What is Phonemic Awareness?

In this post, I answer the question “What is phonemic awareness and why is it important?”. I explain how it is different from phonological awareness and phonics. Finally, I leave you with tips for teaching phonemic awareness.

While there are many underlying skills students need to become successful readers there is one that is most essential.  That skill is Phonemic Awareness.  It is the most foundational skill students need to become accurate and automatic readers.   

Because this is such an important skill, I am eager to dive more deeply into helping you understand what it is and what it is not! I will help you understand why it is so important, and offer suggestions for teaching phonemic awareness to your beginning readers. 

What is Phonemic Awareness? 

According to David Kilpatrick, Phonemic Awareness is the awareness of and ability to manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.

There are 6 layers of phonemic awareness.  These layers build from the simplest to the most complex.  Each of these skills can established through targeted instruction and practice.  

The 6 Layers of Phonemic Awareness

  1. Phoneme Isolation: Hearing and isolating individual phonemes (sounds) in spoken words. An example of phoneme isolation is: “The beginning sound of bat is /b/.” “The ending sound of cat is /t/.”
  1. Blending: the next phase is phoneme blending, which is combining sounds.  It  involves listening to and pulling together isolated sounds to create words.  (/b/ /ă/ /t/), and then blend the sounds quickly together to read the word (bat).
  1. Segmenting: This is the ability to hear a spoken word and divide it into its individual sounds (phonemes). For example, students are given a word like cat, and then they segment it into the individual sounds “/c/ /a/ /t/”

The 4th, 5th and 6th phases are all considered phoneme manipulation. Manipulation is more challenging because it requires students to hold phonemes in their working memories long enough to add, delete, or substitute specific phonemes, and THEN blend the phonemes back together to form a new word. These activities are an excellent way to build refined, advanced phonemic awareness, particularly for students who have mastered segmentation and blending.

  1. Phoneme Addition: Phoneme addition is adding phonemes to a given word to produce a new word. For example, “say the word “bell”.  Add /t/ to the end and we get…. “(belt).  Notice that the actual spelling of the word does not matter because this is about the sounds
  1. Phoneme Deletion: this is simply deleting or removing a phoneme. Example: “The word is ‘bake.’ bake, take away /k/, and we get…” (bay). Notice again that the actual spelling of the word does not matter because this is about the sounds
  1. Phoneme Substitution: Phoneme substitution is the most advanced of all the manipulation skills.  It requires students to delete AND add phonemes. It is switching out a sound in a word. For example, “The word is ‘cat.’ Say /p/ instead of /t/ and we get…” (cap).

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important? 

Any language system connecting written letters to spoken word sounds requires phonemic awareness. A student cannot connect the letters to sounds unless she has knowledge of both and understands there is a relationship between letters and sounds. This relationship is known as the alphabetic principle.

Much research has found that phonemic awareness is necessary for learning to read an alphabetic language. Students who can take apart words into sounds, recognize them, and put them together again have the foundation skills needed to learn to read. Without phoneme awareness, students may be confused by the print system and how it represents the spoken word.

Is Phonemic Awareness the same as Phonological Awareness?

No. While these terms sound very similar and often get used interchangeably, they are not the same thing.  

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words. It is an umbrella term that involves a continuum of skills that students develop over time.  These skills include being able to identify words that rhyme, recognizing alliteration, breaking up a sentence into words, identifying the syllables in a word, and more. The most sophisticated — and last to develop — is phonemic awareness.

Are Phonics and Phonemic Awareness the same thing?

Phonics and Phonemic Awareness are two terms that are often confused or used interchangeably.  While both components are essential for learning to read, they are NOT the same thing.  

Phonemic awareness is oral and auditory. It focuses on the sounds in words.  Phonics instruction is visual AND auditory. The focus of phonics instruction is letter-sound relationships, also known as phoneme-grapheme correspondence.  

When you add graphemes to phonemic awareness lessons, it becomes a phonemic awareness lesson AND a phonics lesson at the same time. Studies have found that lessons like this, ones that integrate letters (graphemes) into phoneme instruction have a greater effect on phonemic awareness, decoding, and spelling than lessons that did not include graphemes.

When Should I Teach Phonemic Awareness? 

According to Wiley Blevins, the first phone phonemic-awareness tasks should be part of a kindergarten curriculum. Most children can master rhyming and alliteration by the age of 5, and while these activities are fun, instructional time is better spent working with words at the sound level.  

Segmenting words is essential for spelling. The majority of children can master it by the end of 1st grade.  Phoneme manipulation is more complex.  Blevins recommends waiting to introduce these tasks until the middle of 1st grade.  

Teaching phonemic awareness in small groups is most effective. It allows you to closely monitor student responses, provide positive, corrective feedback, and scaffold instruction as necessary.  Whole-group or one-on-one instruction was also found to be effective, just not as effective as small-group instruction. 

Looking for more information on how to teach phonemic awareness? Check out this post where I share tips for teaching phonemic awareness and offer details about my year-long phonemic awareness curriculum for kindergarten and first-grade students.

I hope the information I have shared today helps you better understand phonemic awareness and why it is important for beginning readers.  I’d love to hear from you…. what phonemic awareness activities do you find your students need the most? Which are most engaging for them? Share your thoughts in the comment below!

-shop this post-

Shopping cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping