Important Foundations for Successful Reading & Writing: Phonological Awareness

Important Foundations for Successful Reading & Writing.png

We wanted to dive into some of the core components of literacy (reading and writing) in order to help you, as parents, continue to support your children in developing solid literacy foundations at home. We know there is a lot of jargon surrounding the field of education so we want to try and break that down for you.

We look at literacy foundations as a triangle. At each point in the triangle we have one of the core foundational pieces that MUST come together in order for literacy to stick. The three sides include Phonology (understanding the sounds within our words), Orthography (understanding the written letters or visual component of our words), and Semantics (understanding the meaning of the word). Difficulty in any of these core processing areas will cause difficulty with both reading and writing. We have to focus on all of these areas together to develop grade-level reading and writing skills.

Literacy Processing Triangle

For students suspected of or struggling with dyslexia - there is usually the most pronounced difficulty in either the phonological (sound) or orthographic (visual) component of reading. Sometimes students with dyslexia struggle with both processors. Regardless of whether or not a child has been diagnosed with dyslexia the phonological processor is usually one of the first processors to develop.

When working on Phonological Awareness we break down skills across a continuum with the most basic skills including sentence segmenting (counting how many words are in a sentence) all the way through the most advanced phoneme manipulation tasks which might look a lot like pig you remember doing pig latin?!?! That was HARD! Say the word "cat" now drop the first sound - "at", now add the first sound onto the end of the word "atc", now add the “A” sound to the end of the word "atcay". So you can see how development of understanding the sound components of the language can grow over a child's lifespan.

The difficult thing is that many children don't develop these skills in line with their peers or classmates and are left with gaps and holes in their abilities. The core skills we typically take a look at when working with children who struggle with Phonological Awareness include the following:

Breaking Sentences Into Words

If a child cannot break sentences into individual words they will struggle to write sentences with appropriate spaces. It may seem silly to break sentences into words but if you think about listening to someone fluent in another language with which you are unfamiliar you might have difficulty understanding how many words were in the sentence.

At home, you can play silly games asking your child to count with pennies or cars for each word in a sentence. If your child is older, you can simply try a memory game where they repeat your sentence and count how many words and see how big of a sentence they can remember before forgetting.

Hearing the Difference in Similar Sounds Within Words

Many students who struggle with phonological awareness may hear words like "pin" and "pen" and not recognize the difference in that vowel sound. They may hear "pat" and "bat" or "tin" and "Tim" and not hear the difference. There are a number of sounds in the English language that become fuzzy for students lacking this foundational skill.

At home, if you notice this difficulty you may want to point out the word substitution (for example, "pit" "bit" and then ask "are those words the same or different?" to see if they can hear the difference between the two words. If they cannot hear the difference you would first want to make sure that your child is passing hearing screenings. If they are passing hearing screenings but still can't tell the difference it would be crucial to have your child work with a professional that can help your child recognize the oral pattern of the mouth to start to see and feel the difference if they can't perceive the difference.


One of the key indicators that a child may be struggling is if they just cannot hear or understand when two words rhyme or if they can't produce a rhyme. Often, rhyming defecits are overlooked. This may be because of the child’s age (unfortuantely a lot of the time it is assumd that older child can rhyme), because rhyming activities are done as a group, or becuase students have memorized some common rhymes like “bat and cat” or “pig and wig.” If you think your child is struggling to hear the rhyme, click here.

Blending Syllables & Sounds

In order for your child to be able to read, they must first be able to HEAR how sounds come together to create words. Even before children learn letters and letter sounds you can begin giving them syllables like "Sun" "Day" what word am I thinking of? "Cow" "Boy" what word am I thinking of? Often what we realize is that as we get more advanced in this skills "/b/" "/a/" "/t/" providing a child with the sounds of each letter - not a picture of each letter, they may struggle to pull all those sounds together and give you bat. Syllbles HAVE to come first, if a child can't do this you can guarantee they will struggle looking at each letter, figuring out the sound of that letter, then blending the sounds together.

At home you can play words games in the car or at your dinner table asking "what word am I thinking" and break each word into its smallest sounds.

Breaking Down Syllables and Words

Just as we need children to be able to blend syllables and words together to read words, students need to be able to break words apart into syllables or sounds in order to spell words. We use what we call "Scoop Spelling" to help students hear a word, determine how many syllables are in the word, and then determine how many sounds are in each syllable. So for example in the word "candid" a child would need to recognize that the word has 2 syllables "can" and "did". After they determine that the word has two syllables they would then make lines for each sound in the syllable, so for "can" we get ____  ____  ____ for  c   a   n. Then we would move onto the next syllable and get ____  ____  ____ for  d   i   d.

At home, you can try using a similar approach for spelling list practice. You can also practice this activity in the car or at the dinner table just asking for sounds, no letters needed :)

Complex Phoneme Manipulation

Once your child has the basics, we typically move onto more complex manipulation of sounds in order to build fluency of recognizing and hearing these sounds. This would include tasks like "say snail without the /n/ sound" and a child would get "sail". These tasks are a little trickier to complete at home and would never be a starting point for instruction. However, if you were an expert in Pig Latin, working with your child to develop that skill would certainly develop some of these complex skills that would support the high level manipulation skills to help develop fluency in reading and spelling.

While struggling with phonological awarness will make reading difficult for any age, it can drastically impact older readers. Click here to learn more.

If your child is struggling with phonological awareness and reading, consider a private evaluation. This will give you to information necessary to make informed decisions about how to move forward. For more information about evaluations, click here.