Foundations for Reading 1: Phonemic awareness

2 - 4 years
Child with arms in air

Did you know there are five key skills that help children learn to read? The first is ‘phonemic awareness’. Read on for seven great tips on how to help your little one lay the foundations for this important skill.

What is ‘phonemic awareness’?

‘Phonemic awareness’ is the ability to hear and manipulate the different sounds in spoken language. Before children learn to read, they need to be able to recognise that words are made up of speech sounds, or ‘phonemes’. There are 44 sounds in the English language, some represented by individual letters (like m, a or k) and some by combinations of letters (like sh, th or ou).

Phonemic awareness includes:

  • recognising words that begin with the same sound (e.g. ‘ball’, ‘big’ and ‘bag’ all start with the sound /b/)
  • identifying the first or last sound in a word (e.g. the first sound of ‘dog’ is /d/ and the last sound is /g/)
  • combining separate sounds to make a word (e.g. /b/ plus /u/ plus /s/ makes ‘bus’)
  • breaking up a word into its separate sounds (e.g. ‘sit’ breaks into /s/ plus /i/ plus /t/).

Research has shown that phonemic awareness is the most important predictor of later reading ability in beginning readers.

What can you do to help?

You don’t need to teach your little one phonemic awareness – they will learn this when they get to school. But with the seven tips below, you can help your little one lay the foundations for developing strong phonemic awareness skills.

Read, read, read!

The most important thing to do is to read with your little one, read to them and let them see you reading. As you read picture books, you can point out objects that start with particular sounds – eg ‘Caterpillar starts with /k/, that’s the same as your name. Caitlin. Caterpillar – they’re the same!’ Picture books with pages of things that start with the same letter are great, but remember that letters and sounds don’t always match. For example, if the ‘g’ page has a picture of a ‘gate’ and a ‘giraffe’, you could point out that the starting sound is different.

Point out sounds in words

Talking to your little one about sounds in words also develops phonemic awareness. For example, you could say ‘The word ‘mat’ starts with the sound /m/. Can you hear the sound at the end of the word? m-a-t – ‘mat’ ends with the sound /t/!’ Don’t worry if your little one can’t identify the sounds just yet – simply by talking to them about the sounds in words, you will be developing their phonemic awareness.

Play word and sound games

Games based on recognising sounds are fun and help to develop your little one’s phonemic awareness. The traditional game of ‘I Spy’ is a great example. So is taking turns thinking of words that begin with a particular sound. Remember to focus on sounds rather than letters – for example, if you’re thinking of words that start with the sound /k/, both ‘kitchen’ and ‘cup’ are great answers.

Use songs, nursery rhymes and tongue twisters

Many songs, nursery rhymes and tongue twisters are built around matching initial or final sounds – like ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’, or ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’. Most children love learning them, and they’re a great way to develop phonemic awareness.


Children learn by making ‘mistakes’, and praising your little one’s efforts as well as their successes helps to make them a more resilient learner. So if your little one makes a mistake, take the same approach as when they were learning to walk – praise their effort, then encourage them to try again, or give them a bit of help, or move on to something else.

Let your child be the guide

Children develop at their own pace, and your little one may not be interested in words and sounds right now. That’s ok! Be patient and don’t push it – it’s important to keep learning fun. Just providing exposure to books, language, words and sounds will lay the foundations for their phonemic awareness skills, and set them up for success at reading.

Use your home language

If your home language is not English, you can also apply the same ideas in your own language. This will help lay the foundations for your little one to learn to read English (and your own language).

What about the other skills?

For tips on how to help your child lay the foundations for the other four key reading skills, see the other articles in this series.


Print iconPrint
Last modified
12 May 2020