Role of Phonemic Awareness in Reading

The role of phonemic awareness is to sensitise students to the alphabetic principle, or the idea that letters and letter combinations represent speech sounds of a writing system.

In order to to acquire phonemic awareness children must have experiences that focus their attention to the sounds in words. It’s important to understand that most children do not have trouble hearing sounds in words but many have problems with analysing the sounds in words. The explicit teaching of phonemic awareness page provides examples of phonological and phonemic awareness activities that can assist children with analysing sounds.

The results of the meta-analysis in the USA, the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP 2008) show that children as young as three can begin playing with letters. Parents often develop this by playful interactions and sharing of picture books. Where this is not done at home it is essential that early learning environments, such as school explicitly promote learning about letters. Information on how to teach the alphabetic principle can be found here.

Why is it so important?

Phonological and phonemic awareness are essential foundations and have been shown to predict later reading progress. Students who start school with strong phonological and phonemic awareness are more likely to become successful readers than those who do not (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster & Hulme, 2012).

Phonemic awareness doesn’t always develop naturally in the same manner as speech and oral language, and often needs to be taught. Learners will struggle to master phonics if they have weak phonemic awareness skills and poor phonemic awareness is a common contributor to specific reading disability or dyslexia (Furnes et al., 2019). Research has demonstrated that children with specific language impairment or children with a family history of dyslexia may need more frequent exposure and practice to phonemic awareness activities in order to reach the same level of phonemic awareness as their peers.

Snow, Burns and Griffin (1998) observed that,

“….because phonemes are the units of sound that are represented by the letters of an alphabet, an awareness of phonemes is key to understanding the logic of the alphabetic principle. Unless and until children have a basic awareness of the phonemic structure of language, asking them for the first sound in the word boy, or expecting them to understand that cap has three sounds while camp has four, is to little avail.”

The phonemic awareness skills of segmenting and blending are the most critical. It is important to note that phonemic awareness has the strongest effect on word reading skills when combined with teaching children about the letters which represent phonemes, therefore it’s important to provide opportunities for children to use their new found letter knowledge and phoneme blending and segmenting skills in the context of reading and writing activities (Brady, 2020). The National Reading Panel report (2000), showed the effects of teaching phoneme awareness were twice as large for small group than whole group teaching, and phonemic awareness activities in small groups is best to ensure ALL children gain mastery of what is being taught.

Phonemic awareness continues to be important in assisting older struggling readers to make substantial gains in word level reading skills, particularly those with a phonological-core deficit. A phonological core deficit relates to problems with any of the phonological processes of learning to read, these include difficulties with phonic decoding, phonological working memory, Rapid Automatised Naming and phonological awareness.


Brady, S. (2020).
A 2020 perspective on research findings on alphabetics (phoneme awareness and phonics): Implications for instruction.
The Reading League Journal

Furnes, B., Elwér, Å., Samuelsson, S., Olson, R. K., & Byrne, B. (2019).
Investigating the double-deficit hypothesis in more and less transparent orthographies: A longitudinal study from preschool to grade 2.
Scientific Studies of Reading

Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S.-A. H & Hulme, C. (2012).
Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: A meta-analytic review.
Psychological Bulletin

National Reading Panel (2000).
Teaching Children to Read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Snow, C.E., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998).
Preventing reading difficulties in young children.
National Academy of Sciences

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