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Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness and Phonics: What You Need to Know

By Ginny Osewalt

Source Understood org

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 letters.

·       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, they’re not the same thing. Here’s 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 isn’t based on written language—kids develop phonological awareness by listening. When kids have this set of skills, they’re able to hear and “play” with the sounds of spoken language. It’s 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). She’ll also be able to recognize and come up with words that rhyme or that have the same beginning sound.

You can sharpen your child’s early skills by reading certain types of children’s 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. That’s 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, she’s 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 Orton–Gillingham, considered the gold standard for helping kids with reading issues.)

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 msound as in milk.

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

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.

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