These phrases are often incorrectly used interchangeably (it is no wonder – they are confusing). Phonological awareness is a broader term that encompasses a general awareness of our spoken language; it is the ability to orally recognize word features (e.g. rhymes, syllables). Whereas, phonemic awareness is more refined and refers to the ability to recognize words as a sequence of sounds.
When learning to read, both phonological and phonemic awareness are fundamental concepts that must be taught. In fact, children who do not adequately develop these skills at the end of kindergarten are more likely to become poor readers.
Phonological awareness is the general understanding that spoken words are made up of sounds, specifically knowledge about the initial sound of a word (onset), the ending part of a word (rime), patterns among words and recognizing elements of a sentence and syllables.
The following skills develop phonological awareness:
Before moving on to phonemic awareness it is important to define a phoneme, which is the smallest unit of sound that represents one or more printed letters. Words are created by combining phonemes. For example, the word cat has three phonemes, /c/, /a/, and /t/ and the word chimp has four phonemes,
/ch/, /i/, /m/ and /p/. The ability to hear phonemes is critical when learning to read and write.
Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds that make up a word. It is an oral language skill that significantly aids in learning how to both read and write. Phonemic awareness can be enhanced by working on the following three skills:
- Segmenting separates a word into its individual sounds. Stretching out each sound in a word helps develop this skill, e.g., fff – uuuu – nnn, said quickly is fun.
- Blending combines individual sounds together to make a word. Slowly say the sounds in a word and show it using block letters.
- Manipulating plays with each sound in a word by adding, deleting or changing sounds. For example, remove the first sound and bat becomes at. Change the medial sound to /e/ and bat becomes bet. Add the /s/ sound to the end and bat becomes bats.
Phonemic awareness is the most intricate piece of phonological awareness and a critical component when learning to read. According to Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction, “Children who enter school with phonemic awareness have a very high likelihood of learning to read successfully.” Alternatively, “Children who lack phonemic awareness have a great deal of difficulty learning to read.”
Sources: Rath, L.K., Ed.D & Kennedy, L. (2004). The Between the Lions Book for Parents. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Vaugh, S & Linan-Thompson, S (2004). Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.