What is phonemic awareness?
Phonemic awareness is an understanding of phonemes (the smallest units of sound that can be differentiated in a word) and how they work together to create words.
For instance in the word “cat,” the phonemes are the /c/ sound, the short /a/ sound, and the /t/ sound.
Why do we need phonemic awareness?
Phonemic awareness is an important skill for children who are getting ready to learn to read, or for those who are struggling to get the hang of basic reading.
A child who possesses phonemic awareness can segment sounds in words (for example, pronounce just the first sound heard in the word cat).
They can also blend strings of isolated sounds together to form recognizable word forms.
Recent longitudinal studies on reading have demonstrated that the acquisition of phonemic awareness is a beneficial skill to develop before learning to read, and particularly, to decode (i.e., sound out a word, blend sounds together to figure out a word).
If children understand that words can be divided into individual phonemes and that phonemes can be blended into words, they are able to use letter-sound knowledge to read and build words.
To read more about phonemic awareness and how it relates to reading acquisition see Phonemic Awareness and the Teaching of Reading – A Position Statement from the Board of Directors of the International Reading Association.
Side Note: Phonemic awareness is not the only approach to teaching reading or the best approach for every child.
Some children never develop an understanding of how letters make certain sounds or how those sounds blend together to make whole words.
Some children who read, learn through memorization of word shape, order of letters, etc. If phonemic awareness training is not working, we naturally try other approaches.
Below are 5 Research-Based Phonemic Awareness Strategies to do with Your Child or Student
1. Show printed material to your child and talk about the sounds and structure of the words:
Research suggests that the greatest impact on phonemic awareness is achieved when there is interaction with print, along with paying specific attention to phonemes, and sound/word structure.
Seeing the words, hearing/talking about each separate sound, and studying the word structure with a coach (parent, teacher, etc.) helps the student to make the connection between what they see and hear, a crucial skill for reading.
It is helpful to point to each letter (or letter group), and say each separate sound.
2. Play letter games/phoneme substitution games:
For instance, auditory cues are in play when children are asked to clap the number of syllables they hear in a spoken word. (Let’s clap the sounds in cat!)
1) Take turns thinking of a word. Have the adult and child work together to say each sound in the word.
Write down the word (adult or child) and say each sound individually pointing to the letter(s) that make that sound.
2) Pick a word and take turns switching the first sound in the word to see how it changes the word or switch the last sound to see how it changes the word and sound (e.g., turn cat into bat or pop into pod).
3) Put letters on index cards (e.g., give your child a, t, and c and ask them to arrange them into cat, and talk about each sound – you can do this with a variety of words – rat, pot, bed, mat, etc.).
4) Play a rhyming game. Take turns thinking of words that rhyme with cat, dog, big, etc. Look at the words, talk about the structure, and what makes them rhyme.
5) Play the song lyric game by changing a phoneme in a song to see how it changes the meaning of the lyrics. For example, “Pop Goes the Weasel” could be changed to “Hop Goes the Weasel.”
After changing the lyrics talk about how changing a phoneme gives the song a different meaning.
Related Article: 10 Fun Activities to Teach Your Child Letter Sounds
3. Use multisensory [i.e., auditory, visual, tactile (touch), and kinesthetic (movement)] representations of letters and sounds to teach phonemic awareness:
Many successful training studies include concrete representations of sounds, to help children understand how to manipulate sounds in a word (e.g., Ball & Blachman, 1991).
Here are four examples:
1) Use visual/tactile cues like blocks or poker chips to represent each sound in a word (e.g., write each sound or letter on each chip and see how you can manipulate the chips to change the words or letters).
Recommended Tools for Teaching Phonemic Awareness
2) Make letters out of play-doh, and use those letters to create words, switch sounds around, etc.
3) Use kinesthetic (movement-based) cues such as asking children to jump as they repeat sounds, say a rhyming word, or say each sound in a word.
4) Students can also use their bodies to make letters (give me a C, give me an A, give me a T).
It is important to model skills for your child/student such as how to:
- clap the sounds or syllables in a word
- jump while saying letter sounds
- use play-doh or blocks to manipulate or change words around
4. Provide early-writing activities:
Let your child guess how to spell words.
If they are correct, talk about why. If they are incorrect, provide guidance on what letters need to be changed and why.
Show your child how to take your thoughts and put them on paper.
Use simple sentences like “I am hungry” or “I love cats!”
I also love using dry-erase boards for writing practice, because letters can easily be erased and changed (e.g., change c-a-t to b-a-t).
5. Practice at home before school starts (if you didn’t do this it is okay-just start practicing now):
Research shows that children who are frequently exposed to print and phonemic awareness activities at home, prior to starting school, have higher levels of phonemic awareness.
Parents can model phonemic awareness by reading aloud to their children, talking about the spelling, structure, and sounds in a word; showing their child how to write a word while saying the sounds; or leading games that incorporate letter and language play.
Give your children opportunities to practice early reading skills by talking, singing, rhyming, and playing guessing games.
We also know that many kids love tablets and do well with fun, interactive apps! Search your app store for an app that teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, early reading skills, etc.
What is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics?
Phonemic awareness is an understanding of spoken language.
Children who are phonemically aware can hear the word (b – a – t) said in three separate sounds and tell you it is bat.
They can tell you all the sounds in the spoken word dog. They can tell you that if you take the last sound off cart, you would have car.
Phonics, on the other hand, is knowing the relation between specific, printed letters (including combinations of letters) and specific, spoken sounds.
You are asking children to show their phonics knowledge when you ask them which letter makes the first sound in bat or dog, or the last sound in car or cart.
Keep your cool when teaching phonemic awareness or any other skill.
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting.
If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.
Keep practice sessions short (10 minutes or less for younger children or children who get easily frustrated).
For suggestions on how to encourage children to complete tasks or activities they do not want to do, see
- 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion
- How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
Do you teach phonemic awareness? What strategies do you like to use?
You may also wish to review the following reading programs:
These programs are geared toward younger students, and developed from research-based practices:
- 5 Fun Activities to Teach Your Child Sight Words
- Orton-Gillingham-An Instructional Approach to Teaching Students with Dyslexia
- 10 Fun Research-Based Activities to Teach Your Child Letter Sounds
Education and Behavior – Keeping Adults on the Same Page for Kids
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”