Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are aural and oral skills that allow children to understand that speech is made up of words, and that words are made up of distinct sounds and sound patterns. Phonological and phonemic awareness are highly predictive of early reading acquisition.

Phonological awareness
involves the identification and manipulation of parts of spoken language, including words, syllables, onsets and rimes, and the individual speech sounds in words (phonemes).
Phonemic awareness
is a subset of phonological awareness that involves the specific skill of identifying and manipulating individual speech sounds within words (phonemes).

These terms should not be confused with phonics, which is knowledge of how printed letters or groups of letters represent, or map to, the sounds in speech. Strong phonemic awareness skills give students an advantage in learning phonics, because they make it easier for students to understand the relationships between phonemes and the letters and letter patterns that typically represent speech sounds in written language (called graphemes).

Speech sounds or phonemes are not always easy to distinguish because we don’t articulate them separately, they are buried in a constant stream of speech, or co-articulated. Some phonemes are easily confused so learners should not be left to identify speech sounds in words unassisted. We need to explicitly teach phonemic awareness if children are to benefit from phonics instruction.

“The order of phonemes in spoken words represent the anchoring element for remembering the order of letters in written words.” – Kilpatrick (2015)
“Of all the phonological skills, the ability to identify, manipulate, and remember strings of speech sounds accounts for a significant proportion of the difference between good readers and poor readers. The same relationship holds for learning to spell: Those who learn to spell easily usually have well-developed phoneme awareness, and the poorest spellers usually have phonological processing weaknesses.”

Moats (2010)

Phonics and phonemic awareness are co-dependent skills. When students are reading and writing, they need to be encouraged to use their phonemic awareness skills (hearing/saying sounds) to assist in making the connections between the sounds they hear and how they are written (phonics).

-Phonics, a Guide for Teachers, BOSTES

“The acquisition of phonemic awareness is not guaranteed simply through maturation; in fact, about a third of students require varying degrees of assistance to promote its development (Adams, 1990). If they don’t receive this help, many will employ less effective strategies, such as attempting to remember every word as a unique picture, or by various guessing strategies.”

Hempenstall (2014)

“Children who can tell you the first sound of a word have achieved some degree of phoneme awareness, of understanding that spoken words contain phonemes. Children are said to be fully aware of phonemes when they can recite the sequence of all the phonemes in a word (e.g.<CAT> is /k/ /æ/ /t/).”

Stuart and Stainthorp (2016)

Components of phonological awareness


Phonological awareness Segment words into syllables
Phonemic awareness Onset-rime segmentation
Segment initial sounds
Segment final sounds
Critical Achievement – segment and blend sounds
Deletion & manipulation of sounds
Adapted from Schuele and Murphy (2014) intensive phonological awareness program. Baltimore : Brookes Publishing

Initially, students are aware of the larger phonological units in spoken language, such as rhyme, alliteration and onset-rime segmentation. With exposure to spoken and written language as well as explicit teaching, students eventually develop an awareness of individual phonemes in words (phonemic awareness), allowing them to segment and blend sounds for spelling and reading.