Why Preschool Phonological Awareness Skills Matters to Me...and Why They Should Matter to You!
We send our children to preschool. They sing sounds, learn nursery rhymes, and begin learning some beginning sounds. We love hearing their little voices in the car repeating the songs that they have been practicing for their preschool class party, and feel excitement when we notice that they are beginning to recognize some letters and sounds.
This was how I was feeling three years ago as a parent of a preschooler. My son was in the 3 year old classroom at preschool and my daughter was in kindergarten. We were living in Rogers, Arkansas and absolutely loved our preschool. Then, the world stopped. COVID-19 hit and there we all were...together, in the dining room/makeshift "classroom", every single morning together. I went full on teacher mode, hanging the alphabet line and calendar, making a weather graph, writing poems…the whole nine yards. Since my daughter had online learning for kindergarten, I was planning to focus on occupying my son with some learning while she was on her morning zoom calls.
I was trying to fill my son’s morning with some meaningful literacy activities and downloaded a guide about working on phonological awareness skills with preschoolers. I was surprised to notice the complexity of the activities we were supposed to be working on, including syllables, compound words, and onset and rime. To be honest, I hadn’t even considered teaching a three-year-old syllables. Onset and rime was not in my vocabulary, even as a seasoned kindergarten teacher.
A little skeptical, we started our mornings with our phonological awareness warm-up. My daughter would often join us, as she was in the “classroom” with us. We were starting with the basics… rhyming words. I would alternate the activities between my son and daughter. My son would rattle off the rhyming words. However, to my surprise, my daughter was unable to rhyme. I was confused to say the least. How could my daughter, who had three years of preschool and was three-fourths the way through kindergarten be unable to rhyme? I was even more concerned when I considered that my son, on the other hand, had no problem at all with the rhyming words, or any of the other skills we worked on. I started working on other phonological awareness skills with my daughter and sure enough, she was one of the 20% of children that have a phonological awareness deficit.
The more complex skills were even more challenging for her. The science doesn’t lie…phonological awareness matters greatly when children are learning to read. My daughter would continue to struggle with reading and eventually be diagnosed with a learning disability in reading.
This simple realization really got me thinking. Here we were, three-fourths the way through kindergarten, stuck at home together, and dealing with some major deficits. My daughter was unable to rhyme and struggled to decode, as well. I honestly think this realization saved my child! Fortunately, I have a background in education and a master’s in special education, so I was able to really tune in to my daughter’s struggles, work on these skills, and become her advocate. Like many children with reading disabilities, she was social, outgoing, and smart enough to keep up with the curriculum. However, when you took a deep dive into her skills, she really struggled to read. As the years went on, I would continue to voice my concerns. Sure enough, she was becoming one of those typical children that gets passed along because she can hang. Fortunately, we were able to get private testing to get the answers that we had always believed, and she is now at an amazing elementary school getting the interventions she needs and deserves. However, not all children are as fortunate as my daughter and this is my concern.
I often reflect on those beginning years of my daughter’s childhood and wonder if a stronger foundation in phonological awareness, beginning in preschool, would have had a clear impact on her reading abilities down the road. Early intervention matters, but how can we provide early intervention if preschool teachers and parents are unaware of the needs of our children when it comes to early literacy skills? Like myself several years ago as a parent of young children, I do not believe that many preschool teachers and parents are aware of the importance of explicitly teaching more complex phonological awareness skills to young children. I also do not believe that parents and teachers are aware of the great abilities of our children in this department. Working with preschool students every day, I have come to realize that young children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. We practice complex, yet developmentally appropriate, skills at the beginning of each literacy lesson in my preschool literacy classroom. Although the lessons are explicit and targeted, the children’s faces light up with enthusiasm as we work through the skill of the day. They absolutely love it. While I am a firm believer in the importance of play, there are certain skills that simply must be taught in a clear systematic way, and phonological awareness skills are one of them. It is our obligation to teach preschool children these skills to set them up for success in the future.
Now, three years later, I am dedicated to researching early childhood development and I am determined to spread the word about the importance of phonological awareness skills. Through this process, three things have become clear:
1. Phonological awareness matters.
Phonological awareness is the understanding that words contain units of sounds. Children with strong phonological awareness skills are able to hear and manipulate smaller sounds within words. Phonological awareness focuses solely on auditory skills. Children do not need to see letters or words to practice these skills. Children can begin distinguishing sounds before they are born!
Children that can manipulate words auditorily have a strong sense of how words work. Science has proven that knowing how to blend and segment sounds auditorily makes it easier for children to learn to blend words when beginning to read (decode) and write sounds in words when beginning to write (encode).
Approximately 20% of children have a phonological awareness deficit, which is directly linked to reading difficulties. If we do not expose children to the different levels of phonological awareness skills in preschool, we will miss the opportunity to identify these struggling children and to provide early intervention.
2. Explicit instruction is necessary and can be taught in fun and engaging ways.
Explicit instruction matters. We don’t naturally “play” with words. Therefore, we must dedicate time and effort to build the necessary phonological awareness skills in preschool children that will prepare them for the final step, which is phonemic awareness. Building phonological awareness skills is fun, easy, and can be done in a few minutes each day. Take the 10 Day Phonological Awareness Challenge to get started and experience how fun and easy this can be!
The science of reading has proven that the brain must make connections between speech and vision to be able to read. Children need explicit instruction in both phonological awareness and phonics to strengthen these connections and build a strong reader. Teaching children to play with and manipulate words is a simple step that we can do to make reading and writing easier in the future, since phonological awareness and phonics belong on parallel tracks! The greater you are at hearing sounds, the easier it will be to segment and blend sounds when reading and writing.
3. Preschool children are more than capable of building these skills early on.
The National Reading Panel has found that building phonological awareness benefits all types of learners, including preschool students, students in grades K-6, typically developing learners, students from all SES backgrounds, ELL learners, and children with special needs.
Preschool curriculums nationwide include phonological awareness skills. Below are developmental skills adapted from the North Carolina Foundations of Early Learning and Development, as well as several other sources.
Birth - 24 Months
Advanced learners may be able to:
Easy Phonological Awareness Practice!
Grab the 10 Day Phonological Awareness Challenge!
Sing songs, read nursery rhymes, and recite poetry – repeat!
Focus on reading books that are full of rhyming words and point them out by name. Have your child repeat the rhymes.
Use movement to count and play with words and sounds (clap the words in poem, jump the number of words in a sentence, chop syllables with your hands).
Play “I Spy” with something that rhymes with ____ or begins with the ___ sound.
Missing Sound Game – “I am hungry. I am ready for a nack. What is missing? Ssssss.”
Mystery Sound – Say the name of three words with the same sound and one that does fit – Can you guess the wrong sound?
Clap syllables in names and objects around you!
Tap out each sound in simple words on your fingers (c-a-t, f-i-sh, s-u-n).
With children ages 1-3 years old, play with sounds:
Guess the sound
Practice animal sounds
Hold up an animal picture or stuffed animal and say the incorrect sound. Encourage your child to correct you with the proper sound!
Clap a pattern and have your child copy the claps
Head out on a nature walk and listen to the sounds around you
"That Rhymes, That Rhymes" Game - Say two words aloud. If the two words rhyme, moving your legs back and forth and say, "That rhymes, that rhymes." If the words do not rhyme, shake your finger and say, "No way, no way!" Continue with several word pairs.
Point to different objects. Can you name the beginning sound? Can you name the ending sound? Can you name the middle sound?
Say a word slowly and jump for each sound in the word.
Commit to Building Phonological Awareness in Young Children
The science of reading has proven that phonological awareness skills are one of the five components of reading. Do you part to help set our children up for an easier path to reading readiness!
Grab my FREE 10 Day Challenge!
If you are interested in a more in-depth curriculum, check out the Playing with Words Digital Download or get more daily practice with the Playing with Words Mini Kit!
Join an in-person preschool class!
If you are in the Charlotte area, I would love for you to join one of the Moving Little Minds classes on Fridays:
Littles and Literacy at LUMI Theatre of Musical Art - Ages 2-3 Fridays from 9:30-10:15 beginning in February
Literacy + Art at Small Hands, Big Art Waverly - Ages 3.5-6 Fridays from 1:00-2:30
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Who is Moving Little Minds?
Moving Little Minds provides early literacy consulting, training, materials, and services. Our goal is to educate teachers and parents about the importance of early literacy through engaging, research-based practices, trainings, and materials.
Learning to Read A Primer Part One. (n.d.). Center for Early Reading, 1–56. Retrieved August 7, 2022,
Mesmer, H. A., & Kambach, A. (2022). Beyond labels and agendas: Research Teachers Need to Know About Phonics and Phonological Awareness. The Reading Teacher, 76(1), 62–72. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.2102
PA beyond basics Schuele, C. M., & Boudreau, D. (2008). Phonological awareness intervention: Beyond the basics. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 39(1), 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2008/002)
Phonemic Awareness Research. Heggerty. (2020, October 15). Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://heggerty.org/Phonemic-awareness-research
Phonological Awareness (emergent literacy). Department of Education and Training Victoria. (n.d.). Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/childhood/professionals/learning/ecliteracy/emergentliteracy/Pages/phonol ogicalawareness.aspx
Science of reading: Phonological awareness & phonics - Nebraska. Science of Reading: Phonological Awareness & Phonics.
(2020, November). Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://cdn.education.ne.gov/wp
The Reading League. (Year, Month, Day). Science of Reading: Defining Guide. https://www.thereadingleague.org/what-is