As clinicians and professionals dedicated to helping individuals who struggle with a variety of speech, learning, and other developmental disorders, you can never have too many resources for parents and guardians to help their children develop normal skills in these areas. And for many parents, ensuring that their children won’t struggle with reading is of utmost importance, particularly as they grow close to school age.

It is well known that children not equipped with the proper skills to learn to read successfully will often struggle to perform well in school and keep up with their peers. In her article “What Are the Signs Your Child Will Have Difficulty Learning to Read,” Kathleen T. Williams, PhD, NCSP details the skills necessary for reading success based on research by the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP). These skills are:

  • Alphabet Knowledge
  • Phonological Awareness
  • Oral Language

For the sake of this article, we’ll be focusing on the importance of phonological awareness in helping prepare a child to read successfully. Dr. Williams defines phonological awareness as “the mindfulness of the sound structures of language.” In other words, can a child distinguish the different sounds and syllables in a given word, or recognize rhyme schemes in words (such as bat and cat)? This isn’t a necessarily visual skill but without understanding the various sounds that make up words they will struggle to make the connection with words on a page. As children progress they should also be able to understand sentence segmentation (that a sentence is made up of multiple words) and syllables.

There are varying levels of phonological awareness with the highest level being phonemic awareness. When a child reaches this stage they are able to identify each phoneme or speech sound in a word. For example, a child should be able to recognize that the word “look” has three separate phonemes—the sounds the “l”, the “oo,” and the “k” make. Once a child has this level of phonological awareness they will be much better equipped to then make sense of written words on a page and pronounce them correctly.

Activities to Develop Phonological Awareness

Dr. Williams recommends these simple and inexpensive activities that you can do or teach parents to do that can help children develop this awareness. These include:

  • Sing rhyming songs like “The Itsy, Bitsy Spider” or read rhyming books (most Dr. Seuss books are great for this) to the child
  • Match pictures of words that rhyme
  • Practice sentence segmentation by putting beads on a string for each word spoken in a sentence
  • Practice syllable segmentation by having a child clap for each syllable in common words or the names of family members and friends
  • Create flashcards with beginnings and endings of words and have the child match up multiple beginnings with the same ending (i.e. “c”, “b” and “h” with “at”) to demonstrate how multiple words can have the same beginning or ending
  • Practice phonemic awareness by utilizing a toy train—the engine car is the first sound of a word, the next car or cars can be for the various sounds in the middle, and the caboose can be the final sound

Any of these activities could be performed right in your office or in the home of a child you are treating and they can be modified to fit the resources you have on hand.

Evaluating Phonological Awareness

If you are working with a child you believe may have difficulty with phonological awareness it’s best to use a trusted assessment like the Phonological and Print Awareness Scale (PPA Scale). This clinical assessment evaluates early literacy skills in children three and a half to eight years and allows clinicians to continue to evaluate development of these skills as a child grows. It has six tasks that measure rhyming, print knowledge, initial and final sound matching, sound-symbol matching, and phonemic awareness.  It’s short (10-15 minute administering time) and is individually administered to the child by the clinician. The results of the PPA Scale evaluation can then help you determine areas of treatment needed by a specific child.