When we talk about foundations of literacy, three “PH” words often come to mind: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics. We see these terms when we view grade level reading standards, reading research, and built into reading lessons found in many core reading series. Both phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are oral and auditory, and the focus is on the sounds in words. Phonics, on the other hand, focuses on the letters that the sounds represent. Phonics involves print, phonological, and phonemic awareness do not. While phonological and phonemic awareness are both oral and auditory, there are differences between these two terms.
What is Phonological Awareness?
“Phonological awareness is the understanding of different ways that oral language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated.” (Chard and Dickson, 1999) Phonological awareness refers to the bigger “chunks” or “parts” of language. When we ask students to rhyme, blend small words to make a compound word, break words apart into syllables or onset-rime, we are working at the phonological awareness level. Phonological awareness can be thought of as a big umbrella with the bigger “chunks” of language being the top of the umbrella.
What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made of individual sounds called phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound we hear in a word. Phonemic awareness falls underneath the umbrella as a sub-category of phonological awareness. Rather than working with larger units of spoken language, we ask students to listen for the individual sounds or phonemes in a spoken word. When we ask students to blend or segment words into the smallest unit of sound they hear, we are working at the phonemic awareness level. For example, the four sounds /p//l//a//n/ can be blended to make the whole word plan.
How Does Phonemic Awareness Help Reading and Literacy Development?
In their book, “Know Better, Do Better”, David and Meredith Liben state “It is not an option to skip or shortchange phonemic awareness! Children without mastery of it will inevitably struggle.” While decades of research support this statement, phonemic awareness is still the most common reason students struggle with word reading. When educators consider phonemic awareness and phonics to be interchangeable terms, phonemic awareness is often left out of instruction and the focus shifts to print with phonics.
Failing to provide explicit phonemic awareness instruction leads to many students lacking the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds. Instead, they get the message that words are whole units that need to be visually memorized. While students learn language naturally by listening to speech and words, hearing individual sounds in words is not natural. We don’t speak in individual sounds, instead, our speech is co-articulated and we hear whole words in oral language. If we begin our literacy instruction by teaching letters and sounds, without phonemic awareness instruction, phonics does not make sense to students.
Phonemic awareness and phonics do work together when students learn to read and spell. Words are made up of sounds (phonemic awareness) and letters represent these sounds in print (phonics). Without the ability to hear sounds in words, phonemic awareness and phonics cannot engage in this reciprocal relationship. Researcher Wiley Blevins explains, “Phonemic awareness training provides the foundation on which phonics instruction is built. Thus, children need solid phonemic awareness training for phonics instruction to be effective.”
It is essential for students to understand that words are made up of individual sounds, and they can blend, segment, and manipulate those sounds. If students can do this work through the air, we can transfer these skills to print, so they can read and spell more words.
How Does Phonological Awareness Develop?
It is important to support and scaffold students through the continuum of phonological awareness to allow them to eventually hear and manipulate those individual sounds in words- the phonemic awareness level. The image of the ladder below shows the continuum of phonological awareness. When providing instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness, we begin at the phonological level. It is much easier to hear the bigger units of language versus the individual sounds in a word. For example, asking children to segment pencil into two-syllables, /pen/ /cil/, is an easier task when compared to segmenting the word pen into three individual sounds, /p/ /e/ /n/.
The largest unit of language is a word. Instruction in phonological awareness begins at the word level when children learn that compound words can be blended, segmented, and manipulated. For example, we can blend the small words class – room together to the compound word classroom. Or the opposite, we can segment compound words into two separate words. We can say the whole word and take it apart into two smaller words: raincoat, rain – coat. We can also substitute one small word in a compound word. Say sunshine, change shine to glasses and the word is sunglasses.
Once students can blend, segment, and manipulate compound words, we narrow the unit of language they hear and do the same work with syllables. For example, we blend the three syllables /cal – en – dar/, to say the whole word calendar. Students can segment a word into syllables: elbow can be segmented into /el/ – /bow/. We can substitute a syllable in a word to make a new word: reading; change /read/ to /talk/ and the word is talking.
We can narrow the unit of language again when we focus on the onset and rime. Onset-rime is breaking apart a syllable. The onset of a word is all the sounds that come before the vowel and the rime is the vowel and all the sounds after. Students blend the onset and rime into a whole word or segment a spoken word into the onset and rime.
For example, students can blend the onset /b/ and the rime /ig/ into the word /b-ig/, big. And if we were to segment the word flip, the onset would be /fl/ and the rime would be /ip/. Onset-rime is the last level of phonological awareness and teaches students to blend and segment two parts into a word. Developing a foundation of understanding in phonological awareness prepares students to hear individual sounds and develop phoneme awareness. The chart below shares examples of tasks and activities at the phonological awareness level
Phonological Awareness Activities
|Blending||class – room, classroom||/cal-en-dar/, calendar||/fl/-/ ip/, flip|
|Segment||raincoat, rain – coat||elbow, /el – bow/||box, /b/- /ox/|
|Add||sun + shine, sunshine||slow + est, slowest||-eak Add /sp/, speak|
|Delete||suitcase, without case is suit||reading without /ing/ is read||stand without /st/ is -and|
|Substitute||airport Change port to plane, airplane||winter
Change /win/ to /en/,enter
Change /sl/ to /fl/,flip
How Does Phonemic Awareness Develop?
When looking at the image of the ladder, the first three rungs on the ladder are phonological awareness and the top rung on the ladder is phonemic awareness. The focus is on hearing individual sounds in spoken words. While instruction begins with phonological awareness, our end goal is phonemic awareness. Students who are phonemically aware are not only able to hear the sounds in words, they are able to isolate the sounds, blend, segment and manipulate sounds in spoken words.
For example, segmenting the word pen into the sounds /p/ /e/ /n/ is an example of a phonemic awareness task. If students can segment the word, they can then spell the word. If they can blend those sounds, they can read the word. Additionally, if students can substitute the /p/ to a /h/, they can make a new word – hen. Phonemic awareness training provides students with the skills necessary to read and spell words when they see these sounds in print.
There are several skills included in phonemic awareness instruction and the chart below shares examples of skills and tasks at the phonemic awareness level.
Phonemic Awareness Activities
|Phoneme Isolation||Phoneme isolation is a skill where students hear and isolate a sound at the beginning of a word, middle of a word, and end of a word, often referred to as initial, medial, and final sounds.||The first sound in the word name is /n/.
The final sound in the word bark is /k/.The medial or vowel sound in the word cup is /u/.
|Blending (parts to whole)||Blending is a skill that directly correlates to phonic decoding. Students hear sounds spoken aloud and they blend the sounds to make a word. During instruction, the teacher provides the phonemes and the students blend the phonemes into a whole word.||/s/ /u/ /n/, sun
/b/ /r/ /ā/ /k/, break/p/ /r/ /i/ /s/, price
|Segment (whole to parts)||Segmenting is a skill that directly correlates to encoding or spelling. Students hear a whole word and they segment the word into all the individual sounds they hear. During instruction, a teacher would say a whole word and students segment the word into individual phonemes.||week, /w/ – /ē/ – /k/
fox, /f/- /o/ -/k/- /s/
swim, /s/ -/w/ -/i/-/m/
|Phoneme Manipulation: |
|Phoneme manipulation is practiced with adding a phoneme, deleting a phoneme, or substituting a phoneme in spoken words.||Adding an initial sound to make a word: Add /s/ to /-at/ and the word is sat|
Deleting an initial sound from a word: Say cup. Without /k/, what’s left is, /-up/.
Substituting an initial sound: The word is top. Change /t/ to /m/and the word is, mop.
How Do You Teach Phonological and Phonemic Awareness?
Considering the research and the role phonemic awareness plays in building the foundation of reading, it is clear we owe it to our students to do better. All students benefit from explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness. In most literacy curricula, the amount of time dedicated to phonemic awareness, and the way it is presented, is not effective enough to create phonemically proficient readers. Often just a few minutes are devoted to this instruction, with varying skills taught each day. If we are going to do better for students, our instruction in phonemic awareness needs to be intentional.
For our younger learners, we should begin instruction at the phonological awareness level (compound words, syllables, onset-rime) to allow students the opportunity to blend, segment, and manipulate parts of words first before we have them do that same work with phonemes. With older learners, or struggling readers, our goal is to get to the phoneme level as quickly as possible so they can transfer these skills to reading and spelling.
Phonological and phonemic awareness skills can be divided into 3 levels: early, basic, and advanced. In the past, many educators thought the basic skills of blending and segmenting were enough to create proficient readers as these skills directly corelate to decoding and encoding. However, we now know that providing phonemic awareness instruction to the advanced level is critical.
Phonemic awareness instruction is powerful, but it does not need to take long. Dr. Heggerty created quick, 10-12 minutes lessons to provide students with the practice and repetition they needed to reach phoneme proficiency. Our lessons include all 8 phonological and phonemic awareness skills beginning with compound words and working our way to the phoneme level. Teaching these skills each day will allow our children the repetition and practice they need to hear, blend, segment and manipulate sounds in words.
How Do You Assess Phonological and Phonemic Awareness?
We can assess students’ phonemic awareness in many ways. Universal screeners, such as DIBELS or Acadience, assess some skills and can be an indicator that we need to “dig deeper” or learn more about certain students. Other assessments include the PAST or our Heggerty Phonemic Awareness assessments which provide more information by assessing more skills.
Because phonemic awareness is oral and auditory, assessments are completed one-on-one and can be time consuming to administer. A quick and effective way to check in on students’ phonemic awareness is listening to their responses during instruction. You can rotate rows when students are sitting on the carpet and have a focus group each week. Once students know most of their letters and sounds, looking at their writing will show you what sounds they are hearing in words as they map those sounds to print. Similarly, listening to students sound out or decode words is a way to assess their ability to blend sounds into words
The Foundation for Literacy Development
In her blog post Of ‘Hard Words’ and Straw Men: Let’s Understand What Reading Science is Really About Louisa Moats notes that, “Perhaps the most critical and least-practiced component of effective early instruction is phoneme awareness. Awareness of the sounds that make up spoken words, facility at manipulating those sounds, and the links between speech and print must be mastered for students to be fluent readers and accurate spellers of an alphabetic writing system like ours.”
Both phonological and phonemic awareness focus on the sounds in language. We begin our instruction at the phonological level and narrow the unit of language until we can work at the phoneme level. focuses on teaching students to hear the specific sounds in words and is essential for literacy instruction.
It is important for students to be explicitly taught how to hear sounds in words to help them blend, segment, and manipulate those sounds. When a student has phoneme proficiency, they are able to transfer the oral and auditory skills to print to be able to read and spell words. Phonemic awareness is the necessary foundation for creating proficient readers and writers.
Liben, David & Liben, MeredithKnow Better, Do Better. LIteracy Solutions, 2019.
Blevins, Wiley. Phonics from A to Z. 2017
Moats, Louisa. Of ‘Hard Words’ and Straw Men: Let’s Understand What Reading Science is Really About, Oct 16, 2019