Pre-Literacy Skills – Phonological Awareness Development

Kimberly Martins, M.A. CCC-SLP
March 10, 2024

Phonological awareness skills can also be known as pre-literacy. Phonological awareness is crucial for reading and children need a solid phonological awareness foundation to be able to learn to read. What is phonological awareness? It is composed of different skills but basically involves the ability to manipulate sounds, words, identify letters and sounds, rhyming, segmenting and blending. In order to be able to read, your child needs to be able to identify the letter, know what sound is associated with that letter, segment the sounds (meaning verbally say each sound separately) and then blend the sounds together to read the entire word. Some phonological awareness skills develop earlier while others emerge later. For instance, a child is able to determine whether two words rhyme or not before they can generate their own rhymes.

Today’s post will discuss the different types of phonological awareness skills, the approximate age by which each skill emerges or is mastered and different activities you can do at home to help improve your child’s pre-literacy skills.

Pre-Literacy and Literacy Development

The following chart describes the development of pre-literacy and literacy skills according to your child’s age.

Phonological Awareness Developmental Milestones

It is important to know the developmental milestones of phonological awareness (PA) and to know the signs that indicate your child may have difficulty with certain tasks. The following information is provided by Kid Sense Child Development and describes milestones as well as the signs of difficulty exhibited by children with reduced phonological awareness skills.

0-2 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • No specific milestones

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • None

2-3 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • Rhyme awareness emerges at 24–30 months

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • None

3-4 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • Ability to produce rhyme emerges at 30-36 months

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • May struggle with recognizing similarities in letter patterns in words (e.g. cat, hat, mat, bat)

4-5 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • Clapping/counting syllables in words (e.g. computer, com-pu-ter). [Note: 50% of children achieve this by age 4]
  • Recognizes/produces words with the same beginning sound (e.g. cat – cup)
  • Segments/blends words by onset/rime (e.g. s+un= sun) OR given sounds, can blend them into a word
  • Counts sounds in words (e.g. dog, d-o-g = 3 sounds). [Note: 50% of children achieve this by age 5]

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • May struggle with spelling longer words accurately as they will be unable to chunk them into smaller more manageable parts
  • May have difficulty articulating longer words and recognizing similar word patterns
  • May have difficulty with spelling words accurately

5-6 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • Able to recognize words that rhyme and determine the odd word out (e.g. cat – hat – big)
  • Identifies first sound in a word (e.g. What’s the sound at the start of ‘dog’? d)
  • Identifies last sound in a word (e.g. What’s the sound at the end of ‘dog’? g)
  • Lists words that start with the same sound (e.g. pet, pin)
  • Tells which of three words is different (e.g. sit, sit, sat)
  • Blends 3 – 4 sounds to make a word (e.g. h – a – n – d = hand)
  • Segments sounds in words that have 3 – 4 sounds (e.g. hand= h – a – n – d: 4 sounds)

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • May have trouble spelling words correctly if they are unable to hear the individual sounds in different positions within words
  • The child may struggle with recognizing that joining sounds together creates whole words and with reading words smoothly

6-7 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • Delete syllables from words (e.g. Say ‘cupcake’. Take away ‘cup’ and what is left? cake)
  • Substitute syllables in words
  • Delete sounds from words (e.g. Say feet. Take away the ‘f’ sound from ‘feet’? eet)
  • Substitute sounds in words (e.g. Say hat. Change the ‘h’ to a ‘c’ – cat)

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • If a child struggles with manipulating sounds in words, they may not be able to recognize similar letter/sound patterns within words
  • May struggle with creating a visual representation of a word and to hold onto that image in their mind as they manipulate (change) sounds to create new words

7-8 years old

PA Developmental Milestones

  • Uses phonological awareness skills when spelling

Implications if milestones are not achieved

  • May have difficulty with spelling words correctly
  • May struggle with reading words accurately and fluently

Phonological Awareness Skills

I will discuss the different phonological awareness skills listed in the hierarchy presented in the first chart. However, I will list them in the order we usually address in speech-language therapy. Of course there are many skills we target simultaneously and not always sequentially.

Preparatory Activities (Listening and Print Awareness)

Phonological awareness skills develop as of your child’s first experiences with literacy. First, they will take a book and look through the pictures with intent. They will attend to you while you tell them the story, but they will also see all these symbols that form words and that hold meaning. With time they will learn to decipher the symbols, separate them and put them together and understand their meaning. It is always best for children to learn with context and for activities to be functional. Flashcards can be handy to label the letters of the alphabet but learning through books, writing and play is much more functional for your child.

Always start a book by discussing the cover page. Bring your child’s attention to the title and point to each word as you say it. This will raise their awareness that those symbols on the book mean something and they will start to develop their skills and understanding of what is a sentence, a word, and a letter. I always make sure that I have images combined with printed words to really emphasize that the letter symbols in a specific combination mean something and are associated with a real entity in the child’s environment.

Example (Writing your Name)

I like to work on print awareness by starting with the child’s name. It is a word that they use/hear daily and will learn to write as soon as they start school. You can practice writing their name using different materials – sand, salt, pencil/markers/crayons, paint, finger painting, etc. Children are usually very proud of themselves once they can write their names and it is really neat to see the progress each time they attempt their name. I have the child practice writing their name by telling them to sign the back of each drawing they make with me. First, I write out their name. If they are 3-4 years old, I have them try to sound out each sound in their name and tell me what letter that might be, if they can’t do it then I help.

For example, the name Lucas – I’d say each sound and have the child repeat after me then I’d say “the letter L makes the el sound” and so on for each sound. I’d write out each letter and have the child label it. Then I’d read out each sound segmenting it “l-u-c-a-s” and blend it “Lucas.” Then I would do hand-over-hand writing, I’d show the child how to properly hold their pencil/marker/crayon and write each letter with them. Lastly, I’d have the child attempt to write their name and copy the letters under the ones we wrote together. Lastly, I could ask the child to point to the letter I name in his name as an additional print awareness activity (e.g. find the letter A). If you have your child practice writing their name daily or weekly, you will start to see scribbles turn into letters after a few weeks to months depending on your child’s age and abilities. It is amazing!


Segmenting skills emerge with the ability to segment larger units first. Segmenting involves the ability to take a unit and break it up into smaller parts. For instance, we first teach children about words by breaking up sentences into words, then we teach them about syllables by breaking up multisyllabic words into syllables, and lastly we break up words into letters (the most difficult task and building blocks for decoding). Therefore, when doing segmenting tasks with your child, take into account their age and skills and start at an appropriate level. Start with segmenting sentences into words, if they can do 6 word sentences easily then move onto multisyllabic words for syllable segmentation and so on. You are the best judge of what is too easy or too difficult for your child. You always want to be at a level where they are learning, somewhat challenged yet able to be successful.

Example (Segmenting)

Like I said, I try to always make phonological awareness activities functional but also fun. I used to run some readers groups and when we read the title of the story we would segment the title. For example, we would say each word out loud while counting with our fingers – “Fish is Fish” that is three words. Then I’d come across a multisyllabic word and we would practice segmenting the word by clapping it out. For example “lillypad”, how many parts are there? Then we’d clap it out and verbally segment “li-ly-pad”, that has 3 parts/syllables. A book is a great way to target different levels of segmenting and different phonological awareness skills.

I also like to add supplementary visuals to help a child who has more difficulty. Sometimes a book has too much writing and the visual field is overcrowded for a child to be able to focus on a single sentence. I like to write sentences or multisyllabic words from the book I am reading with the child onto separate cue cards. Then when we come across the sentence or word I want to work on within the story, I take out the cue card and we work on our segmenting skills. For those with emerging skills, I add some dots under each word/syllable to help them point and count out the parts. You can also take common sentences that you or your child use daily and make a segmenting activity out of it like the pictures above.

Another great activity for those active kiddos is to make a hopscotch game out of tape on the floor. Then have your child segment sentences into words, words into syllables, or words into sounds by hopping out the amount of words/syllables/letters. For example, ask your child how many parts are in the word “butterfly”, have them clap it out first and help them as needed “bu-tter-fly.” Once they say the right amount have them jump on the hopscotch while saying each part. Always make sure to blend the word at the end!


Similar to segmenting, the ability to blend larger units emerges first. Typically, we work on segmenting and blending simultaneously. Although, for many children segmenting is an easier task then blending. When working on phonological awareness skills, you want to facilitate learning by providing children with visual support as well. Doing purely auditory tasks can be difficult however they should also be attempted once your child excels with visual cues. For blending exercises, you would give your child a segmented model and ask them what the sentence or word is. For example, say a word by segmenting the syllables/sounds with a pause of a few seconds (2-4 seconds) between each (e.g. c-a-t, com-pu-ter) then ask your child what the word is (e.g. cat, computer).

Example (Blending)

A super simple blending activity is to play “the guessing game.” Anything can be turned into a guessing game and children love to play these type of tricky games. This game can be played in the car, at home, anywhere! You do not need to prepare anything except that you need to be able to come up with words on the spot that are appropriate to your child’s age. Try to use words that they would know, but you can also make it challenging and combine new longer words. Tell your child, you are going to talk like a robot and they have to guess what word you are trying to say. You can also reverse the roles and work on segmenting by having your child talk like a robot and you have to blend the word. If your child is doing the segmenting, try to mess up on purpose sometimes and see if they catch your mistake! For instance the child says “d-o-g”, you can say “the word is cat!” and see if your child catches your mistake and corrects you. That’s a pretty obvious one, you can also make it trickier by only changing one sound, for instance your child says “f-i-sh” then you say “fis” or “fit.” It will be trickier for them to catch that one and really raise their awareness to each sound.


Before children can generate rhymes they have to understand what rhyming means and how to identify whether two words rhyme or not. You have to explicitly teach them what rhyming means. It means two words sound the same at the end like “bat” and “cat” so they rhyme. However, “tomato” and “cat” do not sound the same at the end so they do not rhyme. When teaching rhyming, it is best to start with words that are very different from each other to help them identify rhyming pairs from non-rhyming pairs. As they get better you can increase the difficulty by giving them word pairs that sound the same in part (e.g.”dog” and “dot”) but that do not rhyme. This emphasizes that rhyming is only at the end of the word, not at the beginning.

Before they can generate their own rhymes without any visual support or choices. You can have a child choose word pairs that rhyme by playing a matching game. You can give them pictures and have them decide which words rhyme together. For example, bear and pear rhyme! However, bear and fish do not. I like to always have the printed word along with the picture. However, if I do that, I choose words that also look the same in their ending because it can get very confusing for the child if the words sound alike but do not have the same letters (e.g. bear and pair). For this reason, you can decide not to use letters and just focus on their auditory phonological awareness skills without involving the visual letters. The ability for letter-sound identification emerges later.

Example (Rhyming)

One way I help children learn how to rhyme is by using word families (words that end with the same sounds). For example, I will choose two very different word families such as -og and -at. Then we will make two separate books and decide which words go in each and if they rhyme with the previous word in the book. This is a very simple task with lots of repetition and success. For instance, I will give the child a picture with a word that say “cat” and then I’ll say “cat ends with the sounds -at so it goes in our -at family.” This also targets phoneme awareness skills for the first word. After we have a few words in each book. I will say the new word in the picture such as “log” then we will look at the previous word in each book and say “Cat, log, does that rhyme? No. Dog, log, does that rhyme? Yes. Dog and log end with the sounds -og so they rhyme.” Then we would glue the new picture log into our -og family book.

After we do about 4 words for each family, I’d ask the child if they can think of a word that would rhyme with the words in the rhyme family book. For example, I’d say “Can you think of a word that rhymes with pat, rat, mat and cat?” and see if the child could generate “hat.” Then I’d have them draw the picture of the rhyming word they generated.

Phoneme Awareness

Phonemes are the smallest unit of language, they are sounds that when assembled together have meaning. Phonemes are different than letters. For example, the letters “c”, “k” and “q” can all make the /k/ sound. However, the letter “c” can be associated with both the /s/ and /k/ phonemes. Therefore, when doing phonological awareness tasks with your child you always want to be clear about what you are identifying/labeling. So as not to confuse the child, I tend to always emphasize the words letter and sound. For example, I’ll say the letter “c” or the sound /k/. If we are working on letters, I will continuously use the term letter and vice versa if working on sounds. That way it is very clear to the child and also helps me remember the task at hand.

Example (Phoneme awareness)

Comprehension skills always emerge first and are a good starting point. Before asking your child what is the first sound in the word “cat”, have them identify it by giving a choice, is the sound /k/ or /s/? Also, children learn to identify phonemes at the end of words first, given rhyming has to do with endings, it is an easier target since they have had practice already analyzing ends of words. Then identification at the beginning of the word and the middle of the word emerge. Also, shorter CVC words (i.e. 3 sounds) are the ideal starting point or even two-sound words such as “it, an, so, do.” Do not start with long multisyllabic words. Build your way up.

Always use visuals to help teach your child phonological awareness skills if it helps them and then gradually reduce the visual support. Once they have a good foundation you can do activities auditorily in play. For instance, when playing with the farm animals you can practice labeling each animal and ask what sound is at the end of “sheep”. If the task is too difficult for you child, you can always help support them by giving them two choices to choose from. Make sure that the two sound choices are very different so it is easier for them (e.g. /p/ or /g/), a choice between /p/ and /b/ would be much more difficult if your child has not yet mastered these skills. When a child is learning we want the most success first before challenging/testing the child’s abilities. After all it is unfair to test something a child does not yet master.


Manipulation of phonemes is one of the highest level of phonological awareness skills. To be able to do this, your child has to have had mastered the ability to segment and blend phonemes as well as identify phonemes. When working on manipulation, I like to teach this skill using physical manipulatives such as alphabet puzzles, letter blocks, or magnets. This will help support your child’s understanding of manipulating sounds as they manipulate objects representing the symbolic sounds/letters.

As previously mentioned, starting with larger units is easier when teaching a skill to a child. For instance, learning to manipulate words at the level of syllables is easier than at the level of sounds. One great way to do so is to use compound words (cupcake, baseball, eggplant, hairbrush). Compound words can be separated into two separate smaller units. You can start teaching manipulation by asking your child – say cupcake without cake, and see if they can say “cup.” Similarly you can have pictures and ask the child what word they get when they put them together. Have a picture of a sun and a picture of a flower, then put them side by side and see if your child says “sunflower.” The visual aspect of adding picture words together or taking one away will help your child learn how to manipulate the parts of the words and also visualize the difference. A cupcake without cup is simply a cake, and all they will have left is the picture of a cake. Make sure to also have a picture of the compound words.

Example (Phoneme Manipulation)

Children will learn how to add and delete sounds to construct words with different meanings through manipulation activities. For instance, you can have the word cat and ask your child to add the letter “s” at the end. Then the word becomes “cats.” At the same time you can teach them that cats means more than one cat by adding an s. It also helps to have a picture associated to the word that your child has constructed. This activity will not only improve your child’s phonological awareness skills but it will also teach them some semantic and syntax skills.

As mentioned previously, I will use physical objects such as letter blocks and have the child spell out a simple word. Helping them along the way, depending on their age and ability. I will then have a few selected letter blocks (max 5) ahead of time for them to choose from (having all 26 letters can be overwhelming and visually hard to scan through). To be able to carry out this activity, the child must be able to identify the letter, follow directions and understand the concepts of deleting(taking away)/adding(put one in). First, I like to start with simple 2 or 3 sound words (e.g. it, cat). Therefore, you could ask your child to spell out the word “cat” (have 10 letters to choose from max), then say – delete/take out the letter “c”, now the word says “at”, now add the letter “h” at the beginning, now the word says “hat.” While doing this activity, work on having the child decode/read the word by sounding it out and blending it as well.

There are a wide range of phonological awareness activities that can target multiple skills or a single skill at a time. I hope you enjoyed this blog and learned a few new tricks to use at home or in your speech class. If you are interested in more activities or want to share some, please feel free to leave a comment down below or e-mail me.

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