Dr. Johanna Rubba
English Department (Linguistics)
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
Last updated  4/7/04
© 2003 Johanna Rubba


Phonological Awareness Skills and Spelling Skills


Phonological Awareness Skills

Phonological awareness refers to metalinguistic knowledge of the sound structure of language--that is, conscious awareness of the phonological structure of sentences, phrases, and words. Phonological awareness skills are not spelling skills; they do not concern knowledge of letters at all. A child can be completely phonologically aware and still be completely illiterate, with no knowledge or understanding of letters or the relationship between letters and sounds. Children develop phonological awareness skills by consciously attending to how words sound--by listening to words, not looking at how they are written. Phonological awareness skills are, however, believed to be an indispensable foundation to the acquisition of spelling and reading skills. This point will be explained below.

It is important to know that, unlike the ability to use and understand spoken language, phonological awareness does not develop naturally. Like other metalinguistic knowledge (for instance, identifying the subject of a sentence or detecting a phonological process in action), most people do not develop it unless they are directly taught. Therefore, if phonological awareness is founational to reading skills, and it does not develop unless taught, many reading experts recommend phonological awareness training as a prerequisite to early literacy training. Phonological awareness can develop in some people as a result of being trained to use an alphabet, but there is no guarantee that it will. Research has found a strong correlation between lack of phonological awareness and reading failure. This suggests that some people need phonological awareness training in order to learn to read.

There are several levels of phonological awareness skills, corresponding to layers of phonological structure in language. Phonological awareness develops in top-down fashion; that is to say, the learner begins at the level of the whole word and gradually moves to ever-smaller parts of the word. Some scholars refer to these as shallower vs. deeper levels of phonological awareness. The shallower skills pertain to larger word-parts, the deeper skills to smaller word parts.

Shallower phonological awareness skills:

  • Awareness that sentences and phrases can be divided up into single words
    • For example, knowing that 'what're ya doing?' can be divided up into what, are, you and doing
  • Awareness that some words share sounds or sound sequences
    • For example, that the words sing and ring rhyme, or that the words sat and mad have the same middle sound, or that the words black and blue have the same beginnings

Intermediate phonological awareness skills:

  • Awareness that a word can be broken down into component syllables
    • For example, that tomorrow has the three parts to, ma, row.
  • Awareness that a syllable can be broken down into onsets and rimes
    • For example, that the one-syllable word black has the onset bl and the rime æk or
    • that the syllables of the word sandy, san and dy, can be broken down into /s/ + /æn/ and /d/ + /i/

Deep phonological awareness skills:

  • Awareness that you can change single sounds in a word, thereby producing a new word
    • For example, removing the m from mat and replacing it with b to make bat
  • Awareness that a word can be broken down into single sounds (phonemes); ability to count the number of phonemes in a word
    • For example, being aware that the word boot has three sounds, and that they are /b/, /u/, /t/
  • Segmentation: The ability to identify the sounds in a word singly:
    • For example, being able to pronounce each sound of boot separately, in any order: the last sound is /t/, the first is /b/, and the middle sound is /u/.
  • Manipulation: The ability to move single sounds in a word around, creating new words
    • For example, given the whole word cat, being able to produce act or tack
  • Blending: The ability to put single sounds together to form one or more words
    • For example, when given separate sounds such as /æ/, /t, /p/, being able to use them to form tap, apt, or pat.

The deep phonological awareness skills are called phonemic awareness skills because they pertain to individual sounds that build words, i.e. phonemes. This is the most detailed level of word structure that is relevant to reading and spelling.

Phonological awareness training can be accomplished without any reference to letters or written words at all, and most programs begin such training by using pictures, nursery rhymes, songs, and games of various sorts that involve only listening and speaking (see, for example, Fredericks [2003] pages 37-38, and more examples in nearby pages). Most programs do introduce letters fairly early on, however. Thus many programs combine phonological awareness training with phonics or letter/sound correspondence training. It is still important to remember that pure phonological awareness does not involve knowledge of letters. Those acquiring literacy skills should be checked periodically to be sure that they have knowledge of word sounds and sound structure apart from knowledge of letters.


Spelling/Reading Skills

Skills needed to read and spell successfully pertain to the written word, therefore knowledge of letters is needed in addition to knowledge of phonological structure. Spelling/reading skills include:

  • Understanding the alphabetic principle. This means being consciously aware of the basic logic of our writing system: that individual written symbols (graphemes) represent or stand for individual phonemes. This means grasping, for example, that the letter 'a' is intended to call to mind the sound /æ/ in a word like cat.
  • Mastering the regular grapheme/phoneme relationships (often called sound-symbol correspondences or 'letter sounds') in English spelling. This means, for instance, learning that the 'uh' sound is most often spelled 'u', as in but, nut, fun, tub, stuff, and so on.
  • Mastering spelling rules or spelling patterns, that is, peculiar yet fairly regular ways English spelling works. This includes patterns such as the 'hard c or g' vs. 'soft c or g' rule (the reason these expressions are in single quotes is that these are not technically sound terms): When followed by 'e', 'i', or 'y', 'c' and 'g' have their 'soft' sound (that is, /s/ and the 'j' sound), but when followed by 'a', 'o', or 'u' they have their 'hard' sound (/k/, /g/). This alternation can be seen in the words gym, gin, and gentle vs. game, go, gum; and cent, city, cyst vs. cot, camera, cup. There is a relatively large number of such patterns in English spelling.
  • Memorizing highly irregular words. Most spelling instruction programs have lists of 'sight' words for each grade. These are words which are unique or extremely unusual in their spelling (judged by the sounds in the words). The spelling of such words as once, people, said, and women does not follow any spelling pattern of English. These words simply have to be memorized.
  • Decoding: This refers to figuring out how to pronounce a word by associating the graphemes in it with phonemes ('sounding out' the word). This skill is most important in early reading, when children frequently come across words they probably know but have never seen in print before. To decode a word such as shift, for example, a reader needs to know the sounds that are regularly associated with each of the graphemes in the word: 'sh', 'i', 'f', and 't'.
  • Whole-word recognition: Mature readers rarely decode. They generally read larger chunks at a glance--a whole word or even a whole phrase at a time. This is why mature readers can read fast. Reading skill acquisition should move from decoding to whole-word recognition fairly rapidly. Being a slow reader generally slows down comprehension, and makes reading effortful, thereby reducing motivation to read. This creates a vicious circle: The slow reader doesn't like to read, so doesn't read much; not reading much keeps the reading speed slow, making comprehension effortful, so the slow reader doesn't like to read ... and so it goes.
  • Background knowledge/general world knowledge: Efficient readers do not rely just on the words on the page to develop comprehension. They use their general knowledge of the world or their knowledge of topics in the text to 'fill in' background information, and to predict what is coming up in later paragraphs. The wider a reader's general knowledge base, the better that reader will be at reading comprehension. Of course, the main way we develop our world knowledge is through reading, since reading allows us to explore areas we cannot directly experience. So this skill both feeds and is fed by generous reading.

The Relation between Phonological Awareness Skills and Reading Skills

The section above, on phonological awareness, stated that phonological awareness skills are believed to be indispensable to reading and spelling skills. This section will explain this relationship.

English is written with an alphabet. The defining characteristic of an alphabet is that it uses its written symbols to stand for the individual sounds, or phonemes, that make up words (this is the alphabetic principle). Someone learning to read or write an alphabetic system must grasp this basic insight to really understand how the writing system works. In order to be able to grasp this notion, however, a person has to know about individual sounds in words--the person has to have phonemic awareness. If a person does not realize that words are made up of individual sounds, that person has nothing to associate with the written symbols of the alphabet. The person without phonemic awareness can only memorize the image of each written word.

I once witnessed a dramatic demonstration of this situation. I was visiting a friend whose son was in the early months of first grade at the time. The child was apparently not getting any phonemic awareness training, and so was only learning how words are written one by one, memorizing each word independently of all the others. The father and I were working through a homework assignment with the child. There was a page with rectangles on it; above each rectangle was the name of a color: black, blue, white, red, etc. The instruction was to color in each rectangle with the color named by the word. The child was supposed to read the color name, then choose the correct crayon and color the box.


This child guessed randomly at the color names. Upon seeing the word 'black', the child guessed 'white'. When asked about the sounds associated with the 'bl' of 'black', or the 'w' of 'white', the child stared at us blankly. The child did not notice the similarity between the beginnings of the words 'black' and 'blue'. This was not a child of below-average intelligence (if anything, the opposite was true), and the child was not socioeconomically disadvantaged--his family was quite affluent. The problem was that the literacy training the child was getting introduced him to neither the phonemic makeup of words nor the regular sound-symbol correspondences of English spelling. He was unable to decode simple words.

This event seems bizarre to literate adults like you and me, for whom sound-letter relationships are deeply entrenched from years of education and reading. But it is a stark reminder of how foreign the notion of writing is to an illiterate child, even a child who speaks very fluently. Essential to decoding and independent reading is awareness that written symbols stand for individual sounds. Essential to understanding this idea is knowing that a word is a string of individual sounds. Hence the crucial importance of phonemic awareness.