Thinking in sounds: how children develop phonological awareness

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Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013 10:13 am

“Phonological awareness” and “phonemic awareness” are buzzwords in preschool and early elementary education. These are a set of cognitive skills that are excellent predictors of academic success, and so have been the subject of a great deal of research.

What do these terms mean, how do these important skills develop and what can parents do to help their children acquire them?

Thinking in Sounds

In my practice, I describe phonological awareness as “thinking in sounds” or “mind’s ear” skills. Phonological awareness is the ability to mentally snip words into syllables or individual sounds – phonemes – and to mentally build individual sounds or syllables back into whole words.

Phonological awareness allows us to hear a new word like “plimsoll” and know that it has two syllables and seven sounds. It allows us to work out, without writing anything down, that if we take the ‘p’ off the front of the word, and the ‘all’ off the end, we get the word “limbs.”

Phonemic awareness, although sometimes used interchangeably with phonological awareness, refers only to skills with the smallest units of sound, the phonemes. Phonics is the knowledge of letters, and which sounds go with which letters – what teachers refer to as “sound-symbol correspondence.”

Gradual Development

Phonological awareness starts early. Young children think primarily in meanings, but around age three they begin to experience words as having a structure, as being “made of” sounds. They begin to realize that if a word changes in sound, it may change in meaning.

We see this when the two- to three-year-old child corrects others’ pronunciation: “My name’s not Colby, it’s Cody!”

Around age three, many children begin to enjoy and delight in nonsense words, alliteration and rhyme. They may repeat an interesting word over and over just to listen to it. These behaviors show an awareness of sounds and syllables. By 3 1/2 years, 60 percent of children can tell whether two words rhyme.

By age four, 60 percent of children can think of a word that rhymes with a simple word you give them. At 4 1/2 years, most children can produce several rhyming words, and can clap to the beat of syllables in a long word like hippopotamus.

By age five, children should be able to tell when two words start with the same sound, and blend two syllables together to make a word. About half of five year olds can listen to a two-syllable word, then tell you what it will be if one of the syllables is taken away: “How would you say table without saying tay?”

Activities to Develop Phonological Awareness

Mind’s-ear or thinking-in-sounds practice should be fun and engaging for children. Always give your child plenty of time to respond – more time the younger the child is.

If he doesn’t know the answer or guesses wrong, simply give the answer and try another one. Aim for a high success rate. If your child is incorrect more than one out of every five tries, simplify the activity. Adapt the tasks to suit the interests and developmental level of your child.

• Use nursery rhymes, songs and finger plays to introduce awareness of speech sounds and rhyme. Comment about words you hear in the song that rhyme, or that start with the same sound.

• Teach your child to understand a “secret code” by splitting words into syllables or sounds and having him guess what word it is. Start with family names.

Use a sentence clue if necessary:

“Who is this? Em ... ah ... lee?”

“For lunch we can have ma ... ca ... ro ... ni. Do you know what I said?”

“We have to stop here and get some g ... a ... s. What do we have to get?”

• Give sounds names, such as /s/ = the snake sound, /sh/ = the quiet sound, /p/ = the popping sound. Say a word and ask your child if she heard a certain sound: “Listen ... top. Did you hear a snake sound? How about this one ... stop. Did that word have a snake sound?”

• Use picture cards or objects to sort by initial sound. For example, the picture of shirt, sugar and shampoo will all go in one pile, and pictures of kitchen, cup and cake go in another.

• Have your child find pictures that have the same first sound as the name of a character or person they know: “Here’s Thomas. He’s looking for some things that start with the same sound as his name. Can you help him find some?”

Have a range of pictures, and help the child choose the ones that start with the right sound.

• Play memory with picture card pairs. Cards can match if they rhyme, or if they start with the same sound. Using 3-9 pairs, take turns turning over two cards, saying what pictures they are and keeping them if they match.

• Use the picture cards to have the child select words that rhyme with or start with the same sound as a word you name: “Which one rhymes with hat? I’m thinking of a word that starts like shoe.”

Thinking in sounds is great practice even for children who are already reading. For older kids, try taking a longer word and challenging them to figure out what it would be without one of its sounds: “How would you say ‘driver’ without saying the /v/ sound?”

Maybe your child can even stump you with a thinking-in-sounds riddle!

Deborah L. Bennett, M.S. CCC-SLP is a speech and language pathologist at Monadnock Speech & Language in Keene. For more information, call 603-491-2941 or email

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