Words in English are composed of strings of sounds called phonemes. Speakers of English can create all the words they ever need by using various combinations of 44 different speech sounds. When we listen to another person talk, we listen to and process the information without actually being aware of the individual phonemes in words themselves. However, because phonemes are represented in written language by letters, learning to read requires that children become consciously aware of the phonemes as individual elements of words.
Phonological awareness refers to awareness of phonemes, as well as all different levels of awareness of words. This includes rhyming, awareness of syllables in words, knowledge of letter sounds and identifying individual words within a sentence. Important phonological awareness skills also include being able to segment phonemes (for example, realizing that the word “cat” contains three individual sounds) and blending phonemes (for example, when hearing the sounds d-o-t realizing that they can be blended into the word “dot”). More advanced phonological awareness skills would include a listener identifying the first, middle or last sound they hear in a word (what is the first sound you hear in dog?) or manipulating sounds (if you take /s/ out of “stop,” what word is left?).
Since phonological awareness is strongly tied to beginning to read, most schools test kindergarten and first grade students in this area. Phonological awareness skills are not innate but rather learned and are a significant part of the curriculum in these grades. However, if you are concerned that your child is struggling to develop phonological awareness skills, speech-language pathologists are able to treat deficits in this area.