The Science of Reading Explained: Phonological Awareness

Oct 24, 2023
Phonological awareness Edmentum article

In our blog and video series, The Science of Reading Explained, we’ve been unpacking this important research model that backs one of the most critical elements of education—foundational literacy. This specific model has slowly loosened the grip that some other long-used, instructional techniques have held over the field for decades. Over the last year, states across the country have begun turning to research-based, effective literacy practices, such as those suggested by the science of reading, to accelerate learning recovery.

It's best to read the previous installment of this series, Phonics. If you’re all caught up, let’s dive into the second science of reading pillar—phonological awareness.

What Is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness instruction teaches students to hear and manipulate the spoken parts of words and sentences. Respected research tells us that systematic phonological awareness instruction is a strong predictor of later literacy and is a necessary skill for decoding and vocabulary acquisition. In other words, phonological awareness is a vital foundation for students when they are learning to read.

With Exact Path, Edmentum’s K–12 diagnostic-driven, individualized learning program, phonological awareness instruction is woven in throughout the program in a systematic, research-based way that follows the science of reading best practices. The umbrella of systematic phonological awareness instruction includes four different skills: rhyming, sentence segmentation, syllables, and onset and rime. Let’s look at each skill individually and see how it is addressed in Exact Path.


Rhyming is one of the most basic skills associated with phonological awareness. Simply put, rhyming involves finding words with the same ending sound. With Exact Path, students are shown characters modeling how to find rhyming words through focused listening—not through written text or print on the screen. Take a look at some images from the lesson “Rhyme Time” from the skill group “Word Recognition and Rhyming”:

Sentence Segmentation

Sentence segmentation is when students can recognize that sentences can be broken down into words, differentiating between those words. This is a precursor skill to the important awareness that words can be broken down into syllables and sounds.

Exact Path uses two strategies to help students differentiate between words and determine how many different words are within a sentence. The first strategy involves using a physical object to track the words that are being spoken aloud. In these screenshots from a lesson in sentence segmentation, you can see that the characters are modeling this method by using cans of food.

Another strategy that Exact Path uses is one that can transfer to real-life scenarios in the classroom: finger to palm tapping. Students are encouraged to use their finger to tap the inside of their palm when they hear a word within a sentence.


We know that a syllable is a single, vowel-centered unit of a spoken (or written) word. When learning about syllables, students are taught that words contain parts called syllables, that each of those syllables contains a vowel sound, and that syllables can be counted or blended. Understanding syllables helps students decode text faster and more fluently, as well as develop correct pronunciation of words—ultimately supporting a large part of their learn-to-read journeys.

Let’s look at syllable instruction in Exact Path. You’ll notice in the screenshots below that characters are modeling a strategy that students can use to determine how many syllables are within a word—clapping. This strategy is commonly used in classrooms, meaning that when students are learning in Exact Path, it’s supporting classroom instruction as well.

Onset and Rime

Taking things a step further, syllables are normally split up into two parts, the onset and the rime:

  • Onset: The initial phonological unit of any word which contains the initial consonant or consonant blend
  • Rime: The string of letters that follow the onset which contains the vowel and any final consonants

Let’s peek at onset and rime instruction in Exact Path. In the lesson shown below, the characters are modeling blending together the onset and the rime of word “bone.” The onset is /b/ and the rime is /ōn/. You’ll notice the focus is on the sounds and not the printed letters or words.

What About Phonemic Awareness?

Under the larger umbrella of phonological awareness is a more complex set of skills, the subdomain of phonemic awareness—the next part of the continuum of phonological awareness. Phonemes are sounds, and phonemic awareness is defined as the ability to hear, identify, move, or change sounds in spoken words.

In Exact Path, students learn three different subset skills within phonemic awareness: phoneme isolation, blending and segmenting phonemes, and phoneme deletion and manipulation. Just as students are presented with Exact Path characters modeling phonological awareness skills like rhyming or identifying syllables, they’ll also have a chance to see characters modeling skills, such as changing sounds within words. Check out the example below, where you will notice the characters using colored tiles to represent the individual sounds and identify them. Exact Path is supporting classroom instruction and aligning to research-based practices by using this representation that is often found in elementary classrooms!

Actively engage students in recognizing, segmenting, and manipulating individual sounds within words with this Phonological Awareness Activity. Students isolate and differentiate the sounds within words, honing their phonological awareness skills and preparing them for reading and spelling success.

Why Exact Path?

Exact Path incorporates all facets of phonological awareness to ensure that students develop essential skills that enable future reading success. Through friendly characters and engaging visual representations, students are motivated to succeed while they build skills to accelerate recovery. When embedded into your daily classroom instruction 40 minutes a week, research confirms that students who complete eight skills show significant learning gains. Take a closer look at phonological awareness, as well as how it’s reflected in our Exact Path program in this accompanying video:

Ready to learn more about the Science of Reading? Check out the rest of the series, The Science of Reading Explained, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.

Explore Edmentum's ongoing commitment to the Science of Reading in our white paper, Exact Path: Designed with the Science of Reading.

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