The Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness

Click Here to Get the Orthographic Awareness Worksheet

It’s time to have a talk about phonological awareness.aspectsofphono2

First of all, what is it?

Phonological awareness is a metalinguistic skill that involves the ability to manipulate sound segments (Blischak, Shah, Lombardino, Chiarella, 2004).

This could include awareness of phonemes, syllables, or segments (e.g., onsets, rimes, codas)

Rapid naming and working memory skills also fall under the window of phonological awareness (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004).

There are three words you need to know when it comes to phonological awareness: Predictive. Necessary. Effective.


The first thing you need to know is that phonological awareness skills are predictive.

This means that we can tell who is going to be a strong reader by assessing their phonological awareness skills as early as preschool or Kindergarten-before they have even learned to read.

The second thing you need to know is that phonological awareness skill are necessary. The ability to segment and blend phonological units such as phonemes or syllables is essential for developing decoding skills (Torgesen, 1998).

We know that working on phonological awareness is effective. Training students to blend phonemes and syllables together or to segment sounds and syllables can increase decoding skills in students in preschool through early elementary school (NRP, 2000).


It’s a good thing that everyone has jumped on the phonological awareness bandwagon; but these skills need to be taught correctly.

There are certain things you can do when teaching these skills that can hinder your students’ progress.

I call these the Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness.  If you are a repeat offender, you may end up confusing your students even more.

I’m going to tell you about the first deadly sin right now.

Deadly Sin #1: Adding the dreaded schwa.sevendeadlysins

The schwa is an unstressed vowel that sounds like “uh”.  It’s obviously necessary or it wouldn’t exist, but sometimes it pops up in many undesirable places; such as after consonant sounds.

For example, when teaching letter sounds, some people may mistakenly tell students that “T” goes with “tuh”.

Ideally, you want to just say the consonant sound without adding the unstressed vowel after it: the letter “T” goes with “t”.

Let’s take a look at what happens during a phonological blending activity when you add the schwa:

Teacher: Listen students! Shuh…ee…puh. What word did I say?

Students: Shueepuh!

Teacher: ?????

Do you have any idea what word the students were supposed to say? Neither did they. Let’s try it again without the schwas after the consonants.

Teacher: Listen students! Sh…ee…p. What word did I say?

Students: Sheep!

Teacher: That’s right!

Much better. Now, of course if you have struggling students with poor auditory memory skills you may have to gradually work up to this; but don’t confuse them even more by adding extra sounds that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

The point is, if you add a schwa, you’re making students do an extra step of segmenting the consonant from the unstressed vowel.  For example, if you say “puh”, students need to separate the “p” from the “uh”.  In other words, they need to read your mind and realize that instead of “puh”, you really mean “p”.

Still confused? Watch this video where I demonstrate the difference between segmenting phonemes with a schwa versus segmenting without a schwa:

Don’t put students through this. Lose the schwa. Unless, that is, you are working on short U.

Click Here to Get the Orthographic Awareness Worksheet


Stay tuned for rest of the articles in this series about the Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness. The next article will cover the second and third deadly sins:

Deadly Sin #2: Confusing blends and digraphs

Deadly Sin #3: Forgetting that “X” is a blend

Now I should tell you that as an SLP, you have a unique advantage because you’ve had in depth training in language and phonetics. The concepts of “phonemes” and “phonological units” are not foreign to you. This means you probably have a good grasp on how to administer effective phonological awareness training already.

I’ve got a quick resource you can use to integrate those phonological and orthographic awareness skills with your students today. It’s a worksheet designed to target vocabulary, phonological, and orthographic awareness. Click on the button below to get it.

Click Here to Get the Orthographic Awareness Worksheet


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