"Phonological awareness is the most potent predictor of success in learning to read."

Keith Stanovich, cognitive scientist and psychologist (1994)

What is Phonological Awareness?

When it comes to reading, you've probably heard of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is a meta-cognitive skill (i.e., an awareness/ability to think about one's own thinking) for the sound structures of language. Phonological awareness allows one to attend to, discriminate, remember, and manipulate sounds at the sentence, word, syllable, and phoneme (sound) level. Examples follow for each level:

  • Sentence level: How many words are in the sentence, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore?"
  • Word level: Do these words rhyme: distribution and retribution?
  • Syllable level: What is the last syllable in the word "discrimination?"
  • Phoneme level: What is the final sound in photo?
What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is an essential skill that underlies a child's ability to learn to read and spell. Phonemic awareness falls under the umbrella of phonological awareness; however, it only pertains to the phonemes (sounds) in words. Hence, exercises that pertain to the sentence and syllable are considered phonological awareness rather than phonemic awareness. Rhyming is also excluded from phonemic awareness, since it does not relate to the individual sounds in the word. Once again, phonemic awareness requires the knowledge that words are comprised of individual sounds that can be manipulated. Using phonemic awareness, one can match, blend, segment, and rearrange sounds in words (or nonsense words).

Without strong skills in phonemic awareness a child cannot begin to connect the sounds of our language to letters or letter combinations. A child must be able to isolate and blend sounds into word parts and words to learn to read and spell. For many dyslexics, this is a very challenging task as evidenced in their great difficulties in decoding and encoding.

We can assess children's initial attempts at phonemic awareness as early as the ages of 3 and 4. Children who do not play rhyming or alliteration games could be suspect for dyslexia down the road. Children with speech sound production problems (articulation) could also have difficulty learning to read and spell. We've a good list of tests, such as the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP), to use to determine whether a child has difficulty hearing or processing the individual sounds of our language.

Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness is the only way to go for the children who are not getting it. The earlier the better. Phonemic awareness should first be taught without any letters using blocks or chips to represent the sounds and make them salient to the child. Children need to learn to hear those sounds without being confused by the letters that correspond with them. This is particularly important given that many times the same sound is represented by different letter combinations (think long a in cake, rain, hey, gray, and sleigh). Take words apart auditorily and then put them back together over and over again.

After children learn to isolate and manipulate phonemes, then we introduce single letters and letter combinations or families (e.g., -at, -up, -in., etc.), but not until we are confident that the child can take words apart and put them together using only what he or she hears. Play rhyming and alliteration games. Sing that old song "Hannah hannah, bo-banana, fee-fie-fo-fannah, me-mi-mo-mannah, Hannah!" You get the idea!

What is Phonics?

Phonics refers to sounds as they relate to graphemes (letters) or morphemes (prefixes, suffixes). Therefore, you can say that phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are exclusively auditory skills, whereas phonics maps the auditory patterns (i.e., sounds) with the corresponding visual representations (i.e., letters). Phonics uses letters, while phonological and phonemic awareness do not. Below is a table comparing phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics:


Phonological Awareness

Phonemic Awareness


Involves sound (no written symbols)

Involves  sound (no written symbols)

Involves symbols (i.e., letters) that represent sounds

There are 48 distinct sounds in English that have definite combinations in syllables, words, and sentences.

There are only 48 distinct sounds in English.

There are multiple ways to represent each sound (e.g., The "o" sound can be spelled a variety of ways in bow, boat, go, thorough, and cope.)

Comprises sounds, syllables, words, and sentences

Focuses on sounds in words

Addresses symbols for sounds, syllables, and words


More and more research is concluding that students with poor phonological awareness skills struggle with reading and spelling. In the brain, the angular gyrus and corresponding regions in the occipital and temporal lobes are responsible for phonological processing abilities. Neuro-imaging of dyslexic brains reveals disruption in this area of the brain. In other words, phonological processing deficits are a hallmark of dyslexia and require explicit and systematic instruction (as well as repeated practice) to build up these neuro-pathways.