Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is an awareness and understanding of the sound structure of language.

A child or adult who is phonologically aware has developed the ability to consciously tune in to the sounds of spoken language, to understand them and to talk about them.

For example, a three-year-old whose phonological awareness is developing might say something like: "Hey, cat-bat: they sound the same!"

To which you might reply "Hey, they do, don't they? They both have an 'at' sound in them. Cat-bat, bat-cat!" 

phonological awareness, reading to babies

Now, if you've never heard the term phonological awareness before, you might already be thinking that this whole thing sounds way too confusing.

But stay with me for a bit because, although it seems complicated, there's really only one thing we parents really need to know.

Phonological awareness develops naturally if you:

read to your child;

  • talk to your child;
  • play with your child;
  • give your child lots of interesting and varied experiences;

Why It's Important

Phonological awareness is an important and reliable predictor of a child's later reading ability.

The research clearly shows that children who have problems learning to read at school often have poorly-developed skills in this area.

On the other hand, kids whose phonological skills are well-developed during the pre-school years often learn to read quickly and easily.

Sometimes they even learn to read before they start school.

In fact, they often learn to read quite naturally, with little in the way of formal teaching.

Sounds amazing, doesn't it? Yet, I've seen this happen with quite a few children over the years, including my own three children and my four nephews. 

It was also incredibly obvious when I did my first teaching prac in a kindy classroom here in Sydney. Although this was in a fairly well-to-do area of the city, many children were not being read to by their parents at home.

The differences between the two groups of children became very clear when they were reading to me and when they were doing their writing. 

Phonological Awareness and Reading

Phonological awareness is one of the building blocks of learning to read.

The other two building blocks are a rich vocabulary and wide background knowledge. 

The very best way of helping your child develop these skills is by reading to him often and in the right way, starting as early as possible. 

Poetry and rhyme in particular are great stimulators of phonological awareness.

Luckily, human beings seem to be naturally drawn to language which features rhyme, repetition and an interesting rhythm.

You can see this quite clearly when you read a poem or rhyme to a child. Even very young babies are usually entranced.

That's why so many books for young children are written in rhyming verse. It's also why nursery rhymes have been popular for hundreds of years and why Dr Seuss books are so much fun to read.

The Basics

Here are the main things to be aware of.

Phonological awareness:

  • is not the same as phonemic awareness or phonics. The terms are often used interchangeably but they mean different things.

  • relates only to speech sounds, not to alphabet letters or spelling or even to whole words. This means a young child can be phonologically aware even though he may not yet be able to read or even recognise the letters of the alphabet.

  • is a listening skill, not a reading skill. It involves the ability to distinguish rhymes, syllables in words and individual sounds in syllables.

It develops:

  • as part of overall language and speech development

  • generally in the third year of a child’s life however it develops because of activities that the child has been exposed to from birth.

  • naturally if you read to your children, talk to them, share nursery rhymes with them and play games with them.

  • and can be enhanced through the kind of easy, fun, free activities we do with our kids, such as playing word games and clapping games and singing nursery rhymes while doing the actions.


Center, Y. (2005). Beginning Reading. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Emmitt, M; Zbaracki, M; Komesaroff, L. & Pollock, J. (2010). Language & Learning. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Mayer, R.E. (2001). What Good is Educational Psychology? The Case of Cognition and Instruction, Educational Psychologist, Vol. 36(2), 83–88. 

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