Phonological awareness

This post was built in a very unusual way. Anna shared with me some of here thoughts and asked me to write a post to clarify the issues. I performed a short research starting with wikipedia and found more professional publications here,here, here, here and here.

Sounds and letters

Simply put, phonological awareness is the ability to divide words into sounds and further connect between sounds and letters. The phonological awareness is one of the steps kids learn to read. This is not what we do in speedreading when we try to read a word as a whole, this is not how Chinese and similar languages are read and written.

It is hard to divide words into sounds, especially in a language that is not your native tongue. In English, same phonetic content can be spelled very differently. In French, there are diphthongs and silent letters. Russian contains many sounds that simply do not exist in latin languages. Some Caucasus languages contain significantly more consonants than we can distinguish. In Arabic and Hebrew, we do not write vowels. Modern linguistic describes the phonetic awareness as a two-stage process: first, we map sounds into phonetic transcription and then we map phonetic transcription into native writing system. Each step is complex and not suitable for a child. So unless you are a professional linguist, there should be easier ways to learn sounds.

Picture mnemonics

Korean writing system might be the most advanced in the world. It is fully phonetic, moreover many letters demonstrate certain positions of the tongue in our mouth when we pronounce the relevant letters. There have been many attempts to make a similar method for learning other alphabets: trying to encode letters into visual mnemonics we can easily connect with letters.

Our kids do learn to read and write using picture mnemonics: they see a huge letter, hear a word featuring the letter and see an image of an object corresponding to this word. In fact, this is a great system: you have a visual clue, a sound and a concept linked together. To make it stick, the kids use these picture mnemonics proactively in games!
If you read our posts about active learning and dual coding, you should understand how effective this system really is.

Basically, we probably teach our kids correctly. However, as adults, we find it beneath our dignity to learn this way and need to elaborate.


Poetry is one of the highest forms of phonological awareness. We can rhyme words by the number of their syllable, their rhythmic qualities, the sound of their ending, their emotional subcontext. From simple rhymes to intricate poems, learning poetry in some language makes us aware of the phonetic nuances of the language. Listening to songs in the target language is one of the main “immersion” methods we use for foreign language training. We can get the music of the language intuitively, without dedicated phonetic training. We also use rhyming as a mnemonic device to remember the content we want to remember. Even people who do not know to write and read can use rhyme-based learning methods.

Silent methods

People that cannot speak can develop phonological awareness through monitoring body mechanics: lips, the vibration of the throat, and gestures that explain phonological content. Language is motion, and once we understand the mechanics of the motion involved, we can get phonological awareness just like we can separate dance into specific moves. When we study foreign languages we can encode the missing elements, like the tonality of Chinese language, into some gestures we can remember along with the words.

Linking and chunking

We cannot perceive each letter separately and be phonologically aware. We need to chunk letters into syllables and link syllable into words. There were many methods teaching kids letter by letter, but they were eventually removed from many educational systems. Now we try to teach whole syllables or even simple words, we learn to understand the letters from the syllables rather than build syllables from letters. It is hard to keep all letters of a long word in our working memory. Sometimes the working memory is sim;y smaller than the words we use. Chunking and linking are probably harder than getting the letter-sound relations, and more people do not get chunking. Many of our students have much more difficulty reading syllable by syllable than recognizing the whole words as templates and this is perfectly normal. Our visual memory is wired to recognize patterns, and we need to learn [not always succssfully] how to build words letter by letter. People who learn to recognize patterns get “cured” from dyslexia.

Language learning

Some people learn languages by listening to conversations and trying to mimic the “music” of the language. Others, solve grammatical exercises and translate documents. It is possible to have great command of foreign language and a horrible thick accent. Grammatical understanding and phonological awareness are almost independent skills, that probably need to be practiced separately. We can easily get a feedback on our grammatical performance, but it is hard to find someone capable of teaching us the right phonology in a foreign language.


There are many methods to learn phonological awareness, see for example here. These methods are game-oriented: rhyming and music, words and pictures, music-guided language immersion. People with developed logic often replace them by phonetic alphabets and grammatical exercises. Different methods may supplement each other but not replace each other. Rhyming and music, words and pictures, music-guided language immersion usually teach phonetic awareness better than grammatical exercises. Do not learn to read letter by letter, try to use larger templates, listen to the music of the language and not just to its logic.

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