Demystifying Phonological Awareness: Recent Shifts in Research and What They Mean for Educators


This blog discusses recent research about teaching phonemic awareness, crucial for early literacy. While understanding syllables and larger sound units (phonological sensitivity) remains important, the focus now shifts to explicit phonemic awareness instruction. This means directly teaching children about individual sounds ("phonemes") in words, like identifying, isolating, and manipulating them.

For decades, educators have recognized understanding the sounds of spoken language (phonological awareness) as a key building block for early literacy. This includes awareness of both individual sounds (phonemes) in words (phonemic awareness) and larger units like syllables, onsets, and rimes (phonological sensitivity). As research unveils new insights into teaching this crucial skill, the field of phonemic awareness is constantly evolving. This blog dives into some of the latest shifts in research around phonemic awareness instruction and their implications for educators.

Explicit Phonemic Awareness Instruction Takes Center Stage

Recent research champions explicit phonemic awareness instruction as the most effective way to boost reading and writing development. This translates to directly teaching children how to identify, isolate, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken language through clear, focused instruction. Don’t forget to sprinkle in short, frequent practice opportunities throughout the day to cement their learning!

Building Blocks of Phonemic Awareness:

  • Start simple:  Instruction in phonemic awareness begins with a focus on the initial sound within a simple syllable. For example, in the word “map,” learners would first concentrate on isolating and identifying the sound /m/. After mastering this skill, instruction progresses to the final sound, such as the /p/ at the end of “map.” Once both initial and final sounds are confidently recognized, the journey continues to the medial sound, like the /a/ nestled between the /m/ and /p/ in “map.” This gradual progression ensures a solid foundation for understanding the building blocks of spoken language.
  • Progress gradually: After mastering simple syllables, students learn about words with blends like “flat” or “best.” Long vowels (like in “dream”) are included later as spelling skills develop. Recognizing consonants at the beginning or end of a blend (“blast”) is easier than recognizing those within blends. 
  • Connect sounds to letters: New research shines a spotlight on the magic of connecting phonemes (sounds) with their corresponding graphemes (letters) right from the introduction of new letters. This powerful strategy builds a strong foundation for reading and writing fluency, just like a sturdy base makes building a house easier. By instantly forging these links, students gain a deeper understanding of how written language works, empowering them to decode and encode words with ease. Imagine the confidence boost as they see the written word come alive through sound!

Want to learn more?

The International Dyslexia Association offers a helpful article, “Building Phoneme Awareness: Know What Matters.” For personalized support with phonemic awareness instruction, reach out to your CRAEA Literacy Consultant.