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Phonological vs. phonemic awareness

mother reading book with young child

Understanding phonological vs phonemic awareness

Everyone can agree that reading is perhaps one of the most important academic and life skills young children can learn when they begin school. The body of research about the most effective approach for teaching foundational reading skills continues to grow and change as researchers spend more time with studies, as well as more time in schools understanding the impact of different strategies. Here we are going to discuss the skills that usually come first when children are learning to read: phonemic awareness vs phonological awareness.

When educators are thinking about phonological vs. phonemic awareness, both of which sit at the beginning of understanding spoken and written language, there are many things to consider. “One of the most important nuances to understand about these early literacy skills,” says Chief Academic Officer for 95 Percent Group, Laura Stewart, “is that the ‘stair step’  approach that has been popular for a while (larger units of sound to smaller units of sound) represents phonological development.

While this is a helpful infographic to understand the general order in which most children learn these early skills,” she added,  “it may not be appropriate to use the same infographic to represent an instructional path. Children don’t need to master the larger units of  phonological skills in order to move on to what we might consider ‘more advanced’ skills, like phoneme awareness.”

Let’s look further into the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.

Defining phonological awareness

Phonological awareness refers to the overall awareness of the sound structure of language; phonological awareness includes an awareness of the larger sound structures of spoken words: syllables, rhymes, onsets, and rimes. These structures and the activities that help to reinforce them are now often being referred to as phonological sensitivity. While these activities have sometimes sat at the heart of early literacy instruction with an assumption that they were skills children needed to acquire before they could move on, we now know that mastery of these “skills” isn’t necessary for children to begin direct instruction on phonemes, the smallest units of sound in spoken language.

“Ideally,” Stewart reflects, “young children would come to preschool and kindergarten already engaged in word play with poems, songs, syllable games, rhyming games, etc. Literacy instructors would continue that word play while also building their phoneme awareness and letter recognition.”

The most recent research even suggests that children who are lacking in phonological sensitivity are completely capable of mastering phonemic awareness skills—a subset of phonological awareness skills— with explicit, direct instruction.

Defining phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the smallest units of sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. As it stands, it is one of the key skills in preparing children for fluent reading, and one of the earliest indicators and predictors of reading difficulty. Using a diagnostic screener in order to understand what your students know and what they still need to learn is an effective way to gather information.

Previously, researchers believed that working with the sounds first, followed by introducing the letters was the path to reading acquisition. But as we learn more about the neural pathways involved with language and literacy development, these views are changing.

Laura Stewart weighs in on some of the nuances involved. “While phonemic awareness should begin with focusing on the sounds in a spoken word, a quick progression(often in the same lesson) to working with both the phonemes and the graphemes ( the associated letter(s) that represent the sound) is important. It is especially helpful for our struggling readers, as the grapheme is an anchor to securing the phoneme.”

When teaching phonemic awareness skills there is usually a suggested continuum that begins with an easier skill and moves on accordingly when students are ready. Phonemic awareness skills that are critical to building a strong literacy foundation are:

  • Phoneme isolation:
    • Starting the initial phoneme in a word:  /b/ in the word bat
    • Continuing with the final phoneme in a word:  /t/ in the word bat
    • Moving on to the medial phoneme in a word” /a/ in the word bat 
  • Phoneme Segmentation and Blending:
    • Segmenting phonemes in a word means being able to listen to a word and identify each of the sounds inside the word: cat → /k/ /a/ /t/
    • Blending phonemes means you can hear separate phonemes and put them together in order to say a whole word /ch/ /i/ /p/ → chip
  • Phoneme Manipulation: Addition, deletion, and substitution of phonemes within words.
    While not necessarily a “gate keeping” skill in terms of reading fluency, practicing manipulation of sounds with letters can be helpful to reading and spelling.

    • Addition: adding a phoneme to an existing word. If you start with the word top, and you add /s/, now you have stop. As students become more comfortable with this, they can add multiple phonemes simultaneously.
    • Deletion: the opposition of addition. Instead of adding a phoneme, you take a phoneme away. So if you start with the word glove and you take away /g/, now you have the word love.
    • Substitution: this is a bit like combining both addition and deletion. You first take away a phoneme and then add another—creating an entirely different word. If you start with the word cape, and delete the /k/ (leaving ape), and then you add /sh/, you end up with a completely new word: shape.

Check out our post on the blog for specific lesson plans or activities.

Phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness breakdown

When speaking about phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness, there is a tendency to compare them. The truth is that phonemic awareness is a subset of skills within the larger skill set of phonological awareness. We can think of this like an umbrella: Phonological Awareness is the large umbrella and under that umbrella, phonemic awareness is a smaller set of specific skills that are critical to reading development.

While children who are phonologically sensitive at an early age can often move into more difficult skill acquisition sooner, phonological sensitivity isn’t something that needs to be checked off before moving onto phonemic awareness skill instruction. In fact, teaching phonemic awareness skills while children are moving toward greater phonological sensitivity is highly encouraged.

The role of phonemic awareness in literacy

The role that phonemic awareness plays in language and literacy development hasn’t always been as clear. For a long time, these skills were glossed over in terms of direct instruction, undervalued as a crucial foundational skill or perhaps something that teachers assumed children would learn before they arrived at formal schooling.

As the research gained momentum and depth educators became increasingly aware of the importance of explicit instruction of phonemic awareness skills. Even beginning to understand why some children seem to be able to read on grade level until they get to 3rd or 4th grade—at which point they begin to have more and more difficulty with reading and spelling.

The work that phonemic instruction skills does is to help children and then older students understand that words are made up of smaller units of sound. When there has been direct and in-depth instruction on phonemes along with their corresponding graphemes, the work of both decoding (breaking down a word into its sounds in order to read it) and encoding (putting sounds/graphemes together in order to build a world in written language) becomes much easier; even for more sophisticated, multisyllabic words that become more common in the upper elementary grades.

The role of phonological awareness in literacy

Phonological sensitivity begins with modeling the way language works with young children. Ensuring that young children have plenty of exposure to songs, poems, and stories—which often include a multitude of opportunities to notice and talk about rhythm and rhyme—is a great way to immerse children in the components of phonological awareness. While many children come to school already having some phonological sensitivity, some do not, and this “language play” is central to the early years, especially pre-K and K.

If, when children are introduced to the first skills of phonemic awareness, you notice there are gaps in their knowledge, it is sensible to back up and engage children in more explicit instruction of the larger sound structures of spoken words: syllables, rhymes, onsets, and rimes while continuing with phoneme awareness activities.

Strategies for teaching phonemic awareness

When children understand the graphemes that represent the phonemes early on, it goes a long way towards both reading and spelling. Here are some strategies that help ensure you are meeting the needs of all children with phonemic awareness instruction.

  1. Primary focus should be on teaching students what they hear with each sound and how it should feel in their mouth. There are so many phonemes in the English language that it can feel confusing for students to be able to articulate them all in the beginning. Teaching what students should hear with each sound and how it feels in their mouth and throat when a phoneme is “voiced” or “unvoiced,” helps them understand the articulation and auditory qualities of the phoneme. Additionally, teachers can first offer a photo to show how the mouth forms each phoneme, and then a mirror so students can see what shape their mouth makes when they say /p/ or  /b/ compared to /m/ or /n/.
  2. Connect phonemes to letters (graphophonemic connections) to benefit students when learning to read and write. Phonemic awareness instruction should always begin with just the sounds in order to help children focus on the phoneme sequences in spoken words. Typically, linking letter knowledge and phonemes to read and spell words can begin soon thereafter, depending on the students’ proficiency with phonemes; however, phonemic awareness skills should continue to be taught in K-1 (and for older students as indicated) as a distinct strand of the lesson that parallels phonics instruction. When phonemic awareness instruction is connected to the representative letters or graphemes, it helps children with orthographic mapping and makes it easier to retain and recognize words when they see them again.
  3. Make it multisensory. Research on working memory and cognition shows us that there are benefits of multisensory experiences when teaching different literacy skills. When students simultaneously incorporate more than one sense (i.e., writing with a pencil or air writing with their whole arm while saying the sound or phoneme, it activates multiple parts of the brain (whole brain learning) than when just saying a sound or just writing the representative letter(s).
  4. I do, We do, You do model. When you offer a gradual release instruction model, students have the opportunity to see a skill first modeled for them explicitly, then to practice with the instructor, receiving immediate feedback and/or reteaching if needed, and last, the opportunity to practice on their own—increasing confidence, independence and student ownership of their learning. The repeated practice of a skill also increases the chance of retention.
  5. Assess, monitor and differentiate accordingly. When students experience difficulty in acquiring phoneme awareness, teachers can assess and provide reinforcement and reteaching for those students who need more. Using a diagnostic assessments such as the 95 Phonemic Awareness Screener for Intervention™—which maps skill deficits directly to specific lessons in the 95 Phonemic Awareness Suite™, allows teachers to confidently and efficiently make instructional decisions based on each student’s needs.

Practical activities to enhance phonemic awareness

There are many engaging activities for teachers to use when teaching phonemic awareness.  Here are a few activities that can be easily adapted for either home or school.

  • Word construction: when you have a few minutes (this is a good one to do in the car or while kids are lining up to go outside!) challenge children to listen to all the sounds and try to guess the word you are thinking of. Pull the sounds in your chosen word apart and say them one by one. Ex. If your word is “grape” you would say /g/ /r/ /ā/ /p/  (bonus points if students can name why the letter a has it’s long vowel sound!
  • Word deconstruction: this is very similar to the activity above, except instead of making words by putting their sounds together, you say a word and ask students to tell you what sounds they hear inside the word. Ex. “what sounds do you hear in the word ‘late’”? Students should say, “/l/ /ā/ /t/.

You can play these same types of games with phoneme manipulation (addition, deletion, substitution). It might sound like “if I start with the word “late” and take away the /l/, what is the new word? Or, “if I start with the word “ran” and change the /r/ to /p/, what is the new word? The idea of changing one sound to make an entirely new word is often a pretty surprising idea for children!

Looking for more? Check out a longer list of phonemic awareness activities on our Insights page!

Frequently asked questions

What are the main phonological awareness skills?

Phonological sensitivity, as it is now more frequently referred to, often (or maybe ideally) begins at home. It refers to the idea that children become more and more aware of the large structures of spoken language such as:

Words 

syllables (counting and categorizing)

onset and rime in a word (c-at, b-at, m-at the first sound before the vowel in a one syllable word being the onset and and the vowel and other consonant sound being the rime)

rhyming.

Within phonological awareness skills are those at the phoneme level—which are referred to as phonemic awareness skills.

At what age should phonemic awareness be introduced?

Phonemic awareness can be introduced to children as soon as they can understand words. Very young children can understand rhyming words and notice when words begin with the same sound. An important precursor to all of this work is to teach basic listening skills and for kids to ideally be immersed in a language-rich environment–both spoken and written. Speaking to children in a way that helps to increase their working vocabulary and reading to children regularly all helps to cultivate a greater awareness of understanding of how we use language to communicate and seek understanding.

Final thoughts

There is a lot of talk about the importance of phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness and the truth is that they exist in the same space—as foundational skills that children need to have in their tool box as they learn to read and write.

As teachers are tasked with not only teaching foundational reading skills to their emerging readers but also helping to close gaps with students that may not have gotten the instruction they needed to read on grade level, there are great resources to help make phonemic awareness planning and instruction a much easier process.

With 95 Percent Group’s 95 Phonemic Awareness Suite, teachers have access to multiple resources,  tools, manipulatives, scripts and options for wrap-around professional learning and coaching to help make these critical skills easier to teach.

Sources

  1. Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cam-bridge, MA: MIT Press
  2. Ashby, J., McBride, M., Naftel, S., O’Brien, E., Paulson, L. H., Kilpatrick, D. A, & Moats, L. C. (2023). Teaching Phoneme Awareness in 2023: A Guide for Educators.
  3. Castiglioni-Spalten, M. & Ehri L.C., (2003). Phonemic Awareness Instruction: Contribution of Articulatory Segmentation to Novice Beginners’ Reading and Spelling. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(1), p. 25.
  4. Davidson, Marcia, USAID, and Global Education Summit. “Scripted Reading Lessons and Evidence for Their Efficacy.” United States Agency for International Development, 2015. Accessed January 30, 2024. https://2012-2017.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1865/Davidson.pdf.
  5. Farrell, Mary L., White, Nancy Cushen; Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, Ch. 2, p.48
  6. National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000)
  7. Teaching to the whole brain. (2021, June 2). ASCD. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/teaching-to-the-whole-brain
  8. The Reading League. (2022, June). https://www.thereadingleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/The-Reading-League-Curriculum-Evaluation-Guidelines-2022.pdf. Retrieved January 31, 2024, https://www.thereadingleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/The-Reading-League-Curriculum-Evaluation-Guidelines-2022.pdf

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