Four Levels of Phonological Awareness

It has been said that a student’s level of phonological awareness at the end of kindergarten is one of the strongest predictors of future reading success. With the expectations of our kindergartners today, we can see the effect of strong phonological awareness early on in a student’s academic career.

Phonological awareness is a process that all successful readers go through. In the simplest terms, it is the understanding that sentences are made of words, words are made of syllables, and syllables are made of phonemes. Phonological awareness is a broad term that can easily be broken down into four levels.


Phonological awareness is a process that all successful readers go through. In the simplest terms, it is the understanding that sentences are made of words, words are made of syllables, and syllables are made of phonemes. Phonological awareness is a broad term that can easily be broken down into four levels.

  1. Word Awareness
  2. Syllable Awareness
  3. Within-Syllable Awareness
  4. Phonemic Awareness

Word Awareness

The first level of phonological awareness is tracking words in sentences. Students’ understanding of this concept comes from repeated exposure to print. This can be from reading books, labels in the classroom, environmental print, etc. As students develop word awareness, you will begin to see their understanding reflected in their writing as they put spaces between words.
A few ways you can foster word awareness in your classroom are:

  • clapping the number of words in a sentence
  • using a block to represent each word in a sentence
  • recite a familiar nursery rhyme and have each student stand up for one word in the rhyme (i.e. Sam stands up for “Jack”, Mary stands up for “and”, Tom stands up for “Jill”, etc.)
  • write a sentence on individual word cards, give each student one card, as you recite the sentence students stand and arrange themselves in the correct order
  • point to text as it is read aloud

Syllable Awareness

Syllables are the number of parts or beats in a word. Once students can differentiate between a sentence and a word, syllables are fairly easy for students to identify. In fact, your students may already recognize that some words can easily be divided into two or three segments, they just don’t know that those parts are called syllables. Students need to be able to blend and segment syllables.
To practice identifying syllables you can:

  • clap or tap the parts of a word
  • place your hand under your chin to feel each new syllable
  • have students crouch on the floor and pop up for each syllable they hear
  • use body movements to show syllables (i.e. hamburger – students point to their head and say “ham”, students point to their shoulders and say “bur”, students point to their knees and say “ger”)
  • students segment a word into syllables by pushing counters up for each beat

Within-Syllable Awareness

The next level of phonological awareness is comprised of rhyming and onset-rime blending. These can be very difficult concepts for young students. To understand rhyming, students must know which part of a word is used for rhyming; thus the importance for knowing onset and rime.
To practice within-syllable awareness try:

  • reading nursery rhymes, poems, or rhyming stories and have students identify the words that rhyme
  • complete picture sorts with rhyming words (could also be used for concentration, go fish, etc.)
  • generate rhymes using familiar texts or tunes (i.e. “Did you ever see a (bear) combing his (hair)?” to “Did you ever see a (cat) wearing a (hat)?”)
  • break words into onset and rime and have students identify the word (i.e. “What word does /l/ /og/ make?)
  • create word wheels or word slides; have students read the words and identify if they are real or nonsense words

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the most difficult level of phonological awareness. It is the understanding that spoken words are composed of individual sounds, or phonemes. This means that students with phonemic awareness have the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in words.
Phoneme awareness can be practiced through comparison, deletion, segmentation, or blending.

  • say three words (or show three pictures) and have students identify which two words begin with the same sound
  • give students a word and ask them to delete initial or final sound (i.e. Say bat without the /b/)
  • ask students to identify the individual sounds they hear in words
  • give students the individual sounds in a word and have them blend them together and say the word
  • change a sound in a word to make a new word

Developing a solid foundation in phonological awareness, will help to ensure that your students become strong readers. Try to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes a day practicing these skills until your students have mastered all four levels.

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