Trouble Shooting for Early Literacy Struggles – The Role of Phonological Awareness Skills

Jan 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Brain

Some students have difficulty acquiring emergent literacy skills in preschool and continue to struggle after entering Kindergarten. Both reading and writing are born out of the child’s awareness of the sounds of oral language, the association of sounds to letters, and the subsequent ability to map sound to print. Having the adequate literacy foundation skills of phonological awareness is a necessity.

Research tells us that phonemic awareness is critical for reading and writing (especially blending and segmenting), so what is the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness? Phonological and phonemic awareness are interdependent, with phonemic awareness being a subset of phonological awareness. Simply put, phonological awareness involves patterns and all units of sound (the chunks), while phonemic awareness deals with the phonemes or sounds (the pieces).

Phonological awareness is innate – our brains are hard-wired for pattern-seeking. Phonological awareness involves the ability to hear/recognize and manipulate the patterns of oral language – words, syllables, rhymes, onsets, rimes, and alliteration, and is an auditory skill (no print involved). It also involves the sense of beginning, end and middle parts of words, as well as word play and the understanding that spoken words consist of sequences of phonemes.

Phonemic awareness is not innate – it must be taught. Phonemic awareness is actually a subset of phonological awareness. It deals with specific phonemes (sounds) and involves the understanding that the spoken word is made up of individual sounds, and the ability to “control” or manipulate them (as is done in blending and segmenting tasks). Phonemic awareness is also an auditory skill, should be taught as such, and is connected to print because it is a critical skill set for reading and writing.

At times, the child’s inability to process CVC words lies not in a problem with specific phonemic awareness skills, but in under-developed phonological awareness skills. Difficulty with decoding in general can also have its basis more in phonological awareness than phonemic awareness. Conventional wisdom tells us that students need to have a “good sense of whole words & word parts” before they can “play with the pieces”, because both reading & writing involve “playing with the pieces”.

As a literacy consultant, I have seen and worked with children whose weak phonological awareness skills turned out to be the root of the problem for difficulties with phonemic awareness activities, or for being able to apply the learning of phonemic awareness skills to decoding (reading) and encoding (writing). My curiosity about these students’ inability to proficiently map-sound-to-print and to be able to put 3 sounds together to make a word led me back to the “sound” basics of phonological awareness.

Detective work in the area of phonological awareness skills  can result in a more clearly defined basis of the child’s problem, and point the way to some “repair” strategies.  A word of caution about “repair” strategies – teachers must resist the inclination to work on any of the skills listed below in isolation or in a continuum until “mastery”, and then expect them to transfer “magically” to context. Any skill being learned needs to be connected to natural contexts immediately. A listing of skills to check follows. This is not a continuum or sequence, but simply a list of skills to consider, since it is no secret that children do not necessarily learn skills in the exact order of a continuum or sequence! As Louis Rossetti once said, “a sequence is not a schedule.”

Phonological Awareness Skills

  • Syllable Sense – awareness of word “parts” or “pulses” of the vowel sounds
  • Rhyming Sense – awareness of when the rimes of two or more words sound the same + understanding of associated terminology – same, not the same, alike, different, rhyme, do not rhyme
  • Initial Sound Isolation– awareness of the 1st sounds of words + the ability to separate the initial sound of a word. Randall Klein, founder of Early Reading Mastery, aptly described how a teacher would model this skill – A teacher would say “here is a /b/ ball. What sound do you hear at the beginning of /b/ ball?”
  • Onset-Rime – ability to blend two sound units (first sound + the remaining “rime”) into the whole word
  • Alphabetic Principle – the understanding that a letter is a symbol for a speech sound (Maunz, Matthews & Klein, 2001)

Expanded Details

  • Syllable Sense – Best practices tell us that it is much easier for young children to learn about “parts” of words by becoming aware of the natural linguistic “pulses” of syllables. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for adults to try to teach syllable awareness in 1 syllable words, as well as 2 & 3 syllable words. Thinking that the sequence of 1, then 2, then 3 syllables is logical does not match up to developmental capabilities of young children. While it may make sense to the adult mind to begin with 1 syllable words, the child’s brain has a “default” awareness of “pulses” of sound that has not been differentiated between consonants and vowels, with the result that some of the children think that a one syllable word such as “hat” has 2 syllables!

Common sense tells us to help students “discover” that 2 syllable words have 2 parts . . . and 3 syllable words have 3 parts . . . and when they have mastered 2 & 3 syllables, go back and “discover” that some words only have one syllable (it helps to minimize the ending sound so the vowel “pulse” stands out). Depending on the age of the students, becoming aware of the presence of vowel sounds (how many there are in a word) can be a clue to the number of syllables. Common ways used to involve children in “sensing” the vowel pulses in each syllable include (but is not limited to) clapping, stomping/stepping, placing fingers under the jaw and touching it for each syllable,  and moving felt pieces or chips on a white board or table. Since some children have difficulty remembering how many times they clapped or stomped/stepped, adding a visual input is very helpful – the use of felt pieces or chips immediately turns an auditory task into a visual one. Another way is to add visual input is to hold a finger up to your cheek for each syllable as you say a word – the students can count your fingers and get it right the very first time! Another great trick I learned at a recent conference was called “duck lips”. To do this, just push your lips out a bit and then hold them together with your thumb and index finger and then say a word. Since it isn’t possible to use your lips, the only thing you can do is to produce the “pulse” of each syllable (the vowel sounds). Count the pulses and you have the correct # of syllables! The combination of the auditory and tactile/kinesthetic inputs makes this a very effective technique.

  • Rhyming Sense – Best practices by researchers and knowledgeable educators tell us that students can recognize rhyming before they can generate rhyming words from examples. Some professionals have stated that we should not expect all children to be able to rhyme. My tack on that position is that the jury is still out – when more than just the auditory mode is used in rhyming exposure & instruction, children should be able to “recognize” when two words rhyme. When working with young children (or those who have significant delays in emergent literacy skills), the “sense” & recognition of “rhyme” comes through exposure to nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss books,  children’s songs like “The Ants Go Marching”, “Down By the Bay”, and “The Name Game”, and through “word play”. The use of pictures that illustrate rhyming words is also an important consideration because it taps into visual imagery and provides a better associational “hook” for the recognition of words that sound the same and “tickle” the ears.

Educators must be mindful that students are not typically “rule bound” by the rule for rhyming – that the rime of words (all sounds other than the “onset” or initial sound) must be the same. Children naturally will tune into the prominent vowel sound of the word and not be that aware of the final sound. With that said, when elementary students struggle with recognizing rhyming words, focus their attention on the vowel sounds. When asking children to tell if words rhyme or sound the same, an unfortunate mistake some teachers make is to only give two words. While this gives a struggling learner a 50-50 chance at being right in their guess, it does little to facilitate recognition of the concept of rhyming or sameness. Giving three or more words is a more brain-friendly strategy because it taps into the basic brain sorting strategies of inclusion and exclusion. Since there are two or more words that sound the same (inclusion) and one that is different (exclusion), the decision about which words sound alike is much easier! It goes without saying that the term “rhyming” needs to be said frequently when rhyming words are modeled or pointed out in order to more strongly bond the term to the concept.

  • Initial Sound Isolation – Being able to isolate & separate the first sound from the rest of the word is a critical foundation skill. If taught in a fun and developmentally appropriate way, children as young as 4 can learn this skill. In a recent conversation, Randall Klein pointed out the importance of using pictures when introducing this skill to young children (and to struggling learners), as it provides a second input for the brain to use in associating the sounds of the spoken word with a concrete object. The ability to separate or “segment” the first sound from a word sets the stage for the phonological awareness skill of onset-rime patterns, another critical foundation literacy concept. Being able to isolate the first sound of a word also sets the stage for the ability to blend and to segment (separate) all sounds of short words . . . phonemic awareness skills that are critical for spelling & writing.
  • Onset-rime – Onset-rime is built on the melding of “1st sound isolation” and syllable sense. The concepts of onset and rime (which are based in sound), build awareness of the “chunks” of language . . . syllables or “word families” . . . and reinforce one of the brain’s favorite things – patterns. Better yet, these patterns are not based in “letterness” . . . they are based in how the initial letter and the remaining chunk of letters sound!

More than once, I have personally witnessed a struggling learner attempt to blend the three sounds of a CVC pattern into a word. Their “best guesses” were inconsistent, in that their attempt may be based on only the first sound, sometimes the first two sounds, sometimes  the last two sounds, or on just the last sound. Knowing that the success of blending CVC sounds hinges on prior knowledge of the word, a student’s inaccurate guesses may be due to the brain changing its processing from sounds being blended into words to a sound or sounds triggering an association to a highly familiar word in their “vocabulary bank”.

One particular instance involving a 1st grade student working with a Learning Strategist on CVC blending stands out.  The strategist was giving three sounds with an average amount of time between each sound. Noticing that the student was rarely successful in his “guesses”, I asked the specialist if I could try hand spelling (see brief explanation and illustration below), a strategy created by Richard Gentry.  The use of hand spelling resulted in immediate success for this student, as he quickly caught on to the onset-rime format and did not miss one word presented in this way. There are two possible explanations for the dramatic shift in his ability to “blend” – 1. There were fewer “pieces” to think about and assemble (2 vs. 3) and 2. the onset-rime format tapped into his brain’s default of pattern seeking. My vote is for option #2 because the three sounds of CVC words did not provide his brain with any pattern “hooks”.

Hand Spelling – Gentry (2004, pg 34) states that the inspiration for this strategy came from the Vygotskian concept of materialization, which involves a tangible object or a physical action to represent a mental construct – in this case, the concept of onsets and rimes. As stated on pg 35 of his book, The Science of Spelling (2004), the steps are:

1.       Pronounce the word and represent it with a balled up fist.

2.       Pronounce the onset and hold up the thumb.

3.       Pronounce the rime and extend the rest of the hand into a handshake position.

4.       Pronounce the whole word again, returning to the fist position (symbolically pulling the onset and rime back into the whole word).

  • Alphabetic Principle – When students come to understand that letters and sounds are connected and learn the common sounds the letters represent, they will be able to map sound to print, a necessary skill for both decoding (reading) and encoding (writing). Knowing letter names alone does nothing for the development of reading . . . just as being able to rote count without the corresponding knowledge of number values does nothing for the learning of quantity concepts. As so well put by Maunz, Matthews, & Klein in their outstanding book, Learning to Read is Child’s Play (2001), letter naming has nothing to do with reading!  Letter recognition with sound has a connection to reading.

It is not the purpose of this article to suggest specific materials or programs for phonological awareness or phonemic awareness. Its purpose is to raise awareness about the foundational role phonological awareness plays in literacy, to point out areas to be checked when problems crop up early on, and to remind teachers that sometimes we need to “step back” in the sequence  so our students  can move ahead from being beginning readers to becoming skills readers.

Instructional mismatches can occur when students who are still at the beginning reader level are being instructed and expected to perform as if they were skilled readers. As stated earlier, students need to have a good sense of the chunks & patterns of the sounds of language (phonological awareness) as well as the print representations, before they can effectively use phonemic awareness skills to play with the pieces!


Gentry, J. R.  2004. The Science of Spelling: the Explicit Specifics That Make Great Readers (and Spellers!). Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Gentry, J. R. 2007. Breakthrough in Beginning Reading and Writing. New York, NY. Scholastic. Gentry’s Hand Spelling Symbols diagram used with permission of Scholastic, Inc.

Maunz, M., Matthews, C. & Klein, R. 2001. Learning to Read is Child’s Play. Des Plaines, IL. The Early Reading Company Press.

© 2011  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved

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2 Comments to “Trouble Shooting for Early Literacy Struggles – The Role of Phonological Awareness Skills”

  1. Nancy Brian says:

    Appreciated the share!

  2. Carey Achee says:

    thanks for your thoughts on this, I felt a bit struck by this article. Thanks again!

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