First Year Teacher Self-Study Course

First Year Teacher is a self-paced professional development course for novice K-3 teachers, developed by Reading Rockets. The program provides teachers with an in-depth knowledge of reading so they are prepared to guide their students into becoming skilled and enthusiastic readers.

Photo of teacher and students

Phonemic Awareness: In Depth

Although phonemic awareness is a widely used term in reading, it is often misunderstood. One misunderstanding is that phonemic awareness and phonics are the same thing. Phonemic awareness is not phonics. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words. Phonics is the understanding that there is a relationship between letters and sounds through written language. If children are to benefit from phonics instruction, they need phonemic awareness.

The reason is obvious: children who cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words will have a difficult time learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words.

Another misunderstanding about phonemic awareness is that it means the same as phonological awareness. The two names are not interchangeable.

Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness. The focus of phonemic awareness is narrow — phonemic awareness focuses on identifying and manipulating the individual sounds in words.

The focus of phonological awareness is much broader. It includes identifying and manipulating larger parts of spoken language, such as words, syllables, and onsets and rimes — as well as phonemes. It also encompasses awareness of other aspects of sound, such as rhyming, alliteration, and intonation.

Phonemic awareness is:

  • The ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds — phonemes — in spoken words.

Phonemic awareness is important because:

  • It improves children's word reading and reading comprehension.
  • It helps children learn to spell.

Phonemic awareness can be taught and learned

Effective phonemic awareness instruction teaches children to notice, think about, and work with (manipulate) sounds in spoken language. Teachers use many activities to build phonemic awareness, including:

Phoneme isolation

Children recognize individual sounds in a word.

Teacher: What is the first sound in van?
Children: The first sound in van is /v/.

Phoneme identity

Children recognize the same sounds in different words.

Teacher: What sound is the same in fix, fall, and fun?
Children: The first sound, /f/, is the same.

Phoneme categorization

Children recognize the word in a set of three or four words that has the "odd" sound.

Teacher: Which word doesn't belong? bus, bun, rug.
Children: Rug does not belong. It doesn't begin with /b/.

Phoneme blending

Children listen to a sequence of separately spoken phonemes, and then combine the phonemes to form a word. Then they write and read the word.

Teacher: What word is /b/ /i/ /g/? Children: /b/ /i/ /g/ is big.
Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in big: /b/, write b; /i/, write i; /g/, write g.
Teacher: (Writes big on the board.) Now we're going to read the word big.

Phoneme segmentation

Children break a word into its separate sounds, saying each sound as they tap out or count it. Then they write and read the word.

Teacher: How many sounds are in grab? Children: /g/ /r/ /a/ /b/. Four sounds.
Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in grab: /g/, write ; /r/, write r; /a/, write a; /b/, write b.
Teacher: (Writes grab on the board.) Now we're going to read the word grab.

Phoneme deletion

Children recognize the word that remains when a phoneme is removed from another word.

Teacher:: What is smile without the /s/?
Children: Smile without the /s/ is mile.

Phoneme addition

Children make a new word by adding a phoneme to an existing word.

Teacher: What word do you have if you add /s/ to the beginning of park?
Children: Spark.

Phoneme substitution

Children substitute one phoneme for another to make a new word.

Teacher: The word is bug. Change /g/ to /n/. What's the new word?
Children: Bun.

Adapted from: Put Reading First:: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read, 2001)

Helping Struggling Readers

The Lab School in Washington, D.C. shows how one-on-one tutoring helps struggling readers achieve phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness: In Depth

Learn More!

Diary of a First Year Teacher

Diary of a First Year Teacher

Join Barbara Zielinski, a first grade teacher at River Plaza Elementary School in Middletown, NJ, during her first year teaching.

"A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket." — Chinese Proverb