Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is a critical skill for all students’ literacy development and a predictor of later reading and spelling success. Phonological awareness refers to oral language and is the understanding of the different ways that language can be broken down into smaller parts.

Phonological awareness consists of five subskills beginning with word, syllable, onset/rime awareness, moving to the more complex subskills of basic and advanced phonemic awareness.

You can watch a video which explains the definition of phonological awareness and learn about the subskills.

What is phonological awareness?

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness refers to oral language and is the understanding of the different ways speech can be broken down into smaller parts of sound and manipulated.

Phonological awareness is all about what you are hearing and saying it can be done with your eyes closed in the paper, 'Research into practice phonological awareness' by Dr. Deslea Konza. Phonological awareness is defined as "a broad term that refers to the ability to focus on the sounds of speech as opposed to its meaning, and it has a number of different levels or components".

In the National Literacy Learning Progression. The term phonological awareness is used to describe the awareness of the constituent sounds or spoken words, which can be distinguished in three ways:

  • by syllables. For example, the word monkey, The syllables are mon key.
  • By onset and rime, such as in the word log, the onset is or, and the rhyme is og.
  • And by phoneme, the smallest unit of a spoken word, for example, in the word shark, the phonemes are sh are k.

Learning to read requires children to have an awareness of the sound structure of spoken language and how these patterns of sound can be manipulated.

Phonological awareness is the first building block in learning to read.

Supporting the development of reading skills

This series of videos explores our understanding of phonological awareness and why it is a critical skill for reading development.


Definition of a syllable

Onset and rime

A discussion of onset and rime

Phonemic awareness and decoding

Exploring the connection between phonemic awareness and successful decoding


Explaining phonemes

Phonological and phonemic awareness

Explaining the difference

Basic phonemic awareness skills and phonics

Jane Lieschke explains the skills students need before the layer of phonics is introduced

Video: Syllables

What is a syllable? Syllables are known as the beats or rhythm of spoken language. Five little monkeys jumping on the bed. One fell off and bumped his head. I call for the doctor, and the doctor said, no more monkeys jumping on the bed.

A syllable is a single unbroken sound of a spoken word.

A syllable is often shown by clapping as the word is spoken. One clap represents one syllable, five has one syllable. Doctor has two syllables. A syllable contains a vowel phoneme and any accompanying consonant phonemes five has the vowel phoneme I bed has the vowel phoneme 'e'.

The number of vowel names in a word equals the number of syllables.

Multi-syllabic words have more than one syllable. The word monkey has two syllables. Monkey, the word elephant has three syllables. Elephant, the word watermelon has four syllables. Water. All these words are multi-syllabic.

Video: Phoneme

What is a phoneme? A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech.

There are 44 phonemes in standard Australian English. These 44 phoneme are used to speak all the words in the English language. Bee, eight. Shark Frog. The word B has two phonemes, bur, E.

The word eight has two phonemes A, T.

The word shark has three phonemes. Sh ar. c.

The word frog has 3 phonemes f, r, o, g

It can be hard to identify the individual phonemes in spoken language due to coarticulation.

Coarticulation disguises the underlying segmental nature of speech. So when we hear spoken words such as I love Dad, we do not hear the individual phonemes that make up those large chunks of sound. We can possibly hear the sound as three individual words. I love Dad, if we slow down that same speech and segment each phoneme, i l, ah, v, d, a,d.

Then we can hear the individual phonemes

Video: Onset and rime

What is onset and rime? Onset and rime are smaller units of sound within a syllable, syllables can be pulled apart or segmented into onset and rime. C, ake Cake. Onset is the consonant, phoneme, or phonemes that precede the vowel phoneme in a syllable, the word 'hand' can be segmented into onset and rime, h, and. H is the onset.

The word 'clown' can be segmented into onset and rime. Cl, oun. Cl is the onset rime consists of the vowel phoneme and any consonant phonemes that follow it. In the syllable, the word sock can be segmented into onset and rime - s, och. Och is the rime. The word bear can be segmented into onset and rime, b, air, air is the rime. Not all syllables have a onset, but all syllables have a rime. The words ink and up only have a rime.

In multi-syllabic words, each syllable may have an onset, but each syllable will always have a rime. The word crocodile has three syllables. The first syllable crock, the onset is cr. The rime is och. The second syllable earth has no onset. The rime is er. The third syllable dial, the onset is d. The rime is isle.

Video: Phonological and phonemic awareness

Are phonological awareness and phonemic awareness the same?

No. Phonemic awareness is a sub skill of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to focus on the sounds of speech or the structure of spoken language. It is an umbrella term that includes the sub-skills of spoken word awareness, responsiveness to rhyme and alliteration, awareness of spoken syllables, understanding of onset and rime and phonemic awareness.

So what is phonemic awareness in the National Literacy Learning Progression? Phonemic awareness is described as a sub element of phonological processing and is the awareness of phonemes, which is demonstrated when students identify and manipulate phonemes. In the research article 'Promising interventions for promoting emergent literacy skills', Pullen and Justice describe phonemic awareness as the ability to attend to and manipulate phonemes the smallest sounds in speech with, in phonemic awareness, there are a subset of skills that include isolation of individual phonemes. For example, in the word hat, if we isolate the final or last phoneme, it would be 't'.

Blending of phonemes to say a word.

For example, blending the phonemes c a t together would say the word cat

Segmenting the phonemes in a word.

For example, the word frog can be segmented into the individual phonemes f, r, o, g.

And manipulating phonemes by deletion, substitution, and addition to say different words.

Manipulating these smallest units of sound can make a difference to the sound structure of a spoken word, and its meaning. Manipulation can occur by deleting a phoneme. For example, say the word pink. If we say pink and delete 'p', the word says ink.

Manipulating by substituting a phoneme,for example, in the word cat, if we substitute 'c' to 'h' the word now, says, hat.

Manipulating by adding a phoneme, for example, in the word sand. If after 's' we add 't', the word says, stand.

Phonemic awareness is the most important phonological element for the development of reading and also spelling.

Having this awareness of phonemes provides insight into understanding the alphabetic principle or code that underlies our written language.

Video: Phonemic awareness and decoding

How does phonemic awareness support successful early decoding?

Decoding is the process of efficient word recognition in which readers use knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds to work out how to say and read written words.

What does decoding sound like in reading?

When reading a child may come to an unknown word, for example, fish. Using their phonic skills to decode the word, the child would sound out and say the phonemes that are represented by the graphemes.

It would sound like this. 'f' 'i' 'sh' the child would then blend the phonemes together to say the word fish. The child connects it back to the visual representation and raise the word fish within the text. I can fish.

Video: Basic phonemic awareness skills and phonics

Prior to introducing graphemes, students need to be able to demonstrate a firm knowledge of phonemic awareness. So that's the ability to successfully identify individual phonemes and say those individual phonemes in a variety of placements within one syllable words. So that's at the beginning of words, at the end of words, and in the middle of words, as well as being able to identify and say these phonemes.

Students also need to be able to successfully blend them together and segment them into the individual phonemes, and that will demonstrate a solid basis in phonemic awareness.

To hear more about how phonological awareness can support early reading acquisition, listen to our two-part podcast 'A speech pathologists view on oral language, phonological awareness and phonics'


Resources to support teaching in the classroom (staff only).


The on-demand Phonological awareness diagnostic assessment is designed to tell teachers how students are progressing in phonological awareness.


Additional Literacy and numeracy professional learning opportunities in the practical application of evidence-based teaching of reading.


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