What is Phonemic Awareness?

To start, phonology is a segment of linguistics that focuses on the study of speech sounds and patterns. In other words, its focus is on the study of sounds in a particular language.

Phonological awareness is the understanding that our spoken language is made up of words and that our words are made up of individual units of sounds called phonemes. Phonological awareness encompasses many skills such as word recognition, rhyming, syllables, and phonemic awareness. All of these are acquired by listening and manipulating words or sounds.

Without phonemic proficiency, studies have shown that students will struggle to master other components to reading as they continue their education.

Although these skills can be worked on simultaneously, phonemic awareness is typically the last of the phonological awareness skills that students master. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of individual sound units called phonemes, and that those sounds have distinct articulatory features. We use articulators to shape the airstream when forming sounds. Articulators include the tongue, teeth, lips, alveolar ridge (ridge behind your teeth), hard palate, and soft palate. Here is a basic example of phonemes in a word:

The word ‘cat’ has three phonemes: k/a/t

The word ‘boat’’ has three phonemes: b/ō/t

The word ‘dough’ has only two phonemes: d/ō

Understanding that these phonemes exist and that the articulators (mouth, tongue, teeth, etc.) are all doing something different to form these sounds is vital in allowing a student to connect these different sounds to the letters that represent them. Since the emphasis is on oral language, students do not need to know the alphabet before developing their phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness can be difficult for some students to grasp. Unless explicitly taught, it can be challenging to hear individual sounds within words or individual words within a sentence. The reason?

No. of Letters in Alphabet: 26

No. of Phonemes: ~44

No. of Ways to Spell Phonemes: ~250

The English language is certainly complex, but there are consistencies that we can teach our students. Phonemic awareness is a critical skill in this process and should be taught and assessed early in a child’s life.

The skill should especially be focused on in Pre-K through 2nd grade. Studies have shown that children with high phonemic awareness at the beginning of 1st grade showed uniformly high reading and spelling achievement at the end of the year.

Strategies that help grow your students’ phonemic awareness include finger tapping, blending strips, tokens and Elkonin boxes, and identifying the beginning and ending sounds in a word.

Specific skills that should be developed include:

One thing to note, however, is that phonemic awareness is often falsely equated with phonics skills.

What is Phonics?

In its most basic form, phonics is the relationship between letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes).

For most reading this, that relationship might seem like second nature to you. The truth is there are millions of people across the world that were never taught how a combination of letters can be blended together to produce a word.

Some might have memorized all the words they needed, while others continue to struggle with reading and writing.

What is important to remember about phonics is the fact that the alphabet lies at the core of any phonics program. A student must know the letter(s) of the alphabet that corresponds with certain sounds.

As we know in phonics, sounds can often be represented by multiple letters. For example, the words more, for, door, and oar all end with the same sound but are all represented by a different spelling.

The goal of phonics instruction is to help children grasp the idea that there is a logical, predictable, and organized relationship between the letters in the alphabet and spoken sounds.

Children learning letter-sound relationships

The most effective phonics programs incorporate direct instruction that is structured, systematic (have a clear step-by-step order of instruction), and incorporate multi-sensory elements. What’s also important is keeping children engaged by incorporating phonics games and activities.

By teaching your students phonics in a systematic, explicit, and structured way, they can begin to sound out and decode new words.

Synthetic Phonics vs. Analytic Phonics

It is a question that has come up more in recent years. Traditionally and historically, children have been taught using analytic phonics in which they analyze specific parts of a word.

There is an emphasis placed on the initial sound of a word (/t/ in ‘top’), onset, rime, and word families. Children are taught to recognize larger chunks of a word, rather than the individual sounds or phonemes.

Children are also taught to take clues from the recognition of the whole word and the context.

On the other hand, synthetic phonics emphasizes hearing and identifying each phoneme in the word. This approach could be more helpful for early learners as it allows educators to simplify their instruction and tackle phonics on a smaller, more consistent scale.

One important note for educators is that this approach requires you to pronounce the phonemes as correctly as possible.

You would be surprised by some of the bad habits we display when speaking to our children on a day-to-day basis. We take shortcuts around words and sentences, so be mindful of this when you are teaching your lessons.


In short, phonemic awareness focuses only on the sounds of a word while phonics focuses on the relationship of sounds and letters.

In other words, it will be very difficult for your students to develop their phonics skills if they don’t have a good foundation in phonological and phonemic awareness.

IMSE believes that all children should be able to read. To achieve this end, IMSE wants to bring Orton-Gillingham to all educators to give children the best literacy instruction possible.

Learn more about what you can do to improve literacy for all using the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education’s Orton-Gillingham training.

Please connect with us on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest to get tips and tricks from your peers and us. Read the IMSE Journal to hear success stories from other schools and districts, and be sure to read the OG Weekly email series for refreshers and tips.