Phonemic Awareness or Phonological?

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The terms “phonological awareness” and “phonemic awareness” are often confused with one another. Yes, they sound the same and they both involve the spoken parts of language. However, they are not only distinct, but you may be surprised to learn when and how you should teach each of them.

Difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness

Important Terms to Understand:

Phonemes are the individual sounds in spoken words. When you see the symbol // with a letter in between the slashes, this represents the sound of the letter.

Phonological awareness is a more general term. It is having an awareness to larger parts of spoken words, such as syllables or word endings like -at in cat. Having the ability to recognize rhymes and count syllables are two examples of having phonological awareness. Phonological awareness does NOT INVOLVE PRINT! 

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. Specifically, it is understanding that words are made up of smaller parts. These parts can be broken down into individual sounds. I think of phonological awareness as the umbrella and phonemic awareness is underneath it.

Phonological awareness umbrella
Phonological Awareness Umbrella

Phonological Awareness or Phonemic Awareness?

There is a hierarchy of phonological awareness skills. Preschool students should practice skills such as rhyming, alliteration, and syllables. These build a strong foundation for learning.

But, once students reach Kindergarten and first grade, instruction should shift to phonemic awareness. Research tells us that while broader phonological awareness skills (such as syllables and rhyming) are important, a student does not have to master those to reach phonemic proficiency. Many programs spend too much time on the awareness/sensitivity to the larger speech segments and not enough time on the smaller speech sounds.

What Does This Mean For Your Instruction?

Growing research evidence tells us that kindergarten and first grade teachers should focus more on explicit, systematic instruction of PHONEMIC AWARENESS rather than PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS. Phonemic awareness should be a goal for kindergarten students. It is the phoneme-level awareness that directly supports learning to read and spell.

Phonemic awareness sequence: These skills work on a continuum of simple to complex (with isolating being the simplest and manipulating being the most difficult).

  1. Isolate– The first step in phonemic awareness is recognizing that words can be broken down into their individual sounds (phonemes).  Students must be then be able to isolate sounds. You should directly teach them how to identify the first sound, then the last sound, and then the medial sounds.
  2. Blend– Next, students should blend sounds together. Start with fewer phonemes and work up to blending more phonemes. For example, it will be easier for a student to blend together /a/ /t/ than to blend together /s/ /t/ /o/ /m/ /p/.
  3. Segment– Students will then work on breaking apart sounds in a word. A simple example is segmenting the spoken word it into /i/ /t/. A more complex example would be segmenting a word with blends such as grand into /g/ /r/ /a/ /n/ /d/.
  4. Manipulate- The most difficult phonemic skill involves manipulating a phoneme in some way. An example would be, “Say hand. Now say it again, but instead of /h/ say /l/.” The student would respond with land.


As you explicitly teach these phonemic awareness skills, you should ALSO directly teach the letter-sound correspondences needed for word reading. Phonemic awareness is not a goal in an of itself. It is a crucial set of skills needed for reading fluency. Students must understand that printed letters represent the spoken sounds in words. Just as phonemic awareness skills grow in complexity, so should the phonics components associated with them.

Word reading and phonemic awareness skills should work in tandem. They will likely have a fluid relationship as students master one skill or another. For example, as students learn to isolate and blend sounds, then they should practice blending together letters to form words. Start with blending two sounds and then blend together two letters. Once that the skill of blending two phonemes or graphemes together is secure, move to blending three phonemes together.

David Kilpatrick's Sequence for Orthographic Mapping
David Kilpatrick’s Sequence of skills for Orthographic Mapping

How Do I Start Phonemic Awareness Instruction?

  • Pre-assessments are key to isolating deficits and for tracking a student’s progress. Choose an assessment like David Kilpatrick’s free PAST assessment that also includes progress monitoring tools.
  • For small group instruction, group students together by their level of mastery of phonemic awareness skills.
  • Follow a systematic sequence to help you plan your instruction.
  • Rethink some student reading errors and invented spellings. Do you have a student who struggles to blend together words with consonant blends (four sounds)? Then integrate PA activities of blending three sounds together. Do you have a student who writes a word and does not represent one of the speech sounds with a letter? Then work on PA skills of isolating and manipulating the sounds within words.
  • Use explicit phonemic awareness instruction and activities. Check out one of my other blog posts here for examples of many PA activities.
  • Pair your PA instruction with systematic phonics instruction.

Starting in Kindergarten, teachers should directly teach phoneme awareness and letter knowledge. Higher level phonemic awareness skills should continue to be taught in 1st grade and beyond. These skills are most effective when part of a rich literacy environment that encourages students to read, write, and comprehend text.

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