Teachers often use the terms phonological awareness and phonemic awareness interchangeably. However, there are some distinct differences between the two. Kids need to have a good sense of both phonological and phonemic awareness to help them become competent readers.
When teaching kids the fundamentals of reading, it’s important to understand the distinction. These skills lay the groundwork for phonics skills in prereaders.
Phonological vs Phonemic Awareness: Similar, But Not the Same
While the two terms are often confused, there is a difference between phonological and phonemic awareness. However, the two skills do have a close relationship with one another.
What Is Phonological Awareness?
Phonological awareness is one of the earliest steps kids take on the path to reading. It’s the ability to hear and understand the sounds in words and sentences.
Continuum of Phonological Awareness
Phonological awareness occurs along a continuum. Kids start with larger chunks of sound and eventually progress until they can discern the smallest units of sound in a word.
Kids start by being able to separate words, then syllables, then onset-rime, and finally phonemes.
The earliest form of phonological awareness is being able to separate words. Kids understand that each word in a spoken sentence is a separate entity. During this stage, words exist as one sound.
Kids are next able to pick out individual words in a compound word. For example, if they hear the word “doghouse,” they are able to hear two sounds – “dog” and “house.”
Syllables are unbroken chunks of sound within a word. Syllables have a vowel sound and sometimes a consonant sound or sounds. For example, the word “bubble” has two syllables.
bub / ble
Each syllable has a vowel.
The word “every” has three syllables.
ev / er/ y
Kids will be able to recognize that “every” has three syllables, but not know exactly how to segment it. The Y acts as a vowel in this word because it makes the long E sound. This is a phonics skill that kids likely aren’t exposed to in preschool or early kindergarten.
By the time kids are five, they are usually able to segment words by syllable. It’s important for learning to read because it’s an effective way to break up words in order to sound them out using phonics. They will become more fluent readers.
3. Onset and Rime
Onset and rime are the two components that make up a syllable. The onset is the first sound you hear. It’s a consonant, like B., or a consonant blend, like BL. The rime is the rest of the syllable, made up of a vowel and any other consonants.
People often think that onset and rime are the first sound of a word and then the rest of the word. While this is true for one-syllable words, it isn’t true for words with two or more syllables. Those words will have multiple onsets and rimes.
Not all words have an onset. Many words that begin with a vowel, like “end” only have a rime.
Distinguishing between onset and rime is a critical reading skill. Many rimes make up word families – a group of words/syllables that end in the same rime.
The rime -at is a common word family and one of the first that kids learn. Once kids learn to read a certain rime/word family, they can usually read all the words in that family.
For example, once a kid can read cat, they can quickly learn to read bat, hat, mat, etc. They can read these words with automaticity and no longer have to sound them out.
Phonemes are the final and most sophisticated step on the phonological awareness continuum. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. Once students can discern phonemes, they will have an easier time understanding phonics and sounding out words.
Related: How to Teach Vowel Teams
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and recognize individual units of sound in a word. For example, in the word cat, a child with phonemic awareness would be able to hear all three sounds.
There are 44 phonemes in English. There are more than 26 phonemes because many letters make different sounds depending on how they’re used in a word.
Phonemic Awareness Is a Component of Phonological Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the final step in the phonological awareness continuum. Recognizing phonemes is part of a child’s phonological awareness.
The two terms are closely linked but have different meanings. It’s important that teachers recognize the difference between the two. Kids need to understand all aspects of phonological awareness and phonemic awareness should never be rushed through.
Why Is Phonological Awareness Important to Reading?
Kids start to gain phonological awareness as early as two years old when they begin to separate and recognize individual words. While it may not seem important, it’s actually an early reading skill.
Kids are developing an understanding of how words and language work. It’s a vital skill that helps them move into more complicated skills. As the continuum mentioned earlier shows, kids get closer to being able to decode words as they move along the continuum.
Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important to Reading?
Phonemic awareness is critical to future reading success. Phonics is the connection of letters and sounds. Kids must first be able to distinguish and recognize the individual sounds, or phonemes, in a word.
As students learn their letters and the sound each makes, they will start to make the connection between the letters, their sounds, and the sounds in a word. They can begin sounding out words and reading!
What Role Does Phonics Play?
Phonics is a separate skill from phonological and phonemic awareness, although the three are intertwined. Phonics involves the written word and making a connection between letters and sounds. All of the skills along the phonological awareness continuum are learned through speaking and listening.
How to Teach – Auditory and Oral
Kids can begin practicing phonological awareness skills as early as two. You can sing songs, recite rhymes, and make up silly words. These activities lay the foundation.
As kids get older, teaching becomes more explicit. Students are taught to
- Listen for compound words
- Clap out and count syllables
- Separate onset and rime
- Pick out each phoneme in a word
Phonological work is always done through oral and auditory instruction and practice. Students shouldn’t be writing, reading, or even looking at words.
Teachers often make the mistake of zooming through phonological awareness to get to phonics skills. They may feel pressured to get kids reading as quickly as possible. However, laying a strong foundation in phonological awareness makes reading much easier down the line.
Ideally, kids are taken through the early phonological awareness skills in preschool. By the time they’re in kindergarten, they’re developing phonemic awareness and can begin learning phonics.
With older struggling readers, teachers often work on phonological awareness and phonics at the same time to get them reading sooner.
Strategies for Teaching Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Kids need frequent exposure and practice in recognizing and manipulating words and sounds. Below are some teaching strategies that you can employ in the classroom or at home. Remember, all strategies should be done auditorily and orally.
While these strategies may seem simple, they’re quite effective at helping kids develop their skills.
Give Opportunities to Manipulate Words
Manipulating words means taking words apart, putting them back together, and creating new words. Students can manipulate words at each level of phonological awareness.
1. Word Manipulation – Students can say or hear compound words. They will then split them by saying the two words individually.
2. Syllable Manipulation – Students speak words slowly, clapping out each syllable.
3. Onset-Rime Manipulation – Students will say a word, stopping between the onset and the rime. Once separating the onset and rime, students will use the rime to come up with rhyming words.
4. Phoneme Manipulation – Students will need to spend the most time manipulating phonemes. There are several ways that kids can work with phonemes and they should learn to do each.
- Blending: Combining phonemes to make a word
Putting the sounds /h/ /a/ /t/ together to say “hat”
- Segmenting: Separating a word into its phonemes
Taking the spoken word “hat” apart into its sounds /h/ /a/ /t/
- Adding: Add a phoneme to a word
Adding /s/ to the end of “hat” to make “hats”
- Deleting: Remove a phoneme from a word
Removing /h/ from “hat” to make “at”
- Substitution: Removing a phoneme from a word and replacing it with another
Substituting /h/ with /m/ to make “mat”
Read Rhyming Books Aloud
Rhyming books are great for helping kids learn onset-rime and other basic phonological skills. Dr. Seuss’s books are excellent in developing these skills as they feature lots of wordplays.
Slow-Motion Guessing Game
Take turns saying words slowly, emphasizing each sound as you go. The other person will have to guess the word by saying it at normal speed.
his game does involve some visual learning as well but still doesn’t require kids to use written words. You’ll use picture cards of words that rhyme. Kids will find the matching sets and put them into word families.
You can make the game more complex by playing the game like traditional memory with the cards face down.
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Builds Strong Readers
Phonological awareness helps kids understand the sounds in the English language and how those sounds are used in words.
Phonemic awareness is an important component of phonological awareness. It’s the final step kids need to take before making the link between letters and sounds.
When educators spend a significant amount of time developing these skills, they lay the foundation to help kids become readers. While it may seem like a waste of time, these skills make some of the more complex reading skills develop more quickly.