Learning to read 1: phonemic awareness

5 - 8 years
Boy with hand around ear

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 child master 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 being able to combine individual sounds to make a word and being able to separate a word out into its individual sounds – for example:

  • 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 ‘cup’ is /c/ and the last sound is /p/)
  • 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.

How ‘phonemic awareness’ is taught in school

Your child will be learning phonemic awareness alongside phonics at school – focusing on the same sounds in both. For example, when they are learning to link the letters m, s, a, t and i with their sounds, they are also learning to recognise these sounds in spoken language.

What can you do to help?

You don’t need to teach your child phonemic awareness – they will learn this at school. These seven tips will help you to strengthen their skills.

Read, read, read!

Sometimes when you are reading together, pay attention to the sounds of words. For example, point out some words that have the same first sound (dog, den), or the same last sound (pot, sit), or the same middle sound (pen, bed). Or point out when the same letters represent different sounds – for example, the middle sounds in food and foot are different, even though they are both written with ‘oo’.

Reinforce classroom learning

Once your child starts school, their teacher will probably let you know the sounds that they are learning in class. You can help by focusing on the same sounds in your reading activities with your child, until you can see that your child has mastered them. Remember to review sounds that your child has already covered in earlier weeks, especially any that they found difficult.

Sound out and blend words

Practise sounding out and blending words with your child. For example, you could say “What sounds can you hear in the word ‘chop’ – What is the first sound? What sound is in the middle? What sound is at the end?

Play word and sound games

Games based on recognising sounds are great for developing phonemic awareness. ‘I Spy’ is a good example, or just taking turns thinking of words that begin or end with a particular sound, or that rhyme with a particular word. Remember to focus on sounds rather than letters – for example, if your child is coming up with words that start with the sound /c/, both ‘cup’ and ‘kitchen’ are correct, even though the sound is made by different letters.

Use songs, nursery rhymes and tongue twisters

Keep singing songs, reading nursery rhymes and poems, and reciting tongue twisters, especially those that are built around sound patterns. Most children love learning them, and they’re a great way to strengthen phonemic awareness.


Remember to praise your child’s efforts as well as their successes – this builds their confidence to keep trying, and makes them a more resilient learner. Children learn by making ‘mistakes’, so take the same approach as when your little one was 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.

Use your home language

If your home language is not English, you can also apply the same ideas in your own language. This will develop your child’s phonemic awareness skills and help them learn to read English (and your own language).

What about the other skills?

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


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Last modified
12 May 2020