Learning to Read Starts with the Ears

It may be surprising, but learning how to read actually starts with the ears, not the eyes.

Hearing and discriminating sounds comes first, before learning alphabet letters.

There are five essential components to reading instruction, but at the very foundation is phonological awareness & phonemic awareness. 

image five components of reading

So…what is the difference between phonological awareness & phonemic awareness?

They are not the same, but they both have to do with hearing sounds.

Phonological awareness is the big broad umbrella term that includes a group of skills (including phonemic awareness). It’s the ability to hear and manipulate the sound structure of language and it includes:

  • Word awareness
  • Syllable awareness
  • Onset-rime awareness
  • Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate individual sounds (called phonemes, in spoken words). It is a sub skill of phonological awareness.

  • hear individual sounds
  • identify individual sounds
  • move individual sounds
  • change individual sounds

Here’s an even more simplified way to think of it: Phonological Awareness includes both word awareness AND individual sound awareness, but phonemic awareness includes ONLY individual spoken sound (phonemes) awareness.

So, if you are talking about a task that has to do with a WORD, it’s referring to phonological awareness, if you are talking about a task that has to do with an INDIVIDUAL SPOKEN SOUND, it’s referring to phonemic awareness.

For example:

Clapping the number of syllables in the word sheep (1 syllable) is at the word level (broader level), so it’s a phonological awareness skill.

Pushing pennies to isolate the individual sounds in the word sheep /sh/ /ee/ /p/ is focusing on the individual spoken sounds (phonemes), so it’s a phonemic awareness skill.

This chart shows the five levels of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness activities are the most complex.

image 5 Levels of Phonological Awareness

Why is phonological awareness so important?

It’s quite simple. Students who have strong phonological awareness are more likely to be good readers, while students with weak phonological skills are more likely to be poor readers (Blachman, 2000).

Phonological awareness is a big predictor of a student’s long term reading and spelling success. (Put Reading First, 1998).

More than 90 percent of students with significant reading problems are estimated to have a core deficit in their ability to process phonological information (Blachman, 1995).

How do I know if my child has strong or weak phonological skills?

Questioning provides a lot of information. Remember, whether it’s for assessment or for practice, phonological and phonemic activities are all done orally. Here’s what to look for:

Rhyming Words

Can your child identify words that rhyme?

Example: “Which two words rhyme–house, mouse, car?” (Answer: house, mouse)

Can your child produce words that rhyme?

Example: “Can you tell me a word that rhymes with cat and bat? (Even nonsense words (like dat or zat) are perfectly fine answers. The point is the ability to produce a rhyme.)


Can your child identify words that start with the same sound?

Example: “Do these words start with the same sound? car/fish (no)  sun/sack (yes)

Isolation of Sounds

Can your child isolate and identify a specific sound in a word? (beginning, medial & ending sounds)

Individual sounds are written like this between two slashes: /s/

Example: “What is the beginning sound in the word fan? Answer: /f/ (Make sure it’s the /f/ sound and not the name of the alphabet letter.)

What is the middle sound in the word pot? (Answer: /o/)

What is the ending sound in the word mad? (Answer: /d/)

Segmentation of Sounds

Can your child pull apart sounds of a word in order?

Example: “What sounds do you hear in the word tap?” (Answer : 3 segmented sounds /t/ /a/ /p/)

Deletion of Sounds

Can your child take away sounds from words and identify what’s left?

Example: “If I take away the /p/ in the word pit, what sound is left? (Answer: it)

Substitution of Sounds

Can your child change a sound in a word to make another word? (At the beginning, middle and end of a word)

Change the beginning sound of a word: “My word is rip. Change the /r/ to /t/. What is the new word?” Answer: tip

Change the ending sound of a word: “My word is hat. Change the /t/ to /m/. What is the new word?” Answer: ham

Change the middle sound of a word: “My word is fan. Change the /a/ to /i/. What is the new word?” Answer: fin

Blending Sounds into Words

Can your child put together sounds to make a word?

Example: “Here are the sounds in a word /d//o//g/. What is the word?” Answer: dog

How can I help my child practice phonological and phonemic awareness skills?

The very best way to help a child develop phonemic awareness is by making it a FUN verbal game.

Practice by asking questions just like those above, but keep it quick and keep it fun!

When is a good time to practice phonological and phonemic awareness skills?

Remember, this is done completely verbally (with no materials needed), so take advantage of those tiny little snatches of time during the day such as:

  • getting dressed in the morning
  • during meal preparation
  • at the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table
  • in the car on the way to school or soccer practice
  • in the bathtub
  • just before bedtime

At what age should a child develop phonemic awareness skills?

Phonemic awareness skills (working with isolated sounds) are often directly taught in Kindergarten and first grade, but can be developed even earlier in preschool. When students do develop phonemic awareness skills, they are that much closer to becoming a reader.

This YouTube video (1:49 min.) from LitDiet.org does a really nice job of demonstrating how to teach segmenting individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Instead of the typical pushing pennies or colored tokens, matchbox cars are a really fun twist!

How else can I help my child develop phonological awareness?

That’s easy. Read rhyming books aloud to your child. 

As mentioned above, rhyming is a very important phonological awareness skill, but kids must hear lots of good examples of rhyming well before they can identify and produce rhymes on their own.

Here are some of the types of rhyming books that help children build their phonological awareness:

  • patterned rhyming books
  • classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes
  • short rhyming poems


The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Really, just about any rhyming book by Dr. Seuss is fantastic!)

image The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss phonemic awareness book

There are so many wonderful collections of nursery rhymes out there, but Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose is a favorite!

image Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose

Read Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young by Jack Prelutsky is a stellar anthology of short rhyming poems for young kids, but there are plenty of wonderful poetry collections out there.

image Read Aloud Rhymes for The Very Young by Jack Prelutsky

Mother Goose nursery rhymes and other short poems help students develop their ear for rhyme.

Here’s an example of how just one short nursery rhyme can help build phonological awareness.

First, read the nursery rhyme aloud.

Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,

the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.

But where is the boy who looks after the sheep?

He’s under the haystack fast asleep.


Image Little Boy Blue phonemic awareness

Now, read the nursery rhyme again and ask just a couple of the following questions. Don’t go phonological awareness crazy!

Identify Rhyming Words: “Which words in the poem rhyme?” (Answer: horn/corn, sheep/asleep)

Produce Rhyming Words: “Can you think of another word that rhymes with sheep?” (Possible answers: beep, deep, heap, jeep, keep, peep, etc.)

Substitution: “My word is sheep. What if I change the /sh/ to /l/. What is my new word?” (Answer: leap)

Segmentation:What sounds do you hear in fast?” (Answer 4 phonemes: /f/ /a/ /s/ /t/)

Blending Sounds into Words: “Here are the sounds in a word. /b/ /u/ /t/. What is the word? (Answer: but)


Phonological and phonemic awareness skills help prepare students to become successful readers!

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