Unit 1: The Basics of Early Literacy


Unit 1: The Foundations of Early Literacy


In this unit, we will explore the foundations of early literacy, especially the pre-cursor to any kind of phonics or reading instruction: phonological and phonemic awareness. We will identify the different aspects of early literacy skills and how they weave together towards developing the ability to read. Reading is really hard, so we need to start at the beginning and examine how our brains process language first. Let's begin!


1.1 What Makes Reading Hard?

1.2 What is Phonological Awareness?

1.3 Phonemic Awareness Instruction

1.1 What Makes Reading Hard?

Guess what, folks - our brains are not wired to read! Written language is only 5-6 thousand years old whereas spoken and oral language is evidently much much older than that. We have to perform a "neurological backflip" to learn to read. Reading doesn't come naturally, even for children who are exposed to a lot of literature from an early age (Lambert & Strom, 2021, 13:00).

In the English language, there are 26 graphemes that make 44 sounds. Then, there are over 200 ways to spell those 44 sounds. No wonder reading is such a complicated code to break!

Scarborough's Reading Rope identifying all the individual aspects woven into the ability to read (Scarborough’s reading rope, 2018).

Vocabulary and Terms:

phoneme: the smallest unit of sound in the English language

grapheme: the symbols associated with sounds in the English language (letters)

phonological awareness: an individual's awareness of the sound structure of words

phonemic awareness: the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual phonemes

phonics: correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in the alphabetic writing system

reading: the process of looking at a series of written symbols and deriving meaning

Explore the 44 different sounds in the English Language here!

1.2 What is Phonological Awareness?

The Phonological Awareness umbrella shows the many components of Phonological Awareness (What is phonological awareness?, 2021).

Phonological awareness is relatively new phenomenon in our understanding of developing readers (Yopp & Yopp, 2000, p. 130). It is a general umbrella term used to cover many aspects of sound production and early literacy skills.

Phonemic awareness falls under the phonological awareness umbrella, and phonics follows phonemic awareness in the progression of learning.

Phonics forms the beginning of reading written word.

Explore some easily incorporated at-home phonological awareness activities here.

1.3 Phonemic Awareness Instruction

Phonemic awareness instruction and phonics should be playful and engaging, while deliberate to meet the specific needs of the learners. Some key examples of "making it fun" are songs, chants, word-sound games, word play, nursery rhymes, exposure to storybooks, storytelling, riddles, etc. These fun activities must also be incorporated in the broader context of a full literacy curriculum and students need opportunities to directly apply their learned language skills (Yopp & Yopp, 2000, p. 132). Heggerty Literacy Resources curriculum provides an example of phonological awareness as a precursor to phonics and reading instruction daily in the classroom. The different skills the Heggerty curriculum covers is: rhyming, onset fluency (initial phoneme isolation), blending, isolating final sounds, isolating medial sounds, segmenting, adding, deleting, substituting, language awareness, and letter naming/alphabet knowledge (Literacy, 2003). The call and response model increases student engagement and involvement in the routine.


Choose at least 3 videos from the Heggerty Skill Tutorial playlist to get a sense of the different activities embedded within a Heggerty lesson. Peruse and practice with a sample of the primary Heggerty phonics curriculum. Click for Kindergarten, pre-K, and early pre-k samples as well (Literacy, 2003).

Moving Towards Reading

Before we begin reading, we need to look at what phonics instruction looks like, both in how it builds off of phonological and phonemic awareness and in how it precedes reading.

Heggerty identifies aspects of phonics and phonemic awareness lessons (Literacy, 2003).

We will dive a bit deeper in the next unit!!

Check for Understanding:

  • What is a phoneme? What is a grapheme?
  • What is phonological awareness?
  • What is phonemic awareness?
  • What is phonics?

Optional Activity:

Listen to The Science of Reading Podcast S1E9: The Cognitive Science Behind How Students Learn to Read with Carolyn Strom.

Wrapping Up

In Unit 1, we identified aspects of early literacy that contribute to reading and language development.

Let's explore more of this idea in Unit 2: Early Literacy Teaching Skills. We will talk more explicitly about the stages of reading development and instructional practices to support students in those areas.

Back to Home.

Extended Resources:

Lambert, Susan (Host) & Strom, Carolyn (Guest). (2020, Feb 5). The cognitive science behind how students learn to read: Carolyn Strom (No. 9) [Audio podcast episode]. In Science of Reading: The Podcast. Production Company.

Literacy Resources. (2003). Heggerty Phonemic Awareness.

Phonological and phonemic awareness: Activities for your Kindergartner. Reading Rockets. (2020, November 5). Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://www.readingrockets.org/reading-101-guide-parents/kindergarten/phonological-and-phonemic-awareness-activities-your-kindergartner

Scarborough’s reading rope: A groundbreaking infographic. International Dyslexia Association. (2018, April 4). Retrieved March 9, 2022, from https://dyslexiaida.org/scarboroughs-reading-rope-a-groundbreaking-infographic/

What is phonological awareness? The Daily Alphabet. (2021, March 23). Retrieved April 18, 2022, from https://thedailyalphabet.com/what-is-phonological-awareness/

Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. H. (2000). Supporting Phonemic Awareness Development in the Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 54(2), 130-143.