Foundational Literacy: What the Research Says About Phonological Awareness

Jan 15 · 5 min read

It’s important to be research-driven in every instructional decision that you make as an educator, but the sheer amount of available research (particularly in literacy) can be overwhelming to sift through and interpret. To help make literacy research more accessible and digestible, we’re spending some time breaking down several components of literacy, and providing a brief overview of why these processes are so vital to a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction. These components, and the research to support their importance and corresponding instructional best practices, serve as the pedagogical foundation to our Wonders program. Last week, we began with the earliest of processes, speaking and listening. Today, we’re moving on in order of cognitive development to phonological awareness.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is a useful concept to examine the skills children must master to read and write that have long become largely intuitive to us. Phonological awareness involves being able to identify and articulate the individual parts of spoken language. Phonological awareness refers to students’ awareness of specific sounds, including the phoneme, which is the smallest distinct sound unit of spoken language, syllables, which may or may not combine phonemes, among other units (Gillon, 2017). Here are few examples of sound units children may explore through phonological awareness instruction:

Phoneme: an individual, small unit of sound → /c/ in CAT

Syllable: may or may not combine phonemes, still a single unit of sound → /ball/ or /bat/

Onset: the first sound in a word → /ch/ in CHAIR

Rhymes: the last sound in a word → /at/ in CAT

Despite the progressive structural nature of these units, research shows that children actually tend to find it easier to work with the larger units of sound such as rhymes before they explore individual phonemes (NICHHD, 2000, p. 2–10; Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000).

Why is phonological awareness important?

Instruction in phonological awareness is foundational to helping students build skills in reading, spelling, and text comprehension. Time spent fostering phonological awareness will influence students’ abilities to master complex texts in later grades (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012). Research also shows that, in addition to a select few other early literacy skills, phonological awareness has significant predictive relationships with later measures of literacy development (National Institute for Literacy, 2008, p vii.).

Who benefits from instruction in phonological awareness?

All students benefit from instruction in phonological awareness during early grades, since phonological awareness plays a role in the development of later literacy processes (Goswami, 2016). English learners can also benefit from phonological awareness instruction, because they have a different relationship with phonological awareness than their monolingual peers. Since phonemes vary in different languages, English Learners and bilingual students actually have a larger amount of phonemes in their skillset or awareness than monolingual students. Providing English Learners with support in fostering their awareness of these phonemes and practicing with them can support English Learners as they read and write in multiple languages. Finally, instruction in phonological awareness is beneficial for readers in need of additional support, particularly those who are at risk for future reading problems. Students in need of additional reading supports may require intensive and extended phonological awareness instruction, beyond instruction in the early grades (Chard & Dickson, 1999; Gillon, 2017; Wanzek, Wexler, Vaughn, & Ciullo, 2010).

Recommendations for Phonological Awareness Instruction

Research summarized by the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHHD], 2000) emphasizes the importance of providing instruction in phonological awareness during kindergarten, first-grade, and early elementary above first grade as needed for students with special needs. Assessment on phoneme recognition should occur in kindergarten and serve as an indicator of which students may need intervention in phonological awareness. Formative assessments should then continue into first and second grade, helping teachings understand which students need support in the fundamentals of phonological awareness, and which students should spend time with more advanced phonological work. Phonological instruction should be clearly tied to language development and important milestones.

Phonological awareness instruction should be provided in spoken and written formats, so that students have the opportunity to interact with letters and sounds. Instruction should also be carefully sequenced to begin with simpler tasks and progress to more complex tasks — for example, phonological awareness may begin with understanding the concept of a word, rhymer, and counting syllables, and progress to oral blending and oral segmentation, and finally to oral manipulation, breaking down progression at the task level by the number of phonemes and letters.

For further reading on the specific skills and tasks involved in phonological awareness, as well as additional foundational literacy skills, see the research below.


Chard, D.J. & Dickson, S.V.. (1999). Phonological awareness: Instructional and assessment guidelines. Intervention in School and Clinic. 34. 261–270.

Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012). Revised publishers’ criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades 3–12. Retrieved from _for_K-2.pdf

Gillon, Gail. (2007). Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice. Challenges in Language and Literacy. Guilford Publications.

Goswami, Usha. (1993). Phonological Skills and Learning to Read. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 682. 296–311. 10.1111/j.1749–6632.1993.tb22977.x.

Literacy, National. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel: A scientific synthesis of early literacy development and implications for intervention.

Lonigan, Christopher & Burgess, Stephen & Anthony, Jason. (2000). Development of Emergent Literacy and Early Reading Skills in Preschool Children: Evidence From a Latent-Variable Longitudinal Study. Developmental psychology. 36. 596–613. 10.1037/0012–1649.36.5.596.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read (00–4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wanzek, Jeanne & Wexler, Jade & Vaughn, Sharon & Ciullo, Stephen. (2010). Reading interventions for struggling readers in the upper elementary grades: A synthesis of 20 years of research. Reading and writing. 23. 889–912. 10.1007/s11145–009–9179–5.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.


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We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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