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What to Do If Phonological Awareness Just Isn’t Clicking

By Naomi O'Brien


It is October as I write this, and already one of the most common emails I am receiving is, “I don’t think phonological awareness is working! My kids are still not able to do these skills!” Before we dive into this issue, let’s take a look at this chart of phonological awareness skills. Phonological awareness is a spectrum of skills that takes time to develop and moves from simple to more complex. If you teach older grades where these skills have been long neglected, it may even take a little longer than in K-1. But have no fear! Read on to see the heavy brain changing work you are engaged with, check to see if you are making any of the common errors, and check out ways to make your instruction tighter.

But Rhyming Is So Easy!

Before we dive into trouble shooting, it is worth taking the time to understand and respect what you are attempting to do. Phonological awareness (pa); the ability to recognize and manipulate parts of spoken words, builds in complexity up to phonemic awareness. Our brains did not evolve in way that reading occurs naturally to us. When you engage in pa activities, you are quite literally changing their brains.

The skills seem so easy to us as adults, but rhyming, alliteration, segmenting, blending, are in fact not intuitive. Isolating sounds, understanding a word is even made up of small chunks is particularly hard in kindergarten, as they are also learning that print carries meaning. While we can start teaching these skills at 3, they are more often taught starting at 5-6, meaning kids have that many years they did not work on these skills. Give yourself and the students time! Trust the process. There are changes happening that show up on scans of the brain that we can see. With time and the correct instruction happening, those changes are happening in 95% of our students!

You can also watch this video where Professor Stanislas Dehaene shares more about the neuroscience behind developing readers. It absolutely blew my mind the first time I saw it! It’s about 30 minutes if you have time to check it out. The area of the brain that will read, needs to be able to manipulate sounds. However, for non-readers, this area simply does not exist… yet. As humans, we have not evolved this way, since reading is a purely man-made skill.

When reading, a person must blend several sounds together, and that needs to be taught, practiced, and developed. Otherwise, it’s like expecting a baby to ride a bike. We must wait for them to grow, change, develop, and practice gross motor skills like flipping, crawling, standing, and moving a certain way. As a baby, their body just is not developed to ride a bike yet. In reading, it looks like about 10 minutes of concentrated targeted phonological awareness work daily. This adds up to 20 hours over the course of a school year.

What Does “Clicking” in a Kindergarten Classroom Look Like?

There is a chance you are well on your way to success but don’t realize it yet. In my experience, there are three main waves of students “getting it.” I have been teaching kids how to read following the science of reading research for over a decade now. I want to share the patterns and trend I have noticed with my K-2 students.

Wave #1:

The first batch (and this is not the norm) of students who phonological awareness clicks for, will pop up in October-November. They start becoming really good at producing rhymes, they can quickly tell me a beginning, middle, or ending sound, and better yet: they can now manipulate sounds. I can tell them to take the /d/ off of dog and add a /h/ and they will instantly say, “Hog!” They are the students that excitedly tell me, “Cat and rat are the same word! You just have to change the r to a c!” These students will become my early readers come December. I will also see their skills spill over into their writing. They begin to apply their decoding skills to become better encoders.

Wave #2:

For the majority of students, phonological awareness will start clicking somewhere from February-March. I continue to spiral through skills, 10 minutes a day, giving them examples to think through. Up until the second half of the year, they are still not confidently isolating sounds, segmenting sounds, or manipulating sounds. To the untrained person, it may loo like the instruction is not working. What do I do? I am right along side them modeling, modeling how to hear the sounds, and slowly stepping back as their successes increase. Even once they have mastered skills (like isolating beginning sounds), we keep at it. They feel proud and successful, and lagging students keep practicing.

Wave #3:

There will be those last 3-5 kids who are struggle to become phonemically aware. We do worry about them, but we do not stop teaching them. While we continue their practice, we may consider giving them extra support, refer them if that feels like an issue, and continue to trust the process. If the skills click at the end of the year, that is great, and we didn’t stop before the finish line. If not, we know we kept their research-based and highly effective learning going as long as possible, know there will be a summer slide, and talk to their caregivers about next steps as well as their new teachers for the following year.

If you have given this plenty of time, and your students are still struggling, let’s make sure your delivery is tight.

Are You Doing It Right?

The first thing to remember when you feel that the phonological awareness skills aren’t clicking, is to remind yourself that they are just not clicking yet. Once you have, make sure everything is right on your end.

Reflect On:

  1. How much time have I really given this? Am I being consistent? Am I working on this every single, or every now and then. Also, 2 months is not that long. This is literally a brain changing practice. I often tell people I gave my own 3 year old the answers to my own pa questions for a year before he could start to do it on his own.
  2. How explicitly am I teaching these skills? Do I take time to just focus on syllabication, rhyming, blending, etc? Am I cycling through all the skills so that students can practice them with and without me? This matters. If we randomly practice, and do not make sure we are routinely hitting each skill, the skills won’t build up.
  3. Am I pronouncing the words and sounds right? (or am I adding an /uh/ sound, like /buh/ vs. /b/?) This matters more that some realize and can throw off blending attempts. Do they have an accent? Do I have an accent? You can work with your school’s SLP to strengthen this area.
  4. Are students hearing me correctly? Are they also producing the sounds correctly? This is a time to be a stickler for the small differences, especially between /r/ and /er/! It’s rug, not errrrr-ug.
  5. Are my students English language learners? If yes, they may not be able to guess their way out of practice because they do not have the same vocabulary. While a native English speaker can badly blend r-u-g and guess rug (leading me to believe they got it), an ELL may not be able to guess.

Yes, Yes, Yes to All the Above!

“Yes,” you say, “I have been patient, I have kept going, and I have done everything right on my end.” In this case, I can share some last tips with you, along with the assurance, to trust and keep up your end.

Try these tips:

  1. “The neurons that fire together, wire together!” Keep hitting the skill in multiple ways, forming multiple pathways in their brains. Infuse phonological awareness elements into writing and phonics, and whenever else you can, this gives a big payback. Use multi-sensory tactics to help kids learn more effectively.
  2. Take the learning explicitly off the carpet. This looks like actually telling students, “Remember we just learned about pulling apart/segmenting sounds. Make sure you keep doing that as you write your story.” In reading, “Remember we read map, and we can see this new word has an /ap/ in it. Change the beginning sound to /c/, now try blending.” (This is phenome manipulation.)
  3. Most importantly, make it fun! If learning is not fun, we know kids may check out and become bored. Motivate them, make it a game (like I do in my book), a competition, add music, rhythm, let them work in partners, celebrate growth and mistakes. Keep them excited while knowing their little brains are really growing and changing! You can add stickers, blocks, toys, tiles, the list is endless. You know your kids best.

I leave you with saying, know that the real heart of teaching is not Instagrammable. It is slow, sometimes tedious. It is repetitive. It is consistent. Give it time, and you will see the growth! You are doing brain changing work. Keep it up!



Hi, I'm Naomi

I have been teaching elementary students for over 10 years. Effective reading instruction and accurate social studies at the primary level are huge passions of mine! 

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