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Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness

and Phonics: What You Need to Know

At a Glance
Phonics, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are related but not
the same.
Phonics instruction teaches the connection between word sounds and written
Phonological awareness is a broad term that includes phonemic awareness.

Phonics, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are all part of early reading.
But people often confuse them. While these terms are related, theyre not the same
thing. Heres a closer look at what they are and how they work together to get kids
ready to read.

Phonological Awareness
Phonological awareness covers many skills. (One of them is phonemic awareness.) It
isnt based on written languagekids develop phonological awareness by listening.
When kids have this set of skills, theyre able to hear and play with the sounds of
spoken language. Its the foundation for learning to read.

Early phonological awareness happens at the level of words and syllables. You know
your child has it if she can clap out each word in a sentence or march to each syllable in
her name (E-li-za-beth). Shell also be able to recognize and come up with words that
rhyme or that have the same beginning sound.

You can sharpen your childs early skills by reading certain types of childrens books to
her. The books that help the most emphasize rhyme, alliteration (using similar
consonants), repeated phrases and predictable patterns.

Once kids have a strong awareness of how spoken language works at the level of
words and syllables, they can begin to focus on the smaller units of sound. Thats
known as phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is usually the last of the phonological awareness skills to develop.
When kids have this skill, they can hear and play with the smallest units of sounds
(phonemes) in words and syllables.

The two most important phonemic awareness skills are segmenting and blending.
Segmenting is breaking a word apart into its individual sounds. Blending is saying a
word after each of its sounds are heard.
If your child can segment, she is able to say f-i-sh after hearing the word fish. If she can
blend, shes able to say the word fish after hearing the individual sounds f-i-sh.

Kids need those skills to learn the connection between word sounds and written letters
or words. Many kids who are at risk for reading issues or who have a reading disability
have poor phonemic awareness. A good phonics teaching program can help.

Phonics instruction teaches kids to connect letters with sounds, break words into
sounds, and blend sounds into words. Kids use this knowledge to become readers and
writers. Schools typically teach these skills from kindergarten through second grade.

The most effective phonics programs are very structured. They follow a clear, step-by-
step order of instruction. They also use multiple senses to help kids learn. For example,
kids might use their fingers to write a letter in shaving cream while saying the sound
associated with that letter. (This multisensory structured approach is used in programs
based on OrtonGillingham, considered the gold standard for helping kids with reading

Good phonics lessons begin with a review of previously taught sounds. Then a new
sound is introduced. Students are told, for example, that the letter m stands for
the m sound as in milk.

Blending, sounding out and spelling activities using that new sound come next. Being
able to decode text with previously learned soundsplus the new soundfollow these

Phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics build on one another.

There are ways you can help your young child develop these skills before she even gets
to grade school.

If your grade school child has trouble with these early reading skills, you may want to
consider having her evaluated. Understanding her issues with reading will allow you to
get the best support possible.
Why Phonological Awareness Is Important for
Reading and Spelling
By: Louisa Moats, Carol Tolman

Phonological awareness is critical for learning to read any alphabetic writing system. And
research shows that difficulty with phoneme awareness and other phonological skills is a
predictor of poor reading and spelling development.

The phonological processor usually works unconsciously when we listen and speak. It is designed
to extract the meaning of what is said, not to notice the speech sounds in the words. It is
designed to do its job automatically in the service of efficient communication. But reading and
spelling require a level of metalinguistic speech that is not natural or easily acquired.

On the other hand, phonological skill is not strongly related to intelligence. Some very intelligent
people have limitations of linguistic awareness, especially at the phonological level. Take heart. If
you find phonological tasks challenging, you are competent in many other ways!

This fact is well proven: Phonological awareness is critical for learning to read any alphabetic
writing system (Ehri, 2004; Rath, 2001; Troia, 2004). Phonological awareness is even important
for reading other kinds of writing systems, such as Chinese and Japanese. There are several
well-established lines of argument for the importance of phonological skills to reading and

Phoneme awareness is necessary for learning and using the alphabetic

English uses an alphabetic writing system in which the letters, singly and in combination,
represent single speech sounds. People who can take apart words into sounds, recognize their
identity, and put them together again have the foundation skill for using the alphabetic principle
(Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989; Troia, 2004). Without phoneme awareness, students
may be mystified by the print system and how it represents the spoken word.

Students who lack phoneme awareness may not even know what is meant by the term sound.
They can usually hear well and may even name the alphabet letters, but they have little or no
idea what letters represent. If asked to give the first sound in the word dog, they are likely to
say "Woof-woof!" Students must be able to identify /d/ in the words dog, dish, and mad and
separate the phoneme from others before they can understand what the letter d represents in
those words.
Phoneme awareness predicts later outcomes in reading and spelling
Phoneme awareness facilitates growth in printed word recognition. Even before a student learns
to read, we can predict with a high level of accuracy whether that student will be a good reader
or a poor reader by the end of third grade and beyond (Good, Simmons, and Kame'enui, 2001;
Torgesen, 1998, 2004). Prediction is possible with simple tests that measure awareness of
speech sounds in words, knowledge of letter names, knowledge of sound-symbol
correspondence, and vocabulary.

The majority of poor readers have relative difficulty with phoneme

awareness and other phonological skills
Research cited in Module 1 has repeatedly shown that poor readers as a group do relatively less
well on phoneme awareness tasks than on other cognitive tasks. In addition, at least 80 percent
of all poor readers are estimated to demonstrate a weakness in phonological awareness and/or
phonological memory. Readers with phonological processing weaknesses also tend to be the
poorest spellers (Cassar, Treiman, Moats, Pollo, & Kessler, 2005).

Instruction in phoneme awareness is beneficial for novice readers and

Instruction in speech-sound awareness reduces and alleviates reading and spelling difficulties
(Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998; Gillon, 2004; NICHD, 2000; Rath, 2001). Teaching
speech sounds explicitly and directly also accelerates learning of the alphabetic code. Therefore,
classroom instruction for beginning readers should include phoneme awareness activities.

Phonological awareness interacts with and facilitates the development

of vocabulary and word consciousness
This argument is made much less commonly than the first four points. Phonological awareness
and memory are involved in these activities of word learning:
Attending to unfamiliar words and comparing them with known words

Repeating and pronouncing words correctly

Remembering (encoding) words accurately so that they can be retrieved and used

Differentiating words that sound similar so their meanings can be contrasted

Moats, L, & Tolman, C (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and
Spelling (LETRS): The Speech Sounds of English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Phoneme Awareness
(Module 2). Boston: Sopris West.

For more information on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) visit
the Sopris West LETRS website.