Phonemic and phonological awareness: What is the difference and why does it matter?

Phonemic and phonological awareness: What is the difference and why does it matter?

If you are unsure of the difference between phonemic and phonological awareness, you are not alone!  First, let me help you sort out the difference. AND once we sort out the difference between phonemic and phonological awareness, we will learn why phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are so important.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the big umbrella term that includes all levels of the awareness of speech sounds.  The reason I am starting with phonological awareness is that phonological awareness includes phonemic awareness. 

If you have phonological awareness you can identify, count, and manipulate the sounds in words.  Phonological awareness includes syllables, onset-rime, and individual phonemes.  

Phonological awareness involves the sounds of speech.   We are not looking at letters.  The first step is to realize that we can hear these parts in words.   

You are probably reading this blog because you are interested in teaching someone how to read. So you might be wondering why I would be discussing phonological and phonemic awareness. At first, it may not make sense that we are working on reading when we are listening for parts and sounds in words. In fact, this may be why it took so long for scientists to ask the right questions and research phonological awareness.  

In my experience, phonological awareness has been the key that unlocked success in reading for many students. They were struggling to learn how to read because they did not have phonological and phonemic awareness.     

Let’s look at the sequence of phonological awareness. There is a sequence to follow that will help students take small steps toward the complete understanding they need to learn to read well.

Phonological awareness is the big umbrella term that includes all levels of the awareness of speech sounds.
Phonological awareness is the big umbrella term that includes all levels of the awareness of speech sounds.

Early phonological awareness

Early phonological awareness includes syllables, alliteration, and onset-rime.  Let’s look at each one.

Syllables

First, we start with syllables.  Syllables are the largest parts of words and the easiest to hear.  Syllable tasks include being able to put syllables together and take words apart into their syllables.  Here is an example:

  • Teacher: tool-box, Put the parts together and say the word. Students: toolbox.  

The word “toolbox” is a compound word. Compound words are easier to blend together than multi-syllabic words so be sure to start with compound words. Then move to multi-syllabic words.

It is fun to challenge students by slowly increasing the space between saying the parts:  un—der—stand.  This is a blending task.  Students are putting the word together.  

Once students are proficient with blending words together, they can take words apart.  This is called segmenting.

  • Teacher: toolbox Students:  tool-box

Alliteration

Next is alliteration.  Alliteration tasks include being able to identify words that begin with the same sound or give examples of words that begin the same.  I might say two words and students can give a thumbs up if they start with the same sound. 

  • Teacher:  purple-pig.  Give me a thumbs up if they start with the same sound.  (Then we giggle about a purple pig!  I MAY have done that on purpose!)

I can increase the difficulty by saying three words. 

  • Teacher: chair-chin-log.  Which two words start with the same sound?
  • Students: chair-chin.

I can increase the difficulty again by saying one word.

  • Teacher:  octopus.  Say another word that starts like “octopus“.
  • Students: on

Onset-rime

The final category in early phonological awareness is onset-rime. The onset in a word is the part up to, but not including the first vowel.  The rest of the word, starting with the vowel, is the rime.  

Like the other tasks, we can blend or segment with onset and rime.  If students are blending:

  • Teacher: /t/ /-ime/. After I say /t/ /-ime/, the students put the parts together.
  • Students:  time

Next, they can do the segmenting themselves. 

  • Teacher:  big. After I say big, they tell me the onset and rime
  • Students:  /b/ /-ig/.  

The students I’m working with are now able to do words like smart:  /sm/ /-art/!  AND smart is exactly how they should feel when they learn to hear the parts in words.

Basic phonological awareness

Basic phonological awareness is where phonemic awareness begins.  This is because we are saying and manipulating individual phonemes, or sounds, in words. They are the smallest units of sound in speech. Basic phonological awareness includes phoneme blending and phoneme segmentation.  Let’s look at each one.

Phoneme Blending

Here is an example of a phoneme blending task:

  • Teacher:  /r/ /e/ /d/ What’s the word?
  • Students:  red

Again, phonemes are the smallest units of sound.  Blending tasks are tasks where students are putting sounds together.

Phoneme Segmentation

Here is an example of a phoneme segmentation task:

  • Teacher:  red. Now say all of the sounds in red.
  • Students: /r/-/e/-/d/.  

Segmentation tasks are tasks where students are taking sounds apart.  It is the opposite of blending. Because segmentation tasks are typically more difficult than blending tasks, be sure to model them explicitly.

Advanced Phonological Awareness

Phoneme deletion, substitution, and reversal are advanced phonological awareness skills.  This just might be where the magic happens!  Dr. David Kilpatrick advocates for phonological training to the advanced levels.  I would highly recommend his book Equipped for Reading Success for more information.  He says that students cannot stop at blending and segmenting in words. Students need to get to mastery at the advanced levels.

Let’s look at each of these phonological awareness tasks.  

Deletion

Here are some examples of phoneme deletion: 

  • Teacher: Say arch Now say arch without /ch/
  • Students: are
  • Teacher: Say sneeze  Now say sneeze without /s/
  • Students: knees
  • Teacher: Say brake Now way brake without /r/
  • Students: bake

Substitution

Here are some examples of phoneme substitution: 

  • Teacher: Say pool  Now say pool, instead of /p/ say /t/
  • Students: tool
  • Teacher: Say hat Now say hat, instead of /a/ say /o/
  • Students: hot
  • Teacher: Say fly Now say fly, instead of /l/ say /r/
  • Students: fry

Reversal

Here is an example of phoneme reversal:

  • Teacher: Say cab Now say cab backwards
  • Students: back
Phonological awareness can be broken down into early, basic, and advanced.
Phonological awareness can be broken down into early, basic, and advanced.

Phonemic Awareness

Awareness of the individual sounds in speech and the ability to manipulate those sounds is called phonemic awareness. It is the subcategory of phonological awareness we are working to achieve with students that will unlock the insight known as the alphabetic principle. 

The alphabetic principle is the insight that our language uses specific graphemes (letters and letter combinations) to represent those individual sounds that we can hear. 

Phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual sounds in speech and the ability to manipulate those sounds.
Phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual sounds in speech and the ability to manipulate those sounds.

Phonemic Awareness versus Phonics

As stated before, phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual sounds in speech and the ability to manipulate those sounds. Phonics is a way of teaching reading and spelling that capitalizes on the correspondences between the sounds we say and the letters and letter combinations used to write those sounds. 

Phonics makes more sense to us as readers when we have phonemic awareness. After all, humans learned to speak way before they figured out a way to write down what they were saying.

Reading instruction made so much more sense to me when I began studying the work of Dr. Louisa Moats. If you are interested in an in-depth and technical discussion of this, I would highly recommend her book Speech to Print: Language Essential for Teachers

If we approach reading and spelling instruction from a speech to print process it makes so much more sense to students! English is an alphabetic language.  The letters and spellings in words are far more predictable than we have been led to believe.  AND we can teach it all in a way that helps students learn to read and learn to read well.  

How to Assess Phonemic Awareness

You may be wondering how to assess phonemic awareness. It can be as simple as giving a student 5 words from one of the above tasks. If the student can do four out of the five tasks correctly within three seconds, they are proficient and you can move on to the next task. 

There are many published phonemic awareness assessments as well. You can find the PAST Assessment here. I use the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Curriculum. The assessment that goes with the Heggerty Curriculum can be found here. The core curriculum or intervention materials you use may have their own assessments. 

Why Does it Matter?

A knowledgeable teacher knows and understands the differences among all of this language jargon. It can help us better teach with the materials we have and we can spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the teaching materials we use. 

It matters because our students need phonemic and phonological awareness in order to learn to read and write well and they need a knowledgeable teacher to teach them.  Reading isn’t natural.  Most of our students need to be taught how to read.  We need to teach them.  

Want to know more? 

If you would like to read more about the topics in this post I highly suggest: 

Equipped for Reading Success:  A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for Developing Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition by David A. Kilpatrick

AND

Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers by Louisa Cook Moats Ed.D.

I do not receive any compensation from the sale of these books.  I am just recommending them! 

Share the Joy of the Science of Reading

Share the joy of teaching and learning to read!  If you like this post, share it with a friend.  Find more beginning reading resources, early literacy resources, and information throughout my blog and website. I am on a mission to help as many students learn to read as I possibly can.  The best way to do this is to help as many parents and educators that teach reading as possible. I only post teaching and learning information that is research-proven.  I fully support and believe in the Science of Reading.

Are you interested in knowing more about how to blog yourself? Do what I do and work with Kayse Morris! Check out her advice: 7 Helpful Tips on How to Blog Like a Boss

Can’t get enough fabulous literacy info? You might also enjoy:

The Wonderous World of the Decoding of Words

7 Amazing Activities for Phoneme Segmentation in First Grade

Interactive Read-Alouds…..What They Are, How To Use Them & Why They Are So Important!

Dr. Jenelle Strecker
Dr. Jenelle Strecker, The Purple Reading Teacher

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Dr. Jenelle Strecker

Hi, I'm Jenelle!

I help K-3 teachers teach with the science of reading so that all of their students learn to read.

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