The terms phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics are three important components that comprise high-quality reading instruction. Although all three sound similar and are connected, there is a vast difference. Understanding the differences between them can help parents and teachers provide students with the most robust literacy foundation possible so they can reach their maximum reading and spelling potential.

In this article, we will explore phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics and how they can help build strong literacy skills both in the classroom and at home. 

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is recognizing and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. For example, the word bat has three sounds (phonemes) – /b/, /a/, /t/.

The word ship also has three sounds (phonemes) – /sh/, /i/, /p/Students who are aware of these phonemes will have an easier time learning to read and spell more accurately.  

Phonemic awareness is auditory and does not involve words in print. The teacher’s main focus when teaching phonemic awareness is to help the child listen for, identify, and manipulate phonemes so that the child can learn to recognize and create different words.

Isolation: Identifying a specific sound in a word.

“What is the beginning sound in the word cat?” (/k/)

“What is the ending sound in the word cat?” (/t/)

Segmentation: Pulling the sounds in a word apart.

“What sounds do you hear in the word cat?” (/k/ /a/ /t/)

Deletion: Removing a sound from a word.

“Say the word bit without the /b/.” (it)

Substitution: Changing a sound to another sound in a word.

“Say pin. Change the /p/ to /w/.” (win)

Blending: Putting the sounds together to form a word.

“What word do the sounds /s/ /u/ /n/ make?” (sun)

Phonemic awareness is typically taught during kindergarten and the beginning of first grade. Studies have shown that children with strong phonemic awareness at the beginning of 1st grade showed high reading and spelling achievement by the end of 1st grade. 

Students with poor phonemic awareness skills in first grade are more likely to have reading difficulties in fourth grade. (Pressley, 2006)

 What is Phonological Awareness?


Phonological awareness is a broader term that includes phonemic awareness and other aspects of language, such as rhyming words, syllables, and sentence structure. It involves recognizing patterns in language and manipulating them in different ways. It is the foundation of reading.  

There is no print involved in phonological awareness. Phonological awareness occurs before a child is introduced to the letters of the alphabet. There are three main categories of phonological awareness.

  • Rhyming
  • Syllables
  • Phonemic Awareness   

The terms phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are distinct concepts. Phonemic awareness focuses on the individual sounds in a word. In contrast, phonological awareness refers to understanding larger sound units like syllables and rhymes.

Phonological awareness is usually taught in Pre-K and Kindergarten through language play, clapping out syllables, singing songs, reading stories, and playing with rhymes. According to NELP 2010, phonological awareness is a very important predictor of later language and literacy development.

 What is Phonics?

Phonics is the understanding of how letters are used to represent speech sounds (known as the alphabetic principle). It involves matching written letters with their corresponding sound(s) to read unfamiliar words. For example, a child with good phonics skills could read the word “bat” by recognizing that each letter represents a specific sound. When students know the sounds of the letters that they see in print, they are able to read (decode) and spell (encode) these words.  

Systematic phonics instruction is a method of teaching students how to connect the graphemes (letters) with phonemes (sounds) using a clear and well-thought-out scope and sequence to teach children how to read and spell. 

Lessons are built on previously taught information, from simple to complex, with clear, concise student objectives that are driven by ongoing assessment:

  • Consonant and short vowel sounds
  • Digraphs and blends
  • Long vowels and other vowel patterns
  • Syllable patterns
  • Affixes

Do you want to see a sample of a Scope and Sequence for systematic phonics instruction? Click >HERE<

It is important to note that phonics and phonemic awareness are not the same things. While phonemes are an essential part of phonics, phonemic awareness involves manipulating the individual sounds in a word. On the other hand, phonics consists of understanding how letters are used to represent sounds and using that knowledge to decode words.

Phonics instruction is most beneficial when it is initiated early in a child’s education – preferably in kindergarten and first grade. (Partnership for Reading, 2006a)

 How Does Phoneme Awareness Contribute to Reading and Literacy Development?

The ability to recognize patterns in language is essential for successful reading comprehension. By developing strong phoneme awareness, children will have the tools they need to decode unfamiliar words quickly and accurately. This helps them become more confident readers who can focus on comprehending their reading content instead of struggling with decoding individual words.

Phoneme awareness develops first in young children as they learn how language works by listening closely when adults talk around them. As children become more familiar with language patterns, their understanding of syllables, rhymes, and sentence structure will also grow.

Finally, when children begin learning about letters and their corresponding sounds (phonics), this knowledge will help them connect spoken language with written text, further improving reading and spelling abilities.

Phonemic Awareness Activities

Phonemic awareness is an essential skill for developing reading and spelling abilities. When children can identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words, they are better prepared to decode unfamiliar words and become more confident readers.

Various activities can help children develop phonemic awareness skills:

  • Rhyme time – This activity encourages children to listen for similarities in the sounds of words. Have them listen to a word and then come up with another word that rhymes with it.
  • Road trip rhymes – This activity helps children identify rhyming words by having them think of words that rhyme with places they might visit on a road trip.
  • Word families – This activity helps children learn how different words are related by grouping together words that share the same sound or letter pattern. ex: hit, sit, bit
  • Silly tongue twisters – This activity encourages children to practice their pronunciation by repeating them out loud.
  • Tongue ticklers – This activity is similar to silly tongue twisters but focuses more on alliteration (words beginning with the same sound).
  • Syllable shopping – This activity helps children learn how syllables work by having them “shop” for items in a store based on their number of syllables ex: one-syllable items like “hat” or two-syllable items like “apple”
  • “I spy” first sounds – This game helps children practice identifying initial sounds in words by having them guess what object starts with a specific sound. ex: “I spy something that starts with /b/…”

Phonological Awareness Activities

Phonological awareness is closely related to phonemic awareness but instead requires children to recognize larger units of sound, such as syllables and onset-rime patterns (the part of a word before the vowel and after the consonant).

These activities can help develop phonological awareness:

  • Block it (syllables) – For this activity, have children build blocks while saying each syllable in a word aloud as they stack it up. Ex: b-lock
  • Take one thing from the box (syllables) – For this game, have children take turns taking an item out of a box while saying each syllable in its name aloud as they do so. Ex: teddy bear
  • On my way to the store (onset-rime) – For this game, have children pretend they are going on a shopping trip and say each onset-rime pattern in their list of items as they go along. Ex: s-it, k-it
  • Beanbag Toss (onset-rime) – For this game, have children toss a beanbag back and forth with rhyming words. Ex: hat, cat, sat, mat, etc.
  • Animal Syllables (syllables) – For this activity, have children snap, hum, clap or jump the number of syllables for different animal names. Ex: rab-bit, hip-po, croc-o-dile, el-e-phant, moose

Phonics Activities

Phonics involves understanding how letters represent individual sounds and how those sounds combine to form words. Activities focusing on letter sounds and patterns can help children acquire phonics skills.

Activities that can help develop phonics skills include:

      • Letter matching games – For this game, have children match upper case letters with lower case letters or match pictures with corresponding beginning sounds. Ex: matching an apple picture with the letter Aa
      • Sound sorting games – For this game, have children sort objects into groups based on their beginning or ending sounds.
        Ex: sorting objects whose names start with /s/ into one pile and objects whose names end with /s/ into another pile
      • Word building games – For this game, have children build simple CVC words using magnetic letters or other manipulatives while saying each sound aloud as they do so. Ex: b-a-t = bat

Strategies to Keep in Mind

Teaching phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and phonics can be a challenging but rewarding task. Here are some strategies that you can use to teach these skills effectively:

1.  Start by introducing one concept at a time, then slowly build up complexity until your child has mastered all three areas of literacy development.
2.  Model correct pronunciation when introducing new concepts so children have an accurate representation of what each sound should sound like when spoken aloud correctly.
3. Provide plenty of practice opportunities for your child to master each skill before moving on to more complex tasks.
4. Break down words into individual sounds and syllables to help children learn how they are composed.
5. Incorporate fun activities such as songs and rhymes into the learning process to make it more engaging and enjoyable for your child.
6. Read aloud to your child every day for at least 20 minutes. Choose books that rhyme or repeat the same sound. Draw attention to the rhymes.
7. Use an Orton-Gillingham or Structured Literacy Program when teaching phoneme awareness. Structured literacy integrates phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics using explicit and systematic instruction.
8. Encourage your child’s natural curiosity about language by talking about new words they hear: this will help them understand how our language works!
9. Supply plenty of practice opportunities; repetition is essential when mastering any new skill.
10. Provide positive feedback whenever possible; this will help boost your child’s confidence while learning!


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Concluding Thoughts

With patience and dedication, you can unleash children’s potential by helping them develop strong literacy skills through practicing & mastering all three components: Phonemic Awareness, Phonological Awareness, and Phonics! By providing engaging activities and incorporating explicit instruction and structured literacy into the learning process, you can make the journey to literacy success enjoyable for everyone!

Remember that everyone learns at their own pace, and patience is necessary when helping children develop these skills. Most importantly, make sure to use a lot of fun and multisensory activities while teaching.

Thank you so much for reading this today! If you enjoyed this article on phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics, you might also enjoy reading my previous articles:

How to Teach Letters and Sounds Correctly

What is Orton-Gillingham

To learn more about effective reading education, visit us at Pride Reading Program today! This Orton-GIllingham, structured literacy curriculum is aligned with the science of reading, and used by teachers and parents, worldwide with great success!

The PRIDE Reading Program

Pride Reading Program

Phonemic Awareness, Phonological Awareness & Phonics

Karina Richland, M.A., is the author and curriculum developer of the PRIDE Reading Program, an Orton-Gillingham, structured literacy curriculum aligned with the science of reading.  This homeschool and classroom curriculum uses engaging, multi-sensory methods to teach reading, writing, spelling, and comprehension. Karina has an extensive background in working with students of all ages and various learning modalities.  She has spent many years researching learning differences and differentiated teaching practices.  You can reach her by email at or visit the website at