readers often have trouble with phonological awareness, which is a good predictor of how easy it will be to start reading.

Learning to read is even more difficult for children with special needs. Children with learning disabilities like dyslexia have a much harder time with phonological awareness. Teaching these children phonological awareness skills is critical so they can start reading and not fall behind.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and use the different parts of spoken language, like syllables, words, and sentences. Children with phonological awareness can take sounds and syllables and manipulate them into different words.

Examples of phonological awareness include identifying:

  • Different speech sounds (phonemes) in a word
  • The first sound in a word
  • Rhyming words and sounds
  • Alliteration (words that begin with the same sound)
  • Words in a sentence
  • Syllables in a word

Phonological awareness is critical for learning how to read and spell, so it’s an essential skill for young children to learn. Early literacy exercises focus on teaching phonological awareness to help set children up for reading success.

What are the 3 main components of phonological awareness? The 3 main components of phonological awareness are:

  1. Phonemes, the individual sounds that come together to make up a word
  2. Onsets and rimes, or the starting sound of a word (the onset, like the “b” sound in “ball”) and the remainder of the word (the rime, like the “all” sound in “ball”) and awareness of the onset-rime structure of words
  3. Syllables, the vowel-containing “beats” that come together to make a complete word

Phonological Awareness Vs. Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a specific part of phonological awareness. When a child has phonemic awareness, they can identify the smallest units of a word, phonemes. For example, in the word cat, the phonemes are the “k” sound, the “a” sound, and the “t” sound.

The similarities of phonemic awareness and phonological awareness include:

  • The importance of phonological/phonemic awareness in developing reading skills
  • They both deal with hearing and identifying different sounds in oral language

There are also distinctions between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness:

  • Phoneme awareness only focuses on the different sounds in spoken words, whereas phonological awareness is broader and includes other parts of language like syllables.

What is the main difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness? The main difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness is that phonemic awareness only deals with the sounds in words. It is part of phonological awareness.

Phonological Awareness For Reading And Writing

Phonological awareness is one of the most critical early reading skills that children learn. Most children develop phonological awareness in early childhood, sometime between preschool and first grade. 

Educators teaching younger children spend significant time teaching phonological awareness skills because they are strongly tied to reading ability. The English language is particularly tricky for young readers, and many children struggle to pair spoken language with written words.

To learn how to read, children need to learn how to decode words. Decoding is linking spoken letter sounds with phonics. Phonics is the written letters or letter combinations that correspond to those sounds. 

For example, decoding lets children understand the written phonic “ch” corresponds to the “ch” sound at the beginning of the word “chair.” Likewise, if their teacher asks the first letter of the word “dog,” they know it starts with a “d” sound, so they can answer that “dog” begins with “d.”

Decoding also helps children read new words. If they’ve never read the word “racecar,” but they can decode the phonics in the word, they can blend the individual phonemes together into the whole word.

What is the connection between phonological awareness and reading? The connection between phonological awareness and reading is that phonological awareness is necessary to identify the parts and sounds of words so someone can read them.

Phonological Awareness In Children With Special Needs

Children with special needs and learning disabilities often struggle with phonological awareness. Their brains can process auditory information differently, which may lead to reading and language deficits if they don’t receive proper therapy or treatment.

For example, many children and adults with dyslexia have trouble with phonemes and other parts of phonological awareness. It’s estimated that between 5-10% of people have dyslexia, and most of these people continue to struggle with phonological awareness as adults.

Other special needs may create problems with phonological awareness as well. Children with an auditory processing disorder and language processing disorder also struggle to learn phonological awareness and other literacy skills.

Children with ADHD may also have trouble with language and reading in school, but their phonological awareness is similar to their neurotypical peers. Most literacy problems in these children are caused by the inattentive and hyperactive symptoms of ADHD.

Children with poor emotional regulation may also struggle to learn to read, particularly if they’re struggling to learn these skills. The frustration they experience can make it difficult for them to build reading and writing skills, but that’s usually independent of phonological awareness.

There’s an educational component to helping children with special needs build literacy skills, but there’s a medical component. For example, the food your child eats can cause inflammation and autoimmune issues that can manifest as learning disorders.

How It Develops

The first stages of phonological awareness develop naturally for neurotypical kids. As they learn language, they begin to identify and imitate the sounds of the words we speak, like learning the difference between “mama” and “dada.”

As they get older, children can detect the syllables in words. They’re also able to identify words that rhyme. Phonological awareness then blends into reading skills as children learn the alphabet and how speech sounds correspond to different written phonics.

What is the process for developing phonological awareness? The process for developing phonological awareness is first identifying different sounds in speech, then recognizing words and syllables, then learning the order of sounds in words and how that relates to written words.

There are different steps children take to learn phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness skills taught during reading instruction focus on 5 main parts of phonemic awareness. Each level builds on the last as they help children grow the language skills they’ll need to read.

What are the 5 levels of phonemic awareness? The 5 levels of phonemic awareness are:

  1. Sound awareness like rhyming and alliteration
  2. Words, including segmenting sentences into their individual words
  3. Syllables, including the ability to segment (breaking down the different sounds in a word) and blend sounds (putting different sounds together into a single word)
  4. Onsets and rimes
  5. Phonemes

Symptoms Of Low Phonological Awareness

If you’re concerned that your child has poor phonological awareness, keep a list of the symptoms you notice. Also, be sure to talk to your child’s teacher about your concerns and listen closely to your child and whether they’re feeling frustrated when learning language skills.

The Child May Notice

Your child may be experiencing some symptoms of low phonological awareness if they:

  • Can’t come up with a word that rhymes with “cat” or “bed”
  • Can’t tell you if “house” and “mouse” rhyme
  • Can’t tell the initial sound and last sound of “red”
  • Can’t tell you what sounds are in the word “dog”
  • Can’t clap the syllables or “beats” in different words

Parents May Notice

You may also notice that your child is struggling with phonological awareness. 

At home, you may notice signs of low phonological awareness if your child has:

  • Trouble identifying words that rhyme, particularly beyond kindergarten or first grade
  • Inability to tell you how many syllables are in short words
  • Difficulty identifying the different sounds (phonemes) in a spoken word, a process called segmentation
  • A problem identifying the sounds that correspond with phonics (can’t tell you what sound a “d” makes, for example). 

Teachers May Notice

Be sure to check in with your child’s teacher if you have concerns about their phonological awareness. These skills start early, so bring up any concerns with your child’s preschool or pre-K teacher if you have them.

Here’s what your teacher may be noticing in cases of low phonological awareness:

  • The child can’t complete segmenting and blending activities that break down and smush together different sounds
  • The child has trouble completing substitution activities (swapping the “c” in cat for “h” to make the word “hat”) and deletion activities (if you take “bow” away from “rainbow” you get “rain”)
  • The child struggles with the alphabetic principle: linking speech sounds to their corresponding written phonics (graphemes)
  • The child can’t sound out unfamiliar words or spell out spoken words based on their sound

If your older child (first or second grade) struggles to write, you may also want to have them evaluated for dysgraphia. Dysgraphia itself has nothing to do with phonological awareness and actually is an issue with the brain sending signals to the hand muscles used to write.

How To Improve Phonological Awareness

If your child struggles with phonological awareness, there are things you can do at home to help them improve. 

For preschoolers and pre-K, you can help in developing phonological awareness by:

  • Repeating nursery rhymes and sing simple songs with rhyming words
  • Reading to your child daily, and point out the different words you’re reading so they begin to link spoken words with written words
  • Practicing the alphabet and start to talk about the sounds the different letters make
  • Practicing clapping out syllables of words

For kindergartners:

  • Continue to read to your child daily
  • Continue to practice the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes
  • Play rhyming games, like coming up with words that rhyme with “cat”
  • Practice saying tongue twisters with alliteration
  • Play games with syllables, like naming all the animals they can think of whose names have two syllables

For first graders:

  • Find objects around you that start with a particular sound or letter, or see how many your child can come up with in 2 or 5 minutes
  • Practice phonics, particularly consonant digraphs, or two consonants together that make a phoneme like “ph” or “ch”

Phonics instruction for older children will help them become drastically better readers. As their phonics skills improve, their reading skills will improve, too.

In Summary

If your child is struggling with phonological awareness or other reading skills, know you’re not alone. You can do many things to help your child succeed, including both educational and medical interventions.

Alongside this extra support, your child will also benefit from integrative wellness and functional medical approaches like dietary changes, toxin elimination, and pathogen elimination. In many cases, treating these potential root causes can reduce your little one’s symptoms.

We would love to talk to you directly about your child’s needs and how our integrative health services, based in Roswell, GA, can help. Call us at 888-381-8556 to book an appointment with us to create an individualized plan for your child.


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