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kindergarten teacher helping students make the sounds in words

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: Introduction

Learn the definitions of phonological awareness and phonemic awareness — and how these pre-reading listening skills relate to phonics.

Certificate of Completion

After completing this module and successfully answering the post-test questions, you’ll be able to download a certificate of completion.

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness: what’s the difference?

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words. Examples include being able to identify words that rhyme, recognizing alliteration, segmenting a sentence into words, identifying the syllables in a word, and blending and segmenting onset-rimes. The most sophisticated — and last to develop — is called phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. This includes blending sounds into words, segmenting words into sounds, and deleting and playing with the sounds in spoken words.

Phonological awareness (PA) involves a continuum of skills that develop over time and that are crucial for reading and spelling success, because they are central to learning to decode and spell printed words. Phonological awareness is especially important at the earliest stages of reading development — in pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade for typical readers.

Explicit teaching of phonological awareness in these early years can eliminate future reading problems for many students. However, struggling decoders of any age can work on phonological awareness, especially if they evidence problems in blending or segmenting phonemes.

How does phonics fit in?

Phonics refers to knowledge of letter sounds and the ability to apply that knowledge in decoding unfamiliar printed words. Whereas phonological awareness refers to an awareness of the sounds in spoken words, as well as the ability to manipulate those sounds.

Phonological awareness refers to oral language and phonics refers to print. 

Both of these skills are very important and tend to interact in reading development, but they are distinct skills; children can have weaknesses in one of them but not the other.

For example, a child who knows letter sounds but cannot blend the sounds to form the whole word has a phonological awareness (specifically, a phonemic awareness) problem. Conversely, a child who can orally blend sounds with ease but mixes up vowel letter sounds, reading pit for pet and set for sit, has a phonics problem.

44 phonemes

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet that make up 44 speech sounds, or phonemes.

Letters vs. phonemes

Dr. Louisa Moats explains to a kindergarten teacher why it is critical to differentiate between the letters and sounds within a word when teaching children to read and write.