Science of Reading

Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness

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WF1791680 hero teacher and students clapping

What Is the Difference between Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness?

Phonological and phonemic awareness are key aspects of emergent and beginning reading development and instruction. Their importance as foundational reading skills has been established in part through studies of the developing brains of young children as they begin their journeys toward conventional reading and writing. These brain-based studies are part of the science of reading research that has confirmed the critical importance of specific elements of reading that include:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension
  • Knowledge
  • Writing

While phonological awareness and phonemic awareness both have to do with sound, phonological awareness refers to a range of understandings about speech, and phonemic awareness is one of these understandings. They are both science of reading strategies that help students to progress toward fluency.

Definitions: Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, and Phonics

Phonological awareness includes the ability to pay attention to and think about speech at the sentence, word, and syllable levels. Phonemic awareness is the most advanced understanding under the umbrella of phonological awareness and is the ability to think about the individual phonemes, or sounds, that make up words. Phonics involves learning the relationships between these sounds and the letters that represent them.

Children’s phonological awareness develops from broader to narrower chunks of speech with an awareness of word-level features that include the following elements:

  • Rhyme: The same vowel and consonant sounds in two or more words, for example, meet/greet/beat
  • Syllable: A unit of speech that contains a vowel; a consonant or consonants may come before or after the vowel.
  • Alliteration: Repeating the same sound at the beginning of words, as in Big Bad Bob
  • Onset and Rime: Within single syllables, the onset is the initial consonant(s) sound, and the rime is the vowel and any following consonant sounds within a syllable. In the word bed, /b/ is the onset, and /ěd/ is the rime. In the word glide, /gl/ is the onset, and /īd/ is the rime.

These types of phonological awareness support the development of phonemic awareness, which refers to individual phonemes or sounds. For example, the word “stop” is made up of the four phonemes /s/, /t/, /ŏ/, and /p/.

Is Phonological Awareness the Same as Phonemic Awareness?

No, phonological awareness covers several types of understandings about sound, and phonemic awareness is only one of those understandings.

What Comes First: Phonological or Phonemic Awareness?

Several types of phonological awareness develop before phonemic awareness, which is the last type of phonological awareness to fully develop. This is because it makes more sense to children if they begin their analysis with meaningful whole words in speech and narrow their focus from there.

Why Are Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Important?

In order for children to learn to read, they must become aware of the relationships between oral and written language. Phonological awareness generally and phonemic awareness specifically support awareness of those critical relationships and the all-important understanding of the alphabetic principle—that letters represent sounds and are matched in a left-to-right sequence within printed words. In addition, phonemic awareness is a very good predictor of success in learning to read in the early grades and is predictive of skilled reading.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Skills

Young children’s understandings of the concepts underlying “sentence,” “word,” “sound,” and so forth are very different from their teachers’. For most young children, speech is a continuous stream of sound, and awareness of these successively smaller “chunks” must be developed with thoughtful and sustained instruction. Phonological and phonemic awareness are high-level skills, both with subskills that learners can develop and practice.

Phonological Awareness Skills

The phonological awareness skills that learners need to develop involve successively more fine-grained awareness of spoken sentences and words:

  • Recognize and produce rhyme
  • Count, pronounce, and blend syllables in a word
  • Identify the same beginning sound in several words
  • Blend and segment onsets and rimes

Phonemic Awareness Skills

The phonemic awareness skills that learners need to develop include the ability to:

  • Blend and segment—that is, isolate and pronounce—beginning, ending, and medial sounds within single-syllable spoken words.
  • Delete, substitute, and add sounds within single-syllable spoken words.

As we’ve emphasized, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness have to do with sound, not with print. Phonics has to do with learning and applying knowledge of the relation between sound and print. Researchers have found, however, that phonemic awareness training should be combined with learning about letters and letter names. This instruction, together with children’s exposure to simple connected text, helps develop the all-important concept of word in text that supports full phonemic awareness.

In addition, children should learn to write the letters as they are learning their sounds and use their developing knowledge of letter-sound correspondences in labeling drawings and writing simple messages and descriptions. This exercise and application of beginning sound-spelling understandings is a powerful facilitator of full phonemic awareness.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Activities

There are activities that students can do to develop and practice phonological awareness, and more specifically, phonemic awareness.

  • Attention to Syllables: Rhythm activities like marching, tapping, singing, clapping, and playing drums to the rhythm of songs and short poems help children establish syllable segmentation.
  • Rhyme: Follow up read-alouds with picture sorts for rhymes. For example, an extension to the book “I Can’t,” Said the Ant is matching pictures of objects named in the book with other rhyming pictures.
  • Beginning Sounds: Children’s attention to beginning sounds may be supported and developed by articulation videos showing a child’s mouth while pronouncing a sound.

Video Source: HMH Into Reading

  • Sound Walls: Provide support for articulation by displaying a sound wall in the classroom. In combination with mirrors for children to examine their own pronunciation, sound walls are powerful supports for giving detailed feedback and instruction on making specific sounds, for example, “When you make the sound of /ch/, do you notice how your lips purse and your tongue touches the top of your mouth just behind your teeth?”
  • Blending Sounds: Sequential blending of sounds, or phonemes, may be developed by the routine below:
Image source: HMH Into Reading
  • Segmenting Sounds: Segmenting of sounds, or phonemes, may be developed by the routine below:
Image source: HMH Into Reading

Effective phonological and phonemic awareness instruction should ensure that these foundational reading skills support and sustain the development of beginning reading and writing. These activities and examples are here to support children who are in the very early stages of learning to read. While it is always important to tailor them to your specific students, we hope you find these a helpful starting point in your classroom.

Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness Examples

Here is an example of the phonological and phonemic awareness possibilities for the word bug:

Phonological Awareness

Phonemic Awareness

Syllable: 1 syllable - bug

Rhymes with: tug, dug, rug

Onset - rime: b-ug

Alliteration: big bad bug

Phoneme identification: Made up of 3 sounds: /b/ - /ŭ/ - /g/

Phoneme deletion and substitution (initial): Take away /b/ and replace with /t/: tug

Phoneme deletion and substitution (final): Take away /g/ and replace with /b/: tub

Phoneme addition: Add /s/ to tub: stub

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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