When it comes to teaching reading, phonics is definitely one of the most important aspects. But what’s the difference between phonics, phonemic awareness, and phonological awareness? And what do each of these terms mean for your students? This guide will break it all down for you!
What Is Phonological Awareness?
Phonological awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate sounds in spoken language. It’s a broad category that includes phonemic awareness (more about that later).
Phonological awareness focuses on sounds and not written letters. Phonological awareness is the base for all other reading skills.
Phonological awareness skills include:
- identifying words in a sentence
- identifying and generating rhymes
- Splitting and combing the onset and rime
- Splitting and blending syllables
As you can see, it involves working with sounds at the syllable, onset, rime, and phoneme levels.
Manipulating sounds is part of both phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Specifically, this means:
- Blending sounds
- Segmenting sounds
- Adding sounds
- Deleting sounds
- Substituting sounds
Examples of phonological awareness activities
Note that when a letter is between slashes (i.e. /b/), it refers to the sound and not the letter name.
Here are a few examples of phonological awareness activities:
- Counting words in a sentence: How many words do you hear in “The cat is sleeping?” – 4 words
- Rhyming: Find a word that rhymes with tab – cab, lab, dab, gab, etc.
- Match the same beginning sound: Say a word and ask students what other words begin with the same sound (emphasis on sound, not letter!)
- Blend the onset and rime: Say the onset and rime of a word and ask students to put them together /b/ /at/ – bat
- Divide the onset and rime: Say a word and ask students to divide it into 2 parts. Say dip – d – ip
- Delete the final syllable from a compound word: Say cupcake. Now say cupcake but don’t say cake – cup
- Substitute the onset from a word: Say bat, but instead of /b/ say /f/ – fat
Notice how none of these activities require writing or looking at letters. It’s all sound based and oral. Students simply listen and respond.
The task cards pictured below include phonological and phonemic awareness activities. It starts off with easier phonological awareness tasks and progresses to more advanced phonemic awareness tasks.
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is part of phonological awareness.
Phonemic awareness refers to the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual sounds (phonemes), and the ability to hear and manipulate those sounds.
There are 44 phonemes in the English language, meaning 44 different sounds. Even though we have 28 letters, these letters on their own and along with others make the 44 sounds.
These 44 phonemes are represented by graphemes, or letters that represent one sound.
Examples of phonemes include:
- Consonant sounds
- Consonant digraphs like /th/ and /ch/
- Vowel sounds
Phonemic awareness skills include:
- segmenting sounds in a word
- blending individual sounds together
- deleting individual sounds
- substituting individual sounds
Examples of phonemic awareness activities
Below are a few examples of phonemic awareness activities. Like phonological awareness, phonemic awareness skills also only deals with sounds and there is no writing or looking at letters. You can find many more phonemic awareness activities here.
- Segment 3 phonemes: Say a word with 3 sounds. Ask students to separate the sounds and hold up a finger for each sound as you say it.
- Blend 4 phonemes: Say a word with 4 sounds, sound by sound very slowly. Ask students to say the word back aloud.
- Delete the final sound in a word: Say send. Now say send but don’t say /d/ – sen
- Substitute the medial vowel in a word: Say net. Now say net but instead of /e/ say /o/ – not
Phonological Awareness vs Phonemic Awareness – What’s the difference?
If you didn’t notice, the difference between phonological awareness activities and phonemic awareness activities is that with phonemic awareness you’re only working with sounds at the phoneme level.
Let’s use blending sounds as an example. A phonological awareness activity would be blending 2 syllables together (sim/ple = simple). A phonemic awareness activity would be blending 3 phonemes together (/g/ /a/ /p/ = gap). This is also a phonological awareness activity because it’s working with sounds.
One thing they have in common is that both phonological awareness and phonemic awareness focus on sounds we hear and not the letters we see. Both are listening and speaking activities that don’t require looking at any letters. All of these activities can be done with your eyes closed.
Phonics is where phonological awareness and phonemic awareness come together with writing and looking at letters. Phonics is specifically matching phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (letters that represent a sound).
Phonics focuses on matching letters and graphemes to specific sounds and is done using written letters.
What’s the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness?
Phonics activities look like phonological awareness and phonemic awareness activities but they are done looking at the letters while performing the task.
For example, when blending, students are looking at a word, letter cards, or using magnetic letters. For segmenting, students are separating magnetic letters or flashcards, or writing letters in Elkonin boxes.
Why is phonological awareness important for reading success?
Now you can see that students must already be familiar with phonological awareness skills to be successful readers, well before they start working on phonics. Phonics is where we learn to read and having strong phonological awareness is key.
That’s why phonological awareness is such an important area to start working on with young students. If a student already knows how to blend from doing phonological awareness activities, when they come across a new word, they can use those same skills to decode and blend the word to read it. This is phonics.
In fact, phonological awareness is one of the strongest predictors of reading success. Research shows that children who have difficulty identifying the phoneme in a word struggle to decode words. Students need to be able to hear, segment, and blend sounds to learn how to read using phonics.
Bottom line: phonological awareness and phonemic awareness skills increase a child’s ability to read new words accurately.
Resources to help you get started
This set of 124 phonological and phonemic awareness activities is a great way to add these skills to your daily lessons without any extra planning or prep. Simply print out one set for yourself, and use the daily tasks for a few minutes each day. Learn more here.
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Strategies and Activities – Read this post to learn more about different ways to add phonological and phonemic awareness activities to your literacy lessons.
Check out my phonological and phonemic awareness resources below.
Reading Rockets: Why Phonological Awareness Is Important for Reading and Spelling
Reading Rockets: The Development of Phonological Skills
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