Preparing your child to read, spell and write: Focus on phonological awareness

Anyone who has spent time with a speech pathologist will know that us speechies use A LOT of complex words and phrases. Maybe it’s something to do with our love of language, or maybe we just enjoy seeing the blank looks we get when we reel off these words. Phonological awareness may seem like one of those super-complex-and-ultra-confusing words, but when broken down it describes a set of skills that are essential to reading success.

What is phonological awareness? Phonological awareness is an umbrella term which describes a child’s ability to recognise and manipulate sounds in a spoken language. In essence, phonological awareness is when a child begins to recognise the phonology of language: that words are made up of sounds and those sounds can be separated and manipulated to make different words.

Phonological awareness covers a broad range of skills including:

  • Syllable segmentation (clapping out words)

  • Rhyme awareness and production (identifying words that rhyme and producing rhyming words)

  • Blending sounds (for example, putting c-a-t together to make ‘cat’)

  • Identifying the first/last sounds in words

  • Segmenting words into separate sounds (for example, segmenting ‘dog’ into d-o-g.

  • Deleting and manipulating sounds (for example, saying ‘moon’ without the /m/ sound).

  • Letter-sound correspondences: (for example, identifying the sound the letter ‘t’ makes and identifying what letter makes the ‘buh’ sound).

Many people think that learning to read begins when a child starts to link letters to sounds, but in fact, phonological awareness is an essential pillar to reading success. In fact, many studies have linked phonological awareness to later reading success. Phonological awareness begins to develop in the preschool years, and continues through formal education, until about seven years of age.

Children who present with speech and language difficulties may also have difficulties with phonological awareness. This is why speech pathologists often screen for phonological awareness difficulties when we are assessing children (there is a purpose to those clapping games we play!).

What are the signs that a child may be having difficulty with phonological awareness?

In preschool, these can include:

· Difficulty learning nursery rhymes

· Lack of enjoyment when listening to rhyming stories

· Trouble counting out syllables in words

· Difficulty noticing sound repetition or alliteration (e.g. “six silly sausages sat in the sun”).

In kindergarten, a child may struggle with:

· Identifying the first sound they hear in words

· Blending individual sounds into words

· Identifying rhyming words during word play

How can you support children to develop phonological awareness skills?

Make language play a part of your day. Read your child rhyming books, sing songs, and have them come up with words that rhyme or start with the same sound (‘I Spy’ is a great game for the car).

If your child is young enough, consider enrolling them in a preschool program. Preschools usually include language play, songs, rhymes and stories in their daily activities. Visit different preschools before choosing a program for your child. That will help you make sure they get a rich experience with language and sounds.

Check out the technology. For some kids, apps and software are useful tools. They may help your child learn and practice phonological or phonemic awareness skills. Some great apps for phonological awareness include: Syllable Awareness, Hearbuilder Phonological Awareness, Syllables Squash, Phonological Awareness Lab, Rhyming Words.

If you are concerned about your child’s phonological awareness skills, refer to a speech pathologist, who can complete a more formal assessment and provide you with practical tips and advice.

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