Debunking Phonological Awareness Myths

Savvas Insights Team


The Science of Reading tells us that phonological awareness is a crucial foundational reading skill that supports students in becoming successful readers. The good news is that there's an increased focus on phonological awareness in today's schools. The bad news is that increased awareness often comes with increased misconceptions. In this blog, we're going to tackle some of the most common misconceptions about phonological awareness and provide straightforward answers about what the research really says.

Misinformation and Misconceptions

The Science of Reading isn’t a new idea, but it has recently gained significant traction in the media as more and more districts and schools across the country have adopted educational policies that mandate reading instruction informed by the Science of Reading. Due to its popularity, there is a lot of information out there about it.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of misinformation out there about it.

Misconceptions about the Science of Reading can arise due to various factors such as access to limited or outdated information, or the oversimplification of research and its practical applications. Differing levels of educator prior knowledge and a lack of adequate training in teacher preparation programs can also lead to misconceptions. Only 25 percent of teacher preparation programs provide instruction in all the critical elements of evidence-based reading instruction, and phonemic awareness receives the least attention across all programs, according to a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

While misconceptions often occur unintentionally, they are important to debunk because the Science of Reading is being used to shape both teaching methods and policies. It is crucial to confront the misinformation in order to support teachers with effective educational practices and ensure students have equitable access to evidence-based instruction.

Throughout this blog series, we’ll dive into a variety of misconceptions about the Science of Reading in the critical areas of instruction – phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension – debunk common myths and shed light on some of the latest research. In this first post in the series, we’ll explore misconceptions about phonological awareness.

Misconception #1: Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness are Interchangeable

Phonological awareness, the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of spoken language, is a critical skill in literacy development. However, there are several misconceptions surrounding this fundamental skill that can impact how it is taught and understood.

One of the first, most basic misconceptions is that phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are one and the same and the terms can be used interchangeably. While the two terms are related, they are not synonymous, and understanding the distinction between the two is critical for developing effective literacy practices.

Phonological awareness is a broader umbrella term that encompasses various skills related to the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of spoken language. It includes skills such as recognizing rhymes, segmenting words into syllables, and identifying the onset and rime of words. Essentially, phonological awareness involves an individual’s sensitivity to the sound structure of language, regardless of whether those sounds are individual phonemes or larger units of sounds.

This is an image of an umbrella showing that phonological awareness is an umbrella term that includes multiple skills including phonemic awareness.

On the other hand, phonemic awareness is a specific sub-skill of phonological awareness that focuses exclusively on the ability to identify and manipulate phonemes — the smallest units of sound.

By recognizing that phonemic awareness is just one component of phonological awareness, educators can design more targeted and effective instruction to meet student needs. While both skill sets are vital for literacy development, phonemic awareness has been identified as a particularly strong predictor of reading success.

Recognizing this misconception and understanding that phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are not the same ensures that educators are equipped with the knowledge and terminology to effectively teach and communicate about literacy instruction and assessment.

Misconception #2: Phonemic Awareness Should Be “In the Dark”

Another common misconception present in literacy education is the belief that phonemic awareness should be taught in isolation, without any reference to letters or written language, sometimes referred to as “in the dark.” This misconception may stem from the idea that phonemic awareness is specifically an auditory skill and is viewed as a prerequisite for introducing letters.

Contrary to this misconception, however, is research that suggests integrating graphemes (letters or letter combinations) as visuals into phonemic awareness instruction can enhance early reading acquisition. Graphemes are visual representations of sounds in written language and they provide children with a concrete connection between spoken and written words, whereas phonemes are distinct units of sounds in words.

Even students who have yet to master all of their letters and sounds benefit from phonemic awareness instruction with graphemes, as the skills can build upon and reinforce one another. By incorporating graphemes into phonemic awareness activities, teachers can more efficiently build student decoding and encoding skills.

Letter cards like the ones in this image can be used to increase effectiveness of phonemic awareness instruction

Isn’t phonemic awareness with graphemes just phonics?

While both involve the relationship between letters and sounds, they focus on different aspects of the relationship and serve different purposes. The purpose of phonemic awareness with graphemes emphasizes the simultaneous recognition and manipulation of sounds and letters, while phonics instruction focuses on teaching students to apply their knowledge of sound-symbol correspondences to decode (read) and encode words (spell).

Phonemic awareness instruction without graphemes overlooks the fact that these instructional practices are a means to an end — phonemic awareness in and of itself is not the ultimate goal, proficient reading is. Dispelling this misconception ensures that educators leverage the power of graphemes to support students’ phonemic awareness and provide more valuable opportunities to build early reading skills.

Misconception #3: Phonemic Awareness Mastery Precedes Phonics

Furthermore, there is a misconception that phonemic awareness and phonics exist in silos, to be taught sequentially, but in fact they are interrelated components of literacy instruction that complement each other. While phonemic awareness lays the foundation for phonics instruction by helping students develop an awareness of the sounds spoken in language, it is not a prerequisite that must be mastered before introducing phonics concepts.

Puzzle pieces showing that phonemic awareness and phonics work together.

Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction can occur simultaneously and interactively, with each informing and reinforcing the other. In fact, research suggests that explicit and connected instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, used concurrently, can lead to more significant gains.

The misconception that phonemic awareness should be taught as an isolated prerequisite skill, to be mastered before beginning phonics instruction overlooks the complementary nature of these skills. Additionally, waiting until a child has mastered phonemic awareness to introduce graphemes can unnecessarily delay their reading development. Instead, these skills should work together and inform each other as part of a reciprocal relationship — both intended to reinforce the other and help develop a proficient reader.

Download the free guide

50 Fun Phonological Awareness Activities


Misconception #4: All Phonological Awareness Skills Are Equally Important

Not all phonological awareness skills are equally important or have the same level of influence on literacy outcomes. These skills exist on a continuum, with certain skills serving as foundational blocks for more advanced skills.

Image shows steps that gradually increase and represent the five levels of phonological awareness.

At the foundational level are skills such as rhyming, onset and rime, and syllable awareness, which involve recognizing and manipulating larger units of sound. While these skills are valuable for developing phonological sensitivity, research suggests that they have a relatively weaker correlation with reading achievement compared to phonemic awareness. These foundational phonological skills have the most powerful influence at the preschool level and early pre-reading skills.

In contrast, phonemic awareness, a subset of phonological awareness, is widely recognized as a critical predictor of early word reading success — with segmenting and blending phonemes being the strongest predictors of all phonological awareness skills.

Accurate Knowledge Helps Us Better Supports Students

Addressing misconceptions surrounding phonological awareness is critical for ensuring effective foundational literacy instruction. By clarifying these misunderstandings we can pave the way for the implementation of best practices in the classroom and arm teachers with accurate knowledge to better support students in developing literacy skills. Dispelling phonological awareness misconceptions can advance the broader conversation about evidence-based literacy practices and contribute to the effort to improve reading proficiency for all students.

Keep an eye out for the next entry in this blog series, where we'll be debunking misconceptions about phonics. To make sure you don't miss out on the latest from Savvas, sign up for our Science of Reading newsletter.