You may have read the phrase phonological processing in an assessment report on your own or your child’s reading skills, and wondered, “Exactly what is phonological processing?”
Phonological processing is the ability to manipulate and analyse the sounds of language (called phonemes). It is a key skill in learning to read and write, as it allows us to break down words into their individual sounds and then blend those sounds back together to form new words.
It’s actually a suite of skills, though. Let’s break down what skills comprise phonological processing. But first, what’s a phoneme?
Understanding phonemes: The building blocks of speech
The phoneme is the smallest sound unit in language. For example, the /k/ sound in “cat” or the /h/ sound in “hat” are phonemes. Phonemes are different from letters, as a letter can represent different phonemes – the “a” in “hat” sounds different from the “a” in fate, for example. Just as atoms are the building blocks for molecules, phonemes are the building blocks for words. We need to be able to distinguish, manipulate and produce phonemes well to be skilled at language. Good phonological processing is largely down to how well we distinguish and use phonemes.
Why phonological processing is so important
Children who have difficulty with phonological processing are at risk for developing reading and writing problems, such as dyslexia. Reading skills affect educational outcomes, which ultimately can impact a person’s employment prospects. Put simply, higher literacy skills lead to greater career and income growth opportunities.
The 4 skills that make up phonological processing
Phonological processing is a set of four skills – phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, phonological memory and Rapid Automatised Naming (RAN).
Phonemic awareness: Recognising & using individual sounds in words
Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognise and play with, or manipulate, individual phonemes. Examples of phonemic awareness include:
- Blending: Blending individual sounds together to form words, such as blending /k/ /a/ /t/ to form the word “cat.”
- Segmenting: Splitting a word into its individual sounds, such as segmenting the word “cat” into /k/ /a/ /t/.
- Manipulating phonemes: Changing or deleting phonemes in words to create new words, such as changing the /k/ in “cat” to /b/ to create the word “bat.”
Phonological awareness: The bigger phoneme picture
This involves a broader understanding of the sound structure of language, including recognising and manipulating larger sound units such as syllables (which are often made of several phonemes), rhymes, and onset-rime units. Phonological awareness means recognising phonemes are part of the bigger picture of reading and speaking.
Phonological awareness includes:
- Rhyming: Recognising that two words have the same ending sound, such as “cat” and “hat.”
- Alliteration: Recognising that two words start with the same sound, such as “cat” and “car.”
- Syllable awareness: Recognising that words can be broken down into smaller units called syllables, such as “cat” has one syllable and “cattle” has two syllables.
- Onset-rime awareness: Recognising that words can be broken down into a beginning sound, or onset, and an ending sound, or rime, such as “cat” has the onset /k/ and the rime /at/.
Someone with good phonemic and phonological awareness recognises individual sounds such as /k/ /a/ /t/, and also knows that such sounds can be combined into larger groups of two or three sounds, and how these sounds are similar and different to other sounds.
Phonological memory: Storing and manipulating speech sounds
This is the ability to hold onto and manipulate spoken information in short-term memory. For example, a child with good phonological working memory would be able to repeat a string of numbers or words after hearing them only once.
For example, the teacher says to a student, “Can you blend these sounds together? /c/ /a/ /t/.” The student with working memory challenges may respond, “tak”, “at”, or “hat”, depending on the nature of their working memory issue.
Rapid Automatised Naming: Word retrieval
This is the ability to quickly and accurately name familiar items, such as letters, numbers, or colors. RAN is a good measure of phonological processing because it requires children to quickly access and retrieve the sounds associated with these items.
Online auditory processing disorder test
People aged 5 and above who meet the eligiblity requirements can enrol in our online auditory processing disorder test.
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How to improve phonological processing
There are a number of things that can be done to help these children, such as providing them with explicit instruction in phonological awareness and phonics.
Here are some activities that can help children develop phonological processing skills:
- Singing songs: Singing songs helps children to focus on the sounds of language and to develop their phonological awareness.
- Play guessing games like “I Spy”: For individual sounds, try “I spy something red that starts with /s/.” To focus on rhymes, try “I’m wearing something warm that rhymes with boat.”
- Playing with rhymes: Playing with rhymes helps children to recognise and manipulate the sounds of language. Say four short words, like log, cat, hog, frog. See if your child can pick out the word that doesn’t rhyme.
- Creating word families: Creating word families helps children to see how words are related to each other and to learn the sounds that make up different words.
- Playing with sounds: Playing with sounds helps children to develop their phonological awareness and to practice blending and segmenting sounds. For example, ask them to connect the beginning sound with the rest of a word. Say, “Start with /p/ and add /ig/. What do word do you hear if you put them together?”
- Practicing RAN: Practicing RAN helps children to develop their rapid automatised naming skills, which can improve their reading and writing skills. Games that require word retrieval, such as Pictionary or Scattergories can help. For younger children, sing short songs or recite poems, quickening the pace as you repeat. This gradually increases the demand on processing speed.
- Online programs for auditory processing: Effective programs help process spoken information more easily and efficiently. Sonic Learning’s team of health and education professionals has been using the proven neuroscience program Fast ForWord since 2004 to help people improve their auditory processing speed, listening comprehension, phoneme discrimination skills, auditory memory, auditory attention, and sequencing skills.
Here’s the benefits of Fast ForWord:
- Fast ForWord has been shown to be effective in improving auditory processing skills in children and adults with a variety of learning disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder.
- Fast ForWord is a computer-based program that is fun and engaging, making it easy for users to stay motivated.
- Fast ForWord is based on the latest research in neuroscience, and it has been proven to be effective in improving brain function.
If you or your child has autism, Fast ForWord could be the key to helping you improve your ability to process spoken information more easily and efficiently.
Phonological processing for communication and lifelong learning
Phonological processing is a critical skill for communication and learning. It is the ability to manipulate and analyze the sounds of language (called phonemes). This ability is essential for learning to read and write, as it allows us to break down words into their individual sounds and then blend those sounds back together to form new words.
Children who have difficulty with phonological processing are at risk for developing reading and writing problems, such as dyslexia. However, there are a number of things that can be done to help these children, such as providing them with explicit instruction in phonological awareness and phonics.
There are also a number of activities that parents and caregivers can do to help children develop their phonological processing skills. These activities include singing songs, playing guessing games, playing with rhymes, creating word families, playing with sounds, and practicing RAN.
By providing children with early and ongoing support, we can help them develop the phonological processing skills they need to succeed in school and in life. At Sonic Learning, we’re a small group of Australian health and education professionals working to bring you the very best research-backed learning programs available. Reach out to us to find out how we can help.
- ACT Government, Factsheet 6: What is phonological processing?
- Iowa Reading Research Centre, Identifying Phonological Working Memory Struggles and Intervening With Instruction
- Understood.org, 9 ways to build phonological awareness in pre-K and kindergarten
- Lien Peters, Hans Op de Beeck, Bert De Smedt, Cognitive correlates of dyslexia, dyscalculia and comorbid dyslexia/dyscalculia: Effects of numerical magnitude processing and phonological processing, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Volume 107, 2020
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