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What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability hear and manipulate units of sounds in spoken language.


A unit of sound occurs within a word. For example, the word apple.


You hear /ap/ and /ple/. There are two syllables that we hear. Those are units of sound.


If you’re able to hear those two sounds (syllables) in the word, you have phonological awareness.


The following are all units of sounds within a word, organized from largest unit of sound to smallest unit of sound.

  • Syllables

  • Onset

  • Rime

  • Phonemes

Before we get into the difference between phonological and phonemic awareness, I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about what it means to manipulate sounds.


In all of these examples, let’s manipulate phonemes for the word dog. When you see / / around a letter, it refers to the letter sound, not the letter name.


  • Blending Sounds – Put these sounds together /d/ /o/ /g/ >> dog

  • Segmenting Sounds – Separate these sounds dog >> /d/ /o/ /g/

  • Adding Sounds – Add /s/ to the end of dog >> dogs

  • Deleting Sounds – Say dog without /d/ >> og

  • Substituting Sounds – The word is dog. Instead of /d/, let’s say /f/ >> fog.

Phonological awareness activities include manipulating sounds (see above ??) with syllables, onsets, rimes, and phonemes.


For example:

  • Segmenting syllables

  • What parts do you hear in rainbow? >> rain and bow

  • Deleting rimes

  • Say pencil without cil­. >> pen

  • Isolating phonemes

  • What’s the first sound you hear in cup? >> /k/

  • Blending onset and rime

  • What happens if we put ch and in together? >> chin

  • Matching phonemes

  • What’s another word that starts like lap? >> like (or any word that starts with /l/)


Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smallest unit of sound in spoken language.


The smallest unit of sound in the English language is called a phoneme.


Did you know there are 43 phonemes in the English language?


Confusing when there are only 26 letters, isn’t it? Don’t worry, in phonemic awareness we are focusing on sounds and not letters.


Phonemic awareness activities involve the smallest units of sound only.


For example, being able to hear /c/ and /a/ and /t/ in the word cat requires phonemic awareness.


Another example would being able to hear /sh/ and /a/ and /ck/ in the word shack.


These sounds cannot be any smaller. You cannot break down the /k/ sound. You cannot break down the /sh/ sound. (Even though it has two letters, they only make one sound). The same can be said for /ck/, too.


Phonemic awareness involves being able to hear and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound.


Phonological awareness is about being able to hear and manipulate units of sound in spoken words. That includes syllables, onset, rime, and phonemes.


Phonemic awareness is about the being able to hear and manipulate the smallest unit of sound, a phoneme!


If phonological awareness was a house 🏠, phonemic awareness would be one of the rooms. I would venture to say that it’s the kitchen or family room, because it’s usually the area of phonological awareness that we as reading teachers spend the most time in.


For example, counting the number of syllables in a word would be a phonological awareness activity. (We are working with syllables.)


Counting the number of sounds in a word would be a phonemic awareness activity. We are working with phonemes. This means it is also a phonological awareness activity (we are working with a unit of sound).


When you think of them, remember that they can be done in the dark.


What does that mean?


  • They are listening and speaking activities

  • They don’t involve letters (yet!)

Let’s think about it: Count the number of syllables in a word in the dark.


Say and clap, cat.


Clap! One syllable. You can do that with the lights off.


You can blend sounds to make a word in the dark.


Put these sounds together: /c/ /a/ /t/. What’s the word? Cat! You can listen and blend these sounds together in the dark. It’s about what you hear.


Now, in order to read the word cat, students would need to see the letters: c, a, t, and sound them out.


They would need the lights on. ? In this case, we are talking about phonics. It involves letters and sounds. That letter-sound relationship is phonics, not phonological or phonemic awareness.


Now, this doesn’t mean it’s bad to practice this way. You still need to practice blending and segmenting sounds in words using letters. But that comes with phonics activities, not phonemic awareness activities.


Before (or while) we learn phonics, we have to build phonological (and phonemic) awareness!


Phonological awareness is one of the strongest predictors of reading success.


In other words, students are going to have a very difficult time learning and implementing phonics in reading if they don’t have phonological awareness. (Remember, that includes phonemic awareness, too!).


How can a student sound out c-a-t (decode the word) if they can’t hear the three individual sounds (phonemes) that make up the word? They can’t!


This is why it’s so important that students are able to hear, blend, and segment sounds in words before learning to read using phonics.