Phonemic Awareness

Good instruction begins with laying a solid foundation on which to build, and for reading that foundation is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness (PA) is the understanding that the individual speech sounds of English, known as phonemes, have unique differences and blend together to form words. The understanding that phonemes exist is a key element in the ability to later connect those sounds to the letters or groups of letters that represent them in print.

The ability to produce and understand spoken language is innate, meaning that children will naturally acquire oral language skills in the languages that are spoken and reinforced with them. Because spoken English is composed of words that are connected to provide meaning (“want cookie”), the awareness that words are actually groups of individual sounds is not readily apparent in speech.

Beginning to Read by Marilyn Jager Adams

For many children, phonemic awareness occurs without explicit instruction through games, songs, and making connections while reading with an adult. These children will begin by developing an abstract understanding that phonemes exist inside of words, but a significant percentage of children will remain unaware that individual sounds comprise the words they use every day. These children will need explicit instruction to develop this awareness. The good news is that children who receive effective instruction in phonemic awareness can develop a solid foundation on which to build reading and spelling skills.

Phonemic awareness typically includes basic knowledge of initial, medial (middle), and final sounds, and rhyming, blending, and segmentation. Adams (1990) outlined five levels of phonemic awareness:

Basic ability to hear the sounds of words as measured by nursery rhymes

Ability to compare and contrast the sounds of words for rhyme or alliteration

Comfortable familiarity with the idea that words can be split into small sounds and awareness of blending and syllable-splitting

Thorough understanding that words can be analyzed into a series of phonemes

Ability to add, delete, or move any phoneme and generate a word or nonword as a result

Because phonemic awareness does not involve print, assessments and instruction utilize individual sounds, groups of sounds, and words. Some phonemic awareness examples that move from simple to complex are included in the following activities.

How important is phonemic awareness?

Adams and other researchers have stated that the single strongest determinant of a child’s future reading success is the degree of phonemic awareness that a child possesses prior to entering school. This conclusion highlights the importance of assessing phonemic awareness when children first enter kindergarten and providing structured support for children who have not yet developed awareness of speech sounds.

Although the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has determined that phonemic awareness should be acquired by first grade, many children do not have access to high-quality PA instruction in the early grades. Children with auditory processing difficulties or learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable and may need extended instructional opportunities in order to identify and distinguish between sounds.

Because phonemic awareness has been shown to be an essential skill for reading, it’s value is not limited to young children. Older students, too, often lack foundational knowledge of consonant and vowel sounds and struggle to make sense of simple decoding patterns. As stated by Torgeson (2005), these older students need phonics-based programs that build phonemic awareness instead of assuming they already have it. If phonemic awareness is not fully developed, middle and high school students may have difficulty when they encounter unfamiliar words.

Phonemic awareness instruction is also particularly important for English Language Learners (ELLs). Each language has unique speech sounds that may be difficult to transfer to English and the need for explicit phonemic awareness instruction with this population is supported by research. A 2005 study by Genesee and others concluded that “ELLs with well-developed phonological awareness skills in English acquire initial reading skills more easily than ELLs with poorly developed phonological awareness skills in English.” The results of a 2010 classroom study, Older Children Need Phonemic Awareness Instruction, Too (2010)

What are the recommended strategies for teaching phonemic awareness?

The first step in improving phonemic awareness is to review the sounds of individual phonemes to ensure that students are able to hear, produce, identify, and manipulate phonemes.

Regardless of age, nothing should be presumed about a student’s prior knowledge—instruction must start at the very beginning to confirm that there are no gaps in understanding. Teachers can then provide age-appropriate instruction on phonemes through interactive, multisensory activities.

Next, an effective strategy is to join phonemes together to form bigrams—letter combinations containing a beginning consonant and a vowel. Bigrams are important for teaching students to blend from one sound to the next without inserting pauses or extra sounds between spoken phonemes.

Developing the process of “sliding” from one sound to the next proves valuable when students move to adding blends (trigrams) and an ending consonant to form words. Additionally, this skill improves a student’s ability to eventually connect phonemes to the letters represented by these sounds.

The Reading Horizons method includes this essential component through the use of the Slide. Slides are the beginning sounds that occur by moving from left to right when bigrams or trigrams are combined. Slides encourage blending sounds as a preliminary step to building words and as a support for fluency.

Students then add ending sounds to build real words and practice identifying and manipulating the individual phonemes in words.

Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill for reading readiness. With phonemic awareness solidly in place, students are ready to begin connecting sound to print.

Download our free Phonemic Awareness Resource Kit