Phonemic Awareness

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a spoken word that makes a difference in the word's meaning. For example, changing the phoneme /o/ in the word dog to the phoneme /i/ changes the word dog to dig.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds, or phonemes, in spoken words. Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is a broader term that refers to working with larger parts of spoken language such as sentences, words, syllables, onsets and rimes, as well as phonemes. The focus of phonemic awareness is narrow: identifying and manipulating individual sounds in words (National Institute for Literacy, 2001).

Why Is It Important?

Phonemic awareness is more highly related to learning to read than are tests of general intelligence, reading readiness, and listening comprehension (Stanovich, 1993).

Correlational studies have identified phonemic awareness and letter knowledge as the two best school-entry predictors of how well students will learn to read during their first two years of instruction (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000).

Early literacy success is crucial to a student's academic success because, "children who fail to read in the first grade have a 1-in-8 chance of ever catching up" (Juel et al. 1986).

Phonemic awareness, hearing and working with sounds in spoken words, is a prerequisite for readers relating these sounds to letters when they see the letters in written words.

The ability to blend phonemes is directly correlated to reading and the ability to segment phonemes is directly correlated to spelling.

How Can You Make It Happen?

For students to become successful readers, they must understand that spoken words are made up of individual speech sounds. Instruction in phonemic awareness involves teaching students to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken syllables and words (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000).

Phonemic awareness instruction does not constitute a complete reading program. Rather, it provides students with essential foundational knowledge in the alphabetic system. It is one necessary instructional component within a complete and integrated reading program (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000).

Effective reading instruction should include reading aloud, shared reading, writing, oral language, independent reading, and small group instruction. Phonemic awareness instruction can be effective as one part of a whole reading program, about 15-20 minutes each day, or 20 hours over the school year. Some students will need more time dedicated to phonemic awareness instruction than others.

Before instruction in phonemic awareness can occur, students need a solid understanding of broad phonological awareness skills, such as identifying and generating rhymes and working with syllables. When these skills are mastered, students can begin to develop more difficult, narrower phonemic awareness skills, such as blending and segmenting sounds in words. (For additional information on phonological awareness, see Syllable Awareness.)

Phonological Awareness

The phonological awareness development sequence is listed below, from broad awareness of sounds to understanding the smallest units of sound, or phonemes. When students are comfortable with phonemes, they are ready to begin instruction in phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness

Examples of phonemic awareness interactions between a teacher and a student are listed below in their developmental sequence. These can be made into interactive games and interesting activities using words that are familiar to students.

  1. Phoneme Isolation: Students recognize individual sounds in a word.

    Teacher: What is the first sound in cap?
    Student: The first sound in cap is /k/.

  2. Phoneme Identity: Students recognize the same sounds in different words.

    Teacher: What sound is the same in man, mop, and mill?
    Student: The first sound, /m/, is the same.

  3. Phoneme Categorization: Students recognize the word in a set of three or four words that has the "odd" sound.

    Teacher: Which word doesn't belong? net, nap, rug.
    Student: Rug does not belong. It doesn't begin with /n/.

  4. Phoneme Blending: Students listen to a sequence of separately spoken phonemes, and then combine the phonemes to form a word. Then they write and read the word.

    Teacher: What word is /p/ /i/ /g/?
    Student: /p/ /i/ /g/ is pig.
    Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in pig: /p/, write p;
    /i/, write i; /g/, write g.
    Teacher: (Writes pig on the board.)
    Now we're going to read the word pig.

  5. Phoneme Segmentation: Students break a word into its separate sounds, saying each sound as they tap or count. Then they write and read the word.

    Teacher: How many sounds are in clap?
    Student: /k/ /l/ /a/ /p/. Four sounds.
    Teacher: Now let's write the sounds in clap: /k/, write c;
    /l/, write l; /a/, write a; /p/, write p.
    Teacher: (Writes clap on the board.)
    Now we're going to read the word clap.

  6. Phoneme Deletion: Students recognize the word that remains when a phoneme is removed from a word.

    Teacher: What is cluck without the /k/?
    Student: Cluck without the /k/ is luck.

  7. Phoneme addition : Students make a new word by adding a phoneme to an existing word.

    Teacher: What word do you have if you add /s/ to the beginning of nail?
    Student: Snail.

  8. Phoneme substitution: Students substitute one phoneme for another to make a new word.

    Teacher: The word is run. Change /n/ to /g/. What's the new word?
    Student: Rug.

Certain practices have proven to be successful in phonemic awareness instruction.

  • Phonemic awareness skills should be taught in an ordered sequence from less difficult skills to more difficult skills. If students are having difficulty completing more difficult phonemic awareness tasks, back up, and teach less complex skills until students master them.

  • Teaching difficult phonemic awareness skills is most effective when using and manipulating letters of the alphabet. Manipulating letters of the alphabet to teach students to blend and segment sounds helps students relate sounds to concrete letters, providing a bridge to phonics instruction. Students should be taught to identify and name letters of the alphabet at the same time as phonemic awareness skills are taught, to prepare them for phonics instruction.

  • Instruction should focus only on one or two types of phoneme manipulation at a time. Introducing multiple phonemic awareness tasks at one time can cause confusion and frustration.

  • Assess individual students regularly to ensure that instruction is at the level where they can learn best. Once students have mastered simpler phonemic awareness tasks, such as counting syllables, isolating phonemes and categorizing phonemes, they can move to more complex phonemic awareness skills, such as blending and segmenting phonemes.

  • Students benefit most from phonemic awareness instruction that maximizes student participation and practice. Small group instruction allows students to have more "turns" allowing them to benefit from listening to and interacting with each other as they participate in phonemic awareness tasks. Small group instruction also allows for scaffolded support based on individual's needs.

How Can You Stretch Students' Thinking?

Have students lead phonemic awareness activities in small groups to increase their participation and practice of skills. Students can create their own versions of phonemic awareness games and lead the games with groups of students who are learning less complex phonemic awareness skills.

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