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Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

You may have heard of the terms phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics and wondered, what is the difference between phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics? It can be so easy to get them mixed up. Especially as the terms phonemic and phonological awareness are used interchangeably and do have a lot of similarities.

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This blog post is going to explore what is the main differences between these three concepts. I am going to talk about which of these three things should be taught first with your students to help with planning how to teach phonics step by step.

If you would like to learn more about teaching your students or children how to read you can visit my YouTube channel Crayon Lane Teach.. I’ll also link some useful blog posts: How to Teach Middle Sounds and Ready to Read?. I have a free phonological awareness pack that includes a range of activities and resources to help you figure out where your child is with their phonological awareness.

If you would prefer to watch and listen about this topic, you can watch the video below!

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness looks at a child’s ability to focus on and manipulate specific sounds in spoken words.

Phonemic awareness includes 7 skills, these are:

  • Includes phonological awareness (more about this later!)

  • Isolation of sounds – This is picking out the beginning or ending sound in a word.

  • Blending sounds – Putting individual sounds together to make a word.

  • Segmentation - Breaking words up into sounds.

  • Deletion of sounds – Taking sounds in a word away. For example, think of the word “cat”, take away the “c” to leave you with “at”.

  • Addition of sounds – So the opposite of the above. Think of the word “at” then add on the “c” to the beginning to make the word “cat”.

  • Substitution of sounds – Can you switch the “c” at the beginning of the word “cat” to a “b”? What word does that make?

All these skills can be easily practised through verbal activities for phonemic awareness. You can easily adapt the examples I’ve given above into easy games for your kids which can be used as informal assessments for phonemic awareness too!

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is a broader set of skills and includes identifying and manipulating sounds.

Phonological awareness includes the following skills:

  • Counting syllables – A great way to introduce this to your kids is to ask them to clap the syllables in their name. I always model this first, so they know what to do. Once they know how to clap and count the syllables in their name you can have a lot of fun giving your children a range of words for them to count the number of syllables. My kids love being given really long words with lots of syllables! My free Phonological Awareness pack includes a syllables counting activity too!

  • Recognising and producing rhyme – T his can be done through songs, nursery rhymes and story books. After they have been introduced to rhyme your kids can practise their rhyming skills through lots of rhyming activities. These include activities such as, match the rhyming word, think of words that rhyme with… and circle the rhyming words. These CVC Words Flip Books also allows your students to create their own mini books to help them learn about rhyme too!

  • Segmenting beginning and end sounds – This skill can be practised verbally very easily! You just give your student a word and ask them to say the beginning and ending sound. You can also do this by showing your student a picture and asking them to say the word. Once they say the word ask your student to tell you the beginning and ending sound.

  • Identifying alliteration – This is another phonological awareness skill that can be practised verbally. Give your students a sound and ask them to come up with different things beginning with that sound. To make this more challenging you can give them a theme. So for example, can you think of animals that all begin with “d”? Using songs and stories makes learning about alliteration even more fun.

  • Blending sounds – This can be practised by verbally giving your children sounds to blend together. For example, can you blend “m”, “a” and “t”? What word does that make? My kids love to do this activity with me if we ever have a spare few minutes before we head for lunch or home time!

  • Discriminating sounds – You can give your child a word and ask them to tell you the beginning, middle or ending sound. I would use CVC words at first, such as man, cup etc, to do this before moving onto to more advanced words with a long vowel in the middle such as the word train, snail etc. Your kids can practise identifying beginning and ending sounds with my free Phonological Awareness pack.

  • Segmenting sentences – You can ask your children to break a sentence up into words. This can be done verbally, and you can ask your students to pick out the word at the beginning or end of the sentence. You can also ask your students to identify the word after or before another word in the sentence.

What is phonics?

Phonics is the relationship between sounds and spoken language and letters that represent the written language. Phonics is made up of 44 different phonemes which is the smallest unit of sound in a word. Then you have digraphs which are two letters which make one sound. Examples of these would be “ch”, “sh” or “ai”. There is also a trigraph which is 3 letters that make one sound. An example of a trigraph would be the sound “igh”. When learning about phonics you may have also heard the word “grapheme” and be wondering what that is too! A grapheme is what we call a letter or group of letters we use to represent a unit of sound.

Does phonemic awareness come before phonics?

So now we have answered your question “What is the main difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness?” you now may be wondering “what order do I teach these in and where does phonics come into it all?” It would be ideal to have a good understanding of phonemic awareness and phonological awareness before looking at phonics, however you can teach both at the same time. Before children can use phonics knowledge to decode or encode written words, they need to first understand that words are made up of individual sounds.

Phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics are similar and form the basis of learning to read. They all complement each other however there is an ideal order to teach them in. You should focus on phonemic and phonological awareness before moving onto phonics. Teaching in this order will make phonics and therefore learning to decode and encode much easier for your kids (and you!).

If you would like to learn more about teaching your students or children how to read, you can visit my YouTube channel, Crayon Lane Teach. I’ll also link some useful blog posts: How to Teach Middle Sounds and Ready to Read?. I have a free Phonological Awareness pack that includes a range of activities for phonemic awareness to help you figure out if your child is ready to learn how to read.

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