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ABCs of Phonemic Awareness

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

ABCs of Phonemic Awareness

With little or no direct instruction, almost all young children develop the ability to understand spoken language. While most kindergarten children have mastered the complexities of speech, they do not know that spoken language is made up of discrete words, which are made up of syllables, which themselves are made up of the smallest units of sound, called “phonemes.” This awareness that spoken language is made up of discrete sounds appears to be a crucial factor in children learning to read.

This article discusses the concept of the awareness that spoken language is made up of discrete sounds, why this concept is so important to early childhood educators, its relation to the debate on the best type of reading instruction, and finally, teaching methods that may help children in developing such an awareness.

What is phonological/phonemic awareness?

Stanovich (1993-94) defines “phonological awareness” as the ability to deal explicitly and segmentally with sound units smaller than the syllable. He also notes that researchers “argue intensely” about the meaning of the term and about the nature of the tasks used to measure it. Harris and Hodges (1995) present a brief essay on phonemic awareness. Another oft-cited source (Adams, 1990) uses “phonemic awareness” almost exclusively.

Phonological awareness sometimes refers to an awareness that words consist of syllables, “onsets and rimes,” and phonemes, and so can be considered as a broader notion than phonemic awareness.

Each term is widely used and perhaps (if incorrectly) used interchangeably.

Adams (1990) describes five levels of phonemic awareness in terms of abilities:

  1. to hear rhymes and alliteration as measured by knowledge of nursery rhymes
  2. to do oddity tasks (comparing and contrasting the sounds of words for rhyme and alliteration)
  3. to blend and split syllables
  4. to perform phonemic segmentation (such as counting out the number of phonemes in a word)
  5. to perform phoneme manipulation tasks (such as adding, deleting a particular phoneme and regenerating a word from the remainder).

Why is it so important?

Educators are always looking for valid and reliable predictors of educational achievement. One reason why educators are so interested in phonemic awareness is that research indicates that it is the best predictor of the ease of early reading acquisition (Stanovich, 1993-94), better even than IQ, vocabulary, and listening comprehension.

Phonological awareness is not only correlated with learning to read, but research indicates a stronger statement is true: phonological awareness appears to play a causal role in reading acquisition. Phonological awareness is a foundational ability underlying the learning of spelling-sound correspondences (Stanovich, 1993-94).

Although phonological awareness appears to be a necessary condition for learning to read (children who do not develop phonological awareness do not go on to learn how to read), it is not a sufficient condition. Adams (1990) reviews the research that suggests that it is critical for children to be able to link phoneme awareness to a knowledge of letters.

Once beginning readers have some awareness of phonemes and their corresponding graphic representations, research has indicated that further reading instruction heightens their awareness of language, assisting then in developing the later stages of phonemic awareness mentioned above. Phonemic awareness is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of learning to read (Yopp, 1992).

Instruments to test for a child’s phonemic awareness tend to be short, easy to administer, reliable, and valid. Stanovich also provides a quick (7-minute) and easy-to-administer phonological awareness test in an article in which he discusses his career as a researcher. Yopp (1995) presents a similarly brief assessment instrument and offers detailed evidence for its validity and reliability.

Teaching methods

Research indicates that phonological awareness can be taught and that students who increased their awareness of phonemes facilitated their subsequent reading acquisition (Lundberg et al, 1988). Teachers need to be aware of instructional activities that can help their students become aware of phonemes before they receive formal reading instruction, and they need to realize that phonemic awareness will become more sophisticated as students’ reading skills develop.

The following recommendations for instruction in phonemic awareness are derived from Spector (1995):

  • At the preschool level, engage children in activities that direct their attention to the sounds in words, such as rhyming and alliteration games.
  • Teach students to segment and blend.
  • Combine training in segmentation and blending with instruction in letter-sound relationships.
  • Teach segmentation and blending as complementary processes.
  • Systematically sequence examples when teaching segmentation and blending.
  • Teach for transfer to novel tasks and contexts.

Yopp (1992) offers the following general recommendations for phonemic awareness activities:

  • Keep a sense of playfulness and fun, avoid drill and rote memorization.
  • Use group settings that encourage interaction among children.
  • Encourage children’s curiosity about language and their experimentation with it.
  • Allow for and be prepared for individual differences.
  • Make sure the tone of the activity is not evaluative but rather fun and informal.

Spending a few minutes daily engaging preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade children in oral activities that emphasize the sounds of language may go a long way in helping them become successful readers and learners.

This technique is recommended by research

Phonological Awareness has been recommended as a practice with solid research evidence of effectiveness for individuals with Learning Disabilities by Council for Exceptional Children-the Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD) and the Division for Research (DR). To learn more, please read Current Practice Alert: Phonological Awareness (opens in a new window).

If you have students in your classroom who are English Language Learners, pay special attention to the section titled “What Questions Remain.”


Excerpted from Sensenbaugh, R. (June, 1996). Phonemic Awareness: An Important Early Step in Learning to Read. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication.