What is Phonemic Awareness and how to develop it?

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning. Separating the spoken word “cat” into three distinct phonemes, /k/, /æ/, and /t/, requires phonemic awareness.

The National Reading Panel has found that phonemic awareness improves children’s word reading and reading comprehension, as well as helping children learn to spell.  Phonemic awareness is the basis for learning phonics.

Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are often confused since they are interdependent. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate individual phonemes. Phonological awareness includes this ability, but it also includes the ability to hear and manipulate larger units of sound, such as onsets and rimes and syllables.

Studies by Vickie Snider have shown that phonemic awareness has a direct correlation with students’ ability to read as they get older. Phonemic awareness builds a foundation for students to understand the rules of the English language. This in turn allows each student to apply these skills and increase his or her oral reading fluency and understanding of the text.

How to Develop Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness relates to the ability to distinguish and manipulate individual sounds, such as /f/, /ʊ/, and /t/ in the case of foot. The following are common phonemic awareness skills practiced with students:

  • Phoneme isolation: which requires recognizing the individual sounds in words, for example, “Tell me the first sound you hear in the word paste” (/p/).
  • Phoneme identity: which requires recognizing the common sound in different words, for example, “Tell me the sound that is the same in bike, boy and bell” (/b/).
  • Phoneme substitution: in which one can turn a word (such as “cat”) into another (such as “hat”) by substituting one phoneme (such as /h/) for another (/k/). Phoneme substitution can take place for initial sounds (cat-hat), middle sounds (cat-cut) or ending sounds (cat-can).
  • Oral segmenting: The teacher says a word, for example, “ball,” and students say the individual sounds, /b/, /ɑ/, and /l/.
  • Oral blending: The teacher says each sound, for example, “/b/, /ɑ/, /l/” and students respond with the word, “ball.”
  • Sound deletion: The teacher says word, for example, “bill,” has students repeat it, and then instructs students to repeat the word without a sound.
  • Onset-rime manipulation: which requires isolation, identification, segmentation, blending, or deletion of onsets (the single consonant or blend that precedes the vowel and following consonants), for example, j-ump, st-op, str-ong.

For example, the teacher might say, now say bill without the /b/.” Students should respond with /ɪl/. There are other phonemic awareness activities, such as sound substitution, where students are instructed to replace one sound with another, sound addition, where students add sounds to words, and sound switching, where students manipulate the order of the phonemes. These are more complex but research supports the use of the three listed above, particularly oral segmenting and oral blending.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness tasks (adapted from Virginia Department of Education (1998): and Gillon (2004)

Listening skills

The ability to attend to and distinguish environmental and speech sounds from one another

  • Alertness: Awareness and localization of sounds
  • Discrimination: Recognize same/different sounds
  • Memory: Recall of sounds and sound patterns
  • Sequencing: Identify order of what was heard
  • Figure-ground: Isolate one sound from background of other sounds
  • Perception: Comprehension of sounds heard
Syllable-structure awareness tasks
  • Syllable segmentation: e.g., “How many syllables (or parts) are in the word alligator?”
  • Syllable completion: e.g., “Here is a picture of a rabbit. I’ll say the first part of the word. Can you finish the word ra_____?”
  • Syllable identity: e.g., “Which part of complete and compare sound the same?”
  • Syllable deletion: e.g., “Say finish. Now say it again without the fin
Onset-rime awareness tasks
  • Spoken word recognition: e.g., “Do these words rhyme: shell bell?”
  • Spoken rhyme detection or rhyme oddity task: e.g., “Which word does not rhyme: fish, dish, hook?” 
  • Spoken rhyme generation: e.g., “Tell me words that rhyme with bell?”
  • Onset-rime blending 
Phonemic awareness tasks
  • Alliteration awareness (aka phoneme detection and sound or phoneme categorization): e.g., “Which word has a different first sound: bed, bus, chair, ball?”
  • Phoneme matching: e.g., “Which word begins with the same sound as bathorn, bed, cup?”
  • Phoneme isolation: e.g., “Tell me the sound you hear at the beginning of the word food” 
  • Phoneme completion: e.g., “Here is a picture of a watch. Finish the word for me: wa_____ “
  • Phoneme blending with words or non-words: e.g., “What word do these sounds make: m…oo…n?” 
  • Phoneme deletion, also referred to as phoneme elision: e.g., “Say coat. Now say it again but don’t say /k/”
  • Phoneme segmentation with words or non-words: e.g., “How many sounds can you hear in the word it?
  • Phoneme reversal: e.g., “Say na (as in nap). Now say na backwards”
  • Phoneme manipulation: e.g., “Say dash. Now say it again, but instead of /æ/ say /I/”
  • Spoonerism: e.g., felt made becomes melt fade