How to help students to improve their phonological awareness

Good phonological awareness (discrimination of the sounds that make up words) greatly helps efficient reading and writing. This has been established as a result of much research. It is a vitally important pre-reading skill. Phonological skills are precursors to success in literacy.

Many children develop these skills naturally at an early age through rhymes, playground songs and listening to adults. Those who do not acquire good phonological awareness need to be taught it specifically if they are to read and spell well.

They will need:

listening activities, speaking activities, and singing activities. Four pre-reading skills which demonstrate adequate phonological awareness can be summarised as follows:

1. Appreciating rhyme

Children who are predicted to become good readers and spellers can usually complete a rhyming couplet, e.g. Jack and Jill went up the ....... and also “hear” the rhyme as they sing or say it. Moreover, they enjoy the experience. You will find some useful rhymes for singing by children of different ages here. Look for the category "Schools - Teachers' Resource Shop". An appreciation of rhyme needs to be taught to those who “don’t get it” naturally. What better way than by enjoying rhymes set to music?

Phonic games that help to improve phonological awareness e.g. snap, pairs, lotto are also useful. Some games can be made by drawing pictures of objects with rhyming names, e.g. boat and note. You can buy phonic games ready to use and also download and print this FREE pairs game.

Alphabet rhymes are also good.

Games of rhyming sets and happy families are very useful when children have started to learn to read.

2. Recognising alliteration

It is an encouraging sign when children learn and try to say “tongue-twisters” like “round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran” and “she sells sea shells on the sea shore....” When they don’t, ask them what sound they can hear most often in these tongue-twisters. Other kinds of listening activities can be found here.

3. Syllable awareness

Good syllable awareness is an important phonological skill that helps reading and spelling. It can be fostered by oral activities, saying words in “robot” language, or clapping or tapping for each syllable. It can also be helped by syllable counting board games, like the “stepping stones game” in Read Write Spell or a syllable lotto game (place pictures on a number to represent the number of syllables in a word) are useful to help awareness of separate syllables within words and an understanding of what a syllable is.Knowing that every syllable contains one vowel or vowel sound is a great help in learning to spell. It avoids the temptation to miss out vowels from words, especially in unstressed syllables, e.g. wtr for water, or rmain for remain.

4. Phonemic awareness

Phonemes are the sounds that make up words. Children who have played “I spy......something beginning with.....” successfully have a huge advantage when they come to start to read and write. Children do well to recognise the three separate sounds in, say, cat – (k) (a) (t). Distinguishing the sounds is a separate but complementary skill to matching sounds with symbols (reading). The same skill can also help improve speech output.


All these skills are essential pre-reading skills. They can be improved by listening activities, speaking activities and singing activities. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive. They do not just apply to young children.

Phonological skills need to be taught to struggling readers and writers of any age. They are the foundation on which to build a structured phonics programme.