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What Is Phonemic Awareness?

7 Min Read
WF1771200 What is Phonemic Awareness Hero

It’s fair to say that you wouldn’t try to write your own symphony before understanding musical notes and how they work together to create music. Similarly, when students are learning to read, they need to have a mastery of phonemic awareness—a crucial component of phonological awareness. In this article we will explain phonemic awareness and how it relates to phonological awareness.

Phonemic Awareness: Definition

The definition of phonemic awareness is the ability to perceive (hear) phonemes, the smallest unit of spoken language (individual speech sounds), within words; as well as the ability to manipulate, combine, delete, and replace phonemes within words.

Phonemic Awareness vs Phonological Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a component of phonological awareness, so it is helpful to define phonological awareness, too. Cunningham and Zibulsky define it as “the ability to perceive and manipulate sounds. Phonological awareness includes four levels of sound: word awareness, syllable awareness, onset-rime awareness, and phoneme awareness."

What Is the Phonological (Not Phonemic!) Awareness Umbrella?

The key skills to master phonological awareness can be illustrated by an umbrella. The umbrella concept is helpful to view how phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are linked. As illustrated below, you can see that phonemic awareness is under the umbrella of phonological awareness and is one of four distinct skills to develop:

  • Word: At the word level, students can understand rhyming words, alliteration, and sentence segmentation.
  • Syllable: At the syllable level, students can break up a word into three syllables and sound them out.
  • Onset and rime: At the onset and rime level, students recognize the sounds of the starting and ending parts in a word.
  • Phonemic awareness: At the phonemic awareness level, students understand that a word is made up of phonemes, or sounds. This is the most advanced skill under the umbrella.
Adapted from National Center on Improving Literacy

Phonological Awareness Continuum

Phonological awareness can be broken down into a continuum that has five levels that lead to understanding. Researchers David Chard and Shirley Dickson illustrated the levels as a continuum of complexity, which we recreated and adapted below. Phonemic awareness is the final level, and the most complex skill, and means a student can blend and segment individual phonemes.

Adapted from Chard & Dickson, 1999

What Are the 6 Levels of Phonemic Awareness Skills?

The five steps to the phonological awareness continuum of complexity are similar to the six levels of phonemic awareness skills. However, these six layers are skills needed to understand phonemic awareness and form the building blocks to listening comprehension.

According to Marilyn Adams, the six levels of phonemic awareness from simplest to most complex are:

  • Isolation: Say the sound at the beginning or end of a word.
  • Blending: Blend sounds together to say a word.
  • Segmenting: Break each word into parts.
  • Addition: Add sounds in words to say new words.
  • Deletion: Take sounds away from words to say new words.
  • Substitution: Change the sound in the word to say a new word.
Adapted from Marilyn Adams, 1990.

Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important in Early Literacy?

Phonemic awareness is important for early literacy because it’s a key step in understanding that printed words are connected to the sounds we are speaking. This understanding can start very early for children as they learn to speak, and it will continue to develop as students learn to read.

Phonemic awareness is an essential component to mastering the alphabetic principle, or the idea that letters and letter combinations represent the sounds of spoken language. This understanding is important for learning to read because it helps students recognize the relationship between written letters and the sounds they represent. This knowledge is crucial for being able to decode words and read fluently.

Phonemic awareness can help establish the alphabetic principle in a number of ways. It helps students notice and think about the individual sounds in spoken words, which can make it easier for them to understand that these sounds can be represented by specific letters or letter combinations.

Second, it can help students understand the relationships between different sounds and the letters that represent them.

Finally, phonemic awareness provides a strong foundation for the alphabetic principle because it helps students develop their ability to attend to and manipulate the sounds in spoken language. This ability is crucial for understanding how sounds are represented by letters and letter combinations in written words, and it can make it easier for students to learn to read effectively.

Is Rhyming Phonemic Awareness?

Rhyming and phonemic awareness are often linked together. They are both skills that fall under the phonological awareness umbrella. Students will recognize rhyming words, and soon they will understand that there are different phonemes in the words. Rhyming can help a student to play with their speech and sounds that will encourage them to manipulate the sounds—the key to developing phonological awareness.

Let your students have fun as you work with them to develop phonemic awareness! Rhyming songs, games, and activities are an engaging way to build on your students’ skillset. Try this activity from HMH Into Reading.

Phonological Awareness: Rhyme and Blending Syllables Activity

  • Say: Listen to the words. If the two words rhyme, give a thumbs up. If the words do not rhyme, give a thumbs down.
  • Say: I’ll do the first one: map, tap. Repeat: map, tap. Map and tap rhyme. I will give a thumbs up. Show a thumbs up.
  • Say: Let’s do one together. Ready? Go, yes. Repeat the words. (go, yes) Do go and yes rhyme? (no; thumbs down)
  • Say: Your turn. Say the words, have children repeat, and elicit a response: mop, top (mop, top; yes; thumbs up); bug, hat (bug, hat; no; thumbs down); cake, bake (cake, bake; yes; thumbs up).

Phonemic Awareness Examples for Instructional Use in the Classroom

Try these example lessons to incorporate strategies for teaching phonemic awareness in your classroom.

  • Develop phonemic awareness by identifying the sounds with the free activity below from Saxon Phonics & Spelling.
  • Try segmenting and isolating sounds with this activity. Identify the phonemes and have fun with words!
  • Try this blending activity to help students formulate words through the blending of sounds.

Phonemic awareness is an important skill that students must develop to have phonological awareness. It gives them the skills they need to develop reading comprehension. When students understand how sounds are related to words, they are on their way to becoming proficient readers!


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