As teachers, we often hear "phonemic awareness" and "phonics" used interchangeably. However, these are two different skills. So, what's the difference, and what do we need to know about them?
In this post, I'll compare phonemic awareness vs phonics to help you understand what they mean so you can quickly figure out how to incorporate these in your instruction.
With the recent surge of popularity in the Science of Reading, many educators are brushing up on their understanding of these foundational skills. They're reckoning with these complex terms for a good reason: to figure out how to teach in a way that ensures all students learn how to read.
If you're in a similar spot, you're not alone! It can feel tricky to learn how to teach differently to methods that you learned in your teacher training program, but it's so worth it. You'll see shortly that it's not as complicated as it seems either, and there are lots of great tools to help you on your way!
The Phonological Awareness Umbrella
Before we can unpack phonemic awareness, we need to back up and talk about phonological awareness.
Phonological awareness refers to a student's ability to recognise and make sense of the different sounds they hear. These vital pre-reading skills inform how well your students will learn to read written words.
There are four specific skills under the phonological awareness umbrella.
- Word level: Breaking apart words in sentences, finding rhyming words, or recognizing alliteration
- Syllable level: Breaking down words into syllables
- Onset & rime level: Identifying the first sound in a spoken syllable or word, and the end of that syllable/word (the onset in map is m; the rime is map)
- Phonemic awareness level: Decomposing individual words into separate sounds
Why phonological awareness matters
Phonological awareness skills build in complexity, and successful reading instruction should address these skills in order.
Successful readers can complete all of these tasks. Meanwhile, poor readers tend to miss specific phonological awareness skills, interrupting their ability to understand language deeply.
This is part of the problem with analytic phonics (and the programs that rely on it). They focus on the word first, not the sounds. In a synthetic phonics approach, we know that fluency in oral language skills and the ability to identify the SOUNDS in words is what will help students learn to read.
It's not just about speaking English fluently; it's about deeply understanding the spoken patterns of language. Students need to develop these skills in order to have the prior knowledge required to become successful readers.
If we don't teach all of our students to become effective readers, we affect their whole lives. Poor reading skills can change how students feel about school, their belief in their intelligence, academic performance years later, job outcomes, income, and so much more.
Developmentally appropriate, systematic reading instruction is an issue of educational justice. We've been leaving students behind and we can't keep doing that anymore.
We know better, so we will do better by relying on scientifically-researched methods proven to help all students become fluent readers.
Phonemic Awareness vs Phonics
Now that we have a basic understanding of phonological awareness, let's separate phonemic awareness from phonics. What are they, and which one is more important?
What is phonemic awareness?
To understand phonemic awareness, we need to go back to the idea of phonemes or the individual sounds in words.
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in the English language. They aren't letters; letters represent the sounds of phonemes. You'll typically see phonemes represented in slashes, like /h/ or /p/. These indicate distinct sounds that may be spelled using different letter patterns.
Phonemic awareness is the ability of students to recognise and manipulate the individual phonemes that they can hear in different words.
How to check for phonemic awareness skills:
- Segmenting: Can your student tell you the initial sound they hear in a word? The last? The middle?
- Blending: Can they break apart the individual sounds and put them back together? (/h/ /a/ /t/; hat)
- Addition: Can they add a sound? (Add a t to rap; trap)
- Phoneme deletion: Can they remove a sound from a word? (Remove /r/ from free; fee)
- Manipulation: Can they replace one phoneme with another one? (tap replace t with r; rap)
- Rhyming: Can they generate words that rhyme with another word? (rap cap tap lap sap)
There are many ways to assess and track your students' progress. I've created a free phonological awareness skills tracker to identify where your students are in this process and monitor their growth.
Why is phonological awareness and phonemic awareness important?
Let's think about phonemic awareness from a neurological perspective.
As students have soaked up and used language throughout their lives, they've developed physical networks in their brains for these words and sounds. They can understand tone, intonation, and metaphoric language long before we teach it to them.
In Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, we know students need a certain amount of past experience with a topic to be able to progress to the next level of understanding.
We also know that students learn best when they move from concrete to abstract: building on their real-world experiences before moving into symbols or abstract thinking.
In a synthetic phonics (and a science-of-reading-based) perspective, we build from this hardwired background that students carry with them. Because students already know these words and sounds, it's less cognitively demanding for them to break them down and look for patterns.
The best part is that this type of approach turns reading into something fun! Phonemic awareness instruction feels like word play when the teacher asks you to break apart words that you already know, or add new sounds.
As we practise these phonemic awareness skills, we incrementally strengthen and connect those neuronal networks to prepare students for even more cognitively challenging tasks - like turning symbols into real sounds and words.
It's so essential to practice phonemic awareness activities every day. They take just a few minutes each and can be done in the whole group, making this a perfect task for part of a morning meeting or daily literacy routine.
You may also like this free handout with examples of quick phonological awareness warm ups that you could do each day.
What is phonics?
Once students have a basic understanding of the phonemes and have some success segmenting sounds etc then they're ready to move into phonics.
Phonics is the practice of connecting different sounds with written letters (also known as the alphabetic principle).
Just like phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate oral language, phonics is how we connect those sounds to the written word.
There are a wide variety of skills that go into phonics instruction, like:
- Knowing letter names
- Identifying which phonemes match each letter
- Knowing which letters or patterns match each phoneme
When teaching phonics, you'll teach these types of skills explicitly:
- Letter-sound identification
- Blending, segmenting and decoding skills for simple words
- Decoding skills for more complex words and words with multiple syllables
- Vowel sounds and consonant sounds
- Different word types (CVC words, CCVC and CVCC words, CCVCC words etc.)
- Consonant blends & consonant digraphs
- Long and short vowels
- Vowel teams
- More advanced phonemes (e.g. r-controlled vowel sounds, diphthongs & more)
Why is phonics important?
The beauty of phonics is that it takes all the oral language skills your students have developed and ties them to written language. This is where you take those strong, robust neuronal networks to tie the sounds they know to letter names, learn the letter-sound relationships, and then move into orthographic mapping and decoding simple words (like CVC words).
In phonemic awareness, we intentionally help our students identify single sounds in a word. In phonics, we tie those sounds (phonemes) to individual letters. Students they use this understanding to decode simple words.
In phonemic awareness, students can tell you new words that rhyme with the word cat. In phonics, students learn to decode word families.
Phonics is the encoding of spoken language into written language. It is a systematic, research-based method of teaching reading, and it's something that I've been advocating for years! If you haven't yet downloaded my FREE Phonics & Beeyond Handbook, definitely check it out.
Although the earliest primary grades often teach at least some phonemic awareness skills (usually segmenting and blending), many teachers quickly move on to phonics. However, it's so important to slow down and build strong foundations in these phonemic awareness skills.
Think of phonemic awareness skills as the stairs that your students need to climb in order to learn how to read. If those stairs aren't in place, children will have a much harder time climbing the staircase.
Which is more important: phonemic awareness vs phonics?
In 2020, the National Reading Panel published a report on the latest findings on how children learn how to read.
The NRP called for:
- Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness (especially for struggling readers, starting from preschool)
- Increased instruction in phonics (K-6)
- Guided oral reading (reading out loud with gentle feedback regarding errors)
- More teacher training in how to support struggling readers and teach phonics in a variety of ways.
It's clear that research clearly hows us how students learn to read. We can now look back and realise that the teaching methods we used for decades left students behind. We were jumping too far ahead, skipping phonemic awareness, and stopping before all our kids knew how to really read.
Now that we understand what happens in the brain as students learn how to read, we must teach all students in a systematic and explicit way, gradually building on their prior knowledge.
You can't have just phonemic awareness or phonics; they're both part of an explicit, developmentally appropriate sequence all students must take to learn to read.
How to get started
Ready to dive in? Now that you know the difference between these two topics, I'm here to continue supporting you as you implement evidence-based best practices in your classroom.
Fortunately, I have many resources to help you on your way.
- Bee-yond Phonics: My comprehensive 250-page ebook breaks down everything you need to know to teach synthetic phonics properly.
- Freebee Library: Hundreds of free resources help simplify your instruction.
If you're really ready to change how you teach, you'll also fall in love with The Hive!
My husband and I created The Hive to be your daily teaching interface. It has an interactive daily schedule, customisable classroom routines, and all the tools you need to stay organized daily.
But the real magic comes from the resource library. There are thousands of research-based resources that you can embed into your day with the click of a button. There are also interactive apps to turn your new phonemic awareness and word-building habits into daily routines.
And there are even videos to guide your class through mindful moments or to launch your phonics instruction!
It's everything I wish I had when I started teaching, and it's the perfect way to work smarter so you can focus on helping your students learn the skills they need to be successful learners.