What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. It is an important foundational skill for learning to read. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that makeup language. Understanding that words are made up of discrete phonemes allows children to connect sounds to letters as they learn to read and spell.

Why Phonemic Awareness Matters

Phonemic awareness provides the basis for phonics and word decoding skills. Children who have strong phonemic awareness are better able to learn letter-sound relationships. This helps them learn to read words by blending sounds. As they encounter new words, they can break the word into individual sounds and match them to letters.

Without phonemic awareness, reading can be challenging. Children may struggle to sound out unfamiliar words. This can inhibit reading fluency and comprehension. Building phonemic awareness skills early helps prevent reading difficulties. It equips children with foundational abilities needed for literacy.

Developing Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness starts developing early in childhood. Before entering school, children implicitly gain awareness of sounds through exposure to language. However, explicit phonemic awareness instruction is beneficial for reinforcing these early skills.

Several activities can help children identify phonemes and manipulate spoken words. These include:

Recognizing Rhyming Words

Rhyming games and songs teach children to listen to similar ending sounds. This helps them start tuning into individual phonemes.

Identifying Beginning/Ending Sounds

Asking children which words start or end with the same sound gets them listening to discrete phonemes.

Blending Sounds

Breaking a word into individual sounds and having children put the sounds together to make a whole word. For example, sounding out d-o-g and blending to make “dog.”

Segmenting Words

Saying a whole word and having children break it into sounds. For example, segmenting “cat” into k-a-t.

Adding, Deleting, and Substituting Phonemes

Asking children to add, remove, or change a phoneme in a word. For example, changing “sat” to “mat” by substituting /s/ with /m/.

Oddity Tasks

Having children identify the word that starts or ends differently when given three words. For example, identifying that “cat” is different from “mat” and “bat.”

These engaging activities help reinforce the relationships between sounds and spoken words. With repetition and consistency, children develop greater mastery of phonemic skills.

Stages of Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness develops sequentially in stages:


The most basic skill is the ability to recognize words that end with the same sounds, like cat, bat, sat.


Recognizing beginning sounds in words, like snake, sugar, and seal all start with /s/.

Sentence Segmentation

Breaking sentences into discrete words: “Thedogran” becomes “The dog ran.”

Syllable Segmentation

Separating words into syllables: “Pencil” can be segmented into pencil.


Identifying the initial consonant sound(s) (onset) and the vowel + following consonants (rime) in a syllable. For example, the word “stop” has an onset /st/ and a rime /op/.

Phoneme Manipulation

The ability to isolate individual sounds, add, delete, or substitute phonemes – the most advanced skill.

As children gain skills at each level, they develop greater phonemic awareness mastery. This provides a crucial foundation for decoding, spelling, and other literacy skills.

Phonemic Awareness Assessment

Since phonemic awareness is essential for reading success, it is important to assess these skills, especially for children at risk for reading difficulties. Some ways to assess phonemic awareness include:

  • Rhyming and alliteration tasks
  • Having children clap syllables in spoken words
  • Phoneme blending and segmentation activities
  • Ask children to manipulate sounds through addition, deletion, and substitution.

Assessments help identify children struggling with phonemic awareness. Early intervention can then target skill deficits to help prevent future reading problems.

Building Phonemic Awareness at Home

Parents and caregivers can support the development of phonemic awareness at home through simple activities:

  • Sing songs and read rhyming books. Discuss how the words sound the same at the end.
  • Play oral word games like having children finish a word that starts with a target sound.
  • Break simple words into sounds and ask children to tell you the whole word.
  • Make sound manipulations like changing the first sound in “mat” to “b” to make “bat.”
  • Avoid screen media, which doesn’t support the development of phonological awareness.
  • Verbally engage children in conversation to expand vocabulary. The larger their vocabulary, the greater their phonemic awareness.

With fun and informal practice, children can build their phonemic skills to get ready to read.

Frequently Asked Questions About Phonemic Awareness

What’s the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness?

Phonics teaches children the relationship between sounds and written letters. Phonemic awareness focuses on the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in spoken language. Strong phonemic awareness provides the foundation for phonics skills.

What are some signs of poor phonemic awareness?

Trouble rhyming words, segmenting words into sounds, blending sounds to make words, and manipulating sounds in words can all indicate poor phonemic awareness. Difficulty learning letter-sound relationships and decoding unfamiliar words are also common signs.

How can I help my preschooler develop phonemic awareness?

Read rhyming books, sing rhyming songs, play with beginning and ending sounds, practice blending sounds together, and segment words into sounds. These types of activities build essential early phonemic skills.

Is phonemic awareness needed for learning to read?

Yes, phonemic awareness provides the critical foundation for decoding and word recognition skills needed for reading. Children who enter school with poor phonemic awareness are at high risk for reading difficulties.

Can phonemic awareness skills be improved?

Yes, research shows that phonemic awareness responds well to instruction and practice. Games, activities, and direct teaching of phonemic skills help strengthen areas of weakness to support reading success.


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