Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness

Part 2 of the Science of Reading Simplified Series

In this second installment of the Science of Reading Simplified blog series from Savvas Insights and Dr. Sharon Vaughn, we answer those questions and show what teaching these two critical reading skills looks like in the classroom. Plus, we’ll provide teacher tips, top three elements administrators should look for in phonological and phonemic awareness instruction, and more.

Savvas Insights Team

What is phonemic awareness? Children learn the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.

What Is Phonological Awareness? What Is Phonemic Awareness? What’s the Difference?

Studies show that 90 percent of children with significant reading challenges have a core deficit in phonological processing. And Science of Reading research tells us that phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are critical skills for young learners to develop in order to be successful readers. Yet these two similar-sounding terms are often confused by educators. Throw in sometimes overly complicated definitions, and it can make it difficult for teachers to fully understand the two concepts — and then teach them in effective and engaging ways.

The Science of Reading Simplified Savvas author and literacy expert Sharon Vaughn believes that a better understanding of how these skills play a role in a student’s reading development not only helps teachers of reading with their instruction, it will lead to less reliance on worksheets and more enjoyment for both teachers and students. By putting the fun into phonological awareness, learning becomes more memorable and meaningful.

“Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness activities are some of the most fun you can have in the classroom,” Sharon said. “It doesn’t only have to be about getting out a piece of paper and drawing sound boxes. Bring it to life!”

What Is Phonological Awareness and How Is It Different from Phonemic Awareness?

In their early years, sometimes before they even set foot into a classroom, children start developing phonological awareness, that is, they become more and more aware of how spoken language works. This phonological awareness is a critical stepping stone to learning how written words work and, eventually, learning to read.

5 Levels of Phonological Awareness

There are five levels of phonological awareness. These levels start simple and become more complex as children develop the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds (or phonemes) in words. The five levels of phonological awareness are word awareness, rhyme and alliteration awareness, syllable awareness, onset and rime awareness, and phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the last and most sophisticated level of phonological awareness, and is crucial to learning to read. Phonemic awareness helps students map the sounds of language to letters and thus to reading words.

What Is Onset and Rime?
Onset and rime are two parts of a word. The onset is the first consonant sound, blend, or digraph in a single syllable word or syllable. The rime is the first vowel sound followed by all the other sounds (og in dog, each in teach).

“The ultimate goal is to read for understanding. But if we don’t take time to build phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, it will take longer to get there,” said Sharon. “Building a house without a foundation is not very stable, and doesn’t last. So we want to make sure we have this foundation well established.”

What Does Phonemic Awareness Instruction Look Like?

Phonemic awareness is the most challenging and valuable step in developing a student's phonological awareness and contributes to their acquisition of the critical reading skill, phonics. So, it’s important for educators to spend time ensuring that students develop this skill through explicit instruction. There are six fundamental elements of phonemic awareness that, once students are able to master, will lead to that strong foundation for learning to read. These elements include phoneme isolation, segmenting, blending, manipulating, deletion and replacement, and addition. Here are what those six elements can look like in the classroom. (Italics represent a teacher speaking to students.):

Phonemic Awareness in the Classroom

  • Phoneme Isolation: Say the word road. What is the first sound in the word road? Students respond: /r/. What is the last sound in the word road? Students respond: /d/.
  • Segmenting: Say the word man. Now, break up, or segment, the sounds in that word and what do you get? Students respond: /m/ /a/ /n/.
  • Blending: Say the following sounds /c/ /a/ /t/. Put those sounds together, or blend them, and what do you get? Students respond by saying the word cat.
  • Manipulating: Say the word dog. Now, take away the /o/ sound and replace it with the /i/ sound. What do you get? Students respond by saying the word dig.
  • Deletion and Replacement: Say the word came. Now, take the /c/ sound away and what do you get? You get ame. Now, put a /t/ sound in front of ame and what do you get? Students respond by saying the word tame.
  • Addition: Say the word pot. Now, let’s put an /s/ sound in front of it. What do we get? Students respond by saying the word spot.

Start with easy words, then increase the difficulty as you go on. For example, start with three- or four-letter words like dog or came, but then eventually move on to more complex words like berry. Make it engaging by making silly words and playing with sounds. Increase the difficulty until eventually they can start to recognize the relationship between the sounds of spoken words to words they see in print.

“You move from easy to more difficult. Then, you move to print. Then, you move right into phonics and it’s all so beautiful,” said Sharon. “And the kids are so happy because it’s so much fun to play with language.”

Put Phonological Awareness Into Practice

Now that we’ve learned all about phonological awareness and phonemic awareness and why they’re such an important part of learning to read, here are some activities, reminders, and suggestions for educators to consider while planning instruction.

  • For Teachers

    Put the Fun into Phonemic Awareness!
    Sharon believes that you can have a lot of fun in the classroom with phonemic awareness. Here are some ideas she’s offered that you can start using with your students right away.

    • Hide the Sounds Take a word like cat and say it to your students. Tell them you’re going to take the /c/ sound and put it behind your ear. Ask: What do you have left? Students respond: at. Reach into your pocket and pull out the /m/ sound. Ask students to put the /m/ sound in front of at and ask: What do we get? Students respond: mat! This phonemic awareness skill is called deletion and replacement.
    • Line Up! Have your students line up by sounds. For example, when it’s time to line up in the classroom, you say: If your name starts with the sound /a/ you can line up. Then those students take their place in line. Then, you can say: If your name starts with the sound /p/ you can line up. And so on. This phonological awareness skill is called phoneme isolation.
    • Turn Students into Sounds
      Assign a sound to each student and make words from the sounds. Then call them up by their sounds to make a word. For example, call the student with the /t/ sound, then the student with the /i/ sound, and then the student with the /p/ sound. Have them stand together to make the word tip. This phonemic awareness skill is called blending.

    You can pretend to swallow words or throw sounds on the ceiling, and before you know it, your students know all about phonological and phonemic awareness.

    Quick Reminders!
    When you’re teaching phonological awareness, make sure you can answer yes to these questions:

    • Have I made my instruction multisensory?
    • Am I checking for understanding?
    • Am I providing students with additional practice opportunities?
  • For Sharing with Families

    Engaging Phonological Awareness Activities
    Here are a few activities K-2 teachers can share with students’ families that will help extend learning beyond the classroom in a fun way.

    • Say or listen to nursery rhymes. Point out words that rhyme.
    • Play "I Spy" using the prompt "I spy something that starts with the sound..."
    • Play hopscotch. Have children say a sentence and hop one time for each word.
    • Make up silly sentences that include words with the same beginning sound.
    • At dinner, have children name the food items on their plate and use silverware to tap the number of syllables.

    Explain to parents and caregivers that, with their help at home, their children will have what they need to be successful and confident readers.

  • For Administrators

    Top 3 Look-Fors
    When researching effective resources for early reading instruction, administrators should make sure it has the following three key elements to ensure success for your young students:

    • Instruction should be explicit. It should include direct and focused routines that break down broader ideas into smaller, more manageable units that students can use to build a solid foundation for more complex ideas.
    • Instruction should be multisensory. It should engage all of the students’ senses. It should give students opportunities to write letters, speak the sounds, and see or even touch letters and words.
    • Instruction should be systematic. Look for a systematic scope and sequence and make sure that the skills build on each other.

About The Author

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.

Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research initiatives (Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education) investigating effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.