QUESTION: Can you explain what the term ‘Phonological Awareness’ means?

Answer: This is something that Speech and Language Therapists talk about a lot. It’s a really important first step in learning to read, before letters are even introduced – so it should be encouraged to develop before Phonics instruction begins in school. Phonological awareness refers to the awareness of and ability to work with the sounds in the language you speak. This means being able to tune in to the sounds in words, understand and generate rhyme, understand how words can be broken up into syllables, notice repetition of sounds (alliteration) etc. Children will usually be able to notice these things first before they learn to start manipulating the sounds and generating their own examples.

Children usually start to notice rhyme first and should enjoy nursery rhymes and stories with rhyming elements. Clapping out the ‘beats’ (syllables) in words is another fun one for younger children. They will start to notice phrases with the same sound repeated often, e.g. ‘Seven silly sausages sat silently.’ As their skills develop, they will begin to recognise and pick out individual sounds in words, e.g. ‘What sound can you hear at the beginning of cat?’ Being able to pick out those individual sounds is called Phonemic Awareness – a subset skill of phonological awareness. A ‘phoneme’ is a distinct unit of sound within a language, which can be distinguished from other sounds, e.g. ‘b’, ‘t’, ‘s’. It is trickier for children to master than rhyme and syllable clapping, but it’s really important to be able to map sounds onto letters in order to learn to read.

Speech and Language Therapists often work on phonological awareness in conjunction with speech sound work, but in fact all children need to be developing these skills from a young age to support literacy development.

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