What is Phonological Awareness?

If you have a child struggling with “phonological awareness”, you may be wondering what that means. “Phonological awareness” is a complicated phrase and can be difficult to understand. You can look up a definition but in all reality, the best way to understand this phrase is by breaking it down, piece by piece.

A Crash Course in Phonemes

Phonology is the study of speech sounds. Speech sounds are all the different sounds we make to speak in English.

Some letters always make the same speech sound in English, like “r” and “m” but others don’t, like the letter “a”.

That’s why speech sounds aren’t the same as letters. We have 26 letters in English but we have 44 speech sounds.These speech sounds are known as phonemes.

The letter “a” makes a bunch of different speech sounds (9 to be exact) so it has a different phoneme for each sound, even though it’s the same letter. For example: “æ” is the phoneme for the “a” sound in cat, “eɪ” is the “a” sound in “late.”

Your ability to recognize phonemes, tell the difference between them and know which ones to use and when is known as your “phonological awareness.”

Understanding Phonological Awareness Struggles

Understanding why your child is struggling with phonological awareness can be difficult because you don’t know how to explain to them why something makes a certain sound, you just know it does.

If you are phonologically aware, you know that “cat” and “late” don’t rhyme. For someone who isn’t phonologically aware, this wouldn’t be quite so obvious— they both have an “a” and they both have a “t”, shouldn’t they rhyme?

Speech is produced by your mouth but is seamlessly perceived by your ear (if spoken) or eyes (if written) and then stored in your memory. As you gain phonological awareness, you’re able to easily connect these systems so if I make up a word like “glanker,” you’re able to use the connection between your eyes, mouth and memory to come up with a pronunciation for it that’s probably the same as everyone else with phonological awareness.

If part of this process breaks down or hasn’t yet developed, you will see phonological awareness become a struggle. A common cause of this is dyslexia, which affects your ability to perceive words.

Understanding what’s causing the this issue may help you empathize with it and find the best solutions for overcoming it.

Overcoming Phonological Awareness Struggles

Understanding the difference between “letters” and “phonemes” and why that differentiation is difficult for your child is a big step in helping them move forward in their learning.

Another way you can help them is through practice! If your child is struggling with phonological awareness, practicing reading, writing and speaking will help. Read rhymes, practice counting syllables in words and play games where you come up with as many words as possible that start with the same letter!