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In 2007, as part of the Primary National Strategy, the DfES introduced the ‘Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics’ document, a guidance to the teaching of phonics in the foundation stage and Key stage 1.  This six phased programme has been developed according to criteria set out by the DfES in March 2007 which defined ‘high quality phonic work’.  Phase One paves the way for systematic teaching of phonic work and phases two to six develop:

  • Knowledge of grapheme – phoneme correspondences
  • Skills of blending and segmenting with letters and sounds
  • Reading of high frequency words

In order to make good progress in phases two to six, speaking and listening skills need to be established and sound phonological awareness skills are crucial.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is conscious sensitivity to the sound structure of language. It is the awareness of the units of sounds – which may be phonemes – but may be rimes, onsets or syllables.  Children who have good phonological awareness skills can identify that when the teacher says b-a-t that the word is ‘bat’; they can say all the sounds in the spoken word ‘dog’ and know that if the last sound in the word ‘cart’ is removed the word would then change to ‘car’.

Why teach phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is not only linked with learning to read, but research indicates that it appears to help children develop reading skills.  Phonological awareness is a foundation for matching sounds to letters (Stanovich, 1994).

Once beginning readers have some awareness of phonemes and their graphic representations, further teaching of reading develops awareness of language, which then goes on to help children learn the later stages of phonological awareness.  Phonological awareness is both a prerequisite for, and a consequence of, learning to read (Yopp, 1992)

Phonological awareness is not phonics.  Phonics is the relationship between sounds and letters.  Phonological awareness needs to be taught independently of phoneme- grapheme correspondence.


Some children, for various reasons, do not enter school with the foundation skills needed to develop their literacy and in particular, those skills described in Phase One of the ‘Letters and Sounds’ document.  These children may begin to learn sounds and letters but are unlikely to make good progress in reading and writing because they lack crucial foundation phonological awareness.  These are the children who appear to ‘hit a brick wall’ when it comes to developing reading skills. They are, therefore, likely to need a systematic, structured approach, where difficulties can be effectively identified and progress measured.

‘The Ultimate Guide to Phonological Awareness’ was developed to help school staff better understand the stages of phonological awareness and to provide structured activities and materials that can be used to teach early phonological awareness skills, paving the way for the systematic teaching of phonic work as described in Phase Two of the letters and sounds document.

It can also be used to support children who have not made the expected progress in literacy because of identified difficulties with phonological awareness, as wells with children who have difficulties with speech production, who may be working in similar areas, possibly supported by a Speech and Language Therapist.

Stages of development

Before a child can make good progress in learning the written representation of sounds he/she needs to be able to:

  • Recognise speech sounds as distinct from other environmental sounds
  • Isolate individual words in speech flow
  • Recognise that words can rhyme
  • Recognise that words have syllable structure
  • Recognise onset and rime
  • Recognise that words can begin and end with the same sound and have same medial sound(s)
  • Recognise that words can be broken down into individual phonemes orally
  • Blend and segment the sounds orally

The order in which the child develops skills in each stage may vary.  For some children developing an awareness of the concept of rhyme may not appear until reading is established.

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The Ultimate Guide to Phonological Awareness