Phonemic Awareness: What it is, why it is important and why you must link phonemic awareness to print!


What is Phonemic Awareness?


Phonemic awareness is literally ‘sound’ awareness. Phonemic awareness is understanding that words are made up of sounds and being able to hear, recognize and manipulate the individual sounds that make up a word. Phonemic awareness is primarily an auditory skill of distinguishing and recognizing the sound structure of language. For example, phonemic awareness is realizing the word ‘puppy’ is made up of the sounds /p/ /u/ /p/ /ee/ or the word the word ‘shape’ is made up the sounds /sh/ /ay/ /p/.


Many children do not realize that the words they hear break apart into smaller hunks of sound. Hearing the individual sounds within a word is difficult because spoken language is so seamless. When we speak, we naturally and effortlessly blend all the sounds together to say and hear the overall word.  The natural ease of seamless speech hides the phonetic nature of our spoken language. For example: The child says and hears the word “puppy” as one seamless word /puppy/ and does not recognize or distinguish the separate sounds /p/ /u/ /p/ /ee/ that make up the word.


Children vary greatly in their natural ability to hear the sounds within words. Some individuals have a definite natural phonological weakness.  Research has shown that children with poor phonemic awareness struggle with reading and spelling.  The child’s natural phonological abilities are not related to intelligence. In fact, many highly intelligent children have phonological weakness that leads to reading difficulty. In addition, tendency for natural phonologic weakness may be an inherited trait as it appears to run in families.


Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?


Phonemic awareness is important because it is critical to reading and spelling success. A child’s phonemic awareness is a powerful predictor of the likelihood of reading and spelling success. Children who can not distinguish and manipulate the sounds within spoken words have difficulty recognizing and learning the necessary print=sound relationship that is critical to proficient reading and spelling success. If a child has poor phonemic awareness it is difficult for them to discover the necessary link between print and sound.


The Benefits of Phonemic Awareness Instruction!


Although some children and adults have a definite natural phonological weakness, the good news is that phonemic awareness (PA) can be taught and learned. The scientific evidence proves that PA instruction has a significant positive effect on both reading and spelling. [1] In other words, we can directly teach children how to hear, recognize and manipulate sounds within words and that the intentional development of PA skills has a positive effect on reading and spelling success. Targeted PA instruction helps children develop necessary skills.


Specific Phonemic Awareness Skills: Phonemic awareness is recognizing and being able to manipulate the phonemic structure of language. It includes the following specific skills:


1) The ability to isolate and distinguish individual sounds (the word fish starts with /f/, the word Sam starts with /s/,  or the word ‘cat’ ends with /t/)


2) The ability to identifying phonemes (the words ‘bat’, ‘boy’, and ‘Billy’ all start with the /b/ sound whereas ‘tall’ and ‘toy’ start with the /t/ sound)


3) The ability to categorize similar sounds and recognize phonemic patterns:  this includes the ability to recognize rhyming words (cat, mat, fat, and sat all rhyme) and the ability to recognize similarities and differences in a group of words (bake and bike start with the same sound but they do not rhyme) or (in the group of words ‘bug’, ‘rug’, ‘run’ and ‘hug’, the word ‘run’ is different)


4) The ability to segment phonemes in a word (the word ‘cat’ is made of the sounds /k/ /a/ /t/,  the word ‘shake’ is made up of the sounds /sh/ /ay/ /k/),


5) The ability to blend sounds together (the sound /t/ /o/ /p/ put together make the word ‘top’, the sounds /r/ /u/ /g/ put together make the word ‘rug’)


6) The ability to delete phonemes. (Say the word ‘train’ without the /t/ and the child can say ‘rain’) or (Say ‘mud’ without the /d/ and the child says /mu/)


7) The ability to manipulate phonemes making changes/substitutions (What would the word ‘milk’ be if it started with the /f/ sound instead of the /m/ sound? and the child can say ‘/filk/’, What would the word ‘rug’ be if it you changed the /r/ to a /m/? ‘mug’)


Link the Phonemic Awareness to Print!


Wait! Oral phonemic awareness alone is not sufficient. It is no surprise that the research shows that the phonemic awareness instruction/training is most effective when children are taught to manipulate phonemes with letters. In other words, the greatest effectiveness in helping children learn to read occurs when the essential oral phonemic awareness (hearing/recognizing the sounds) is linked directly to the printed letters (the specific black squiggle). This is teaching the child to link the phonemic awareness skills to the alphabetic awareness skills. Not only can they hear that the word ‘monkey’ starts with the /m/ sound but they can point to the printed letter ‘m’. They can recognize and link sounds to the print. 


When can I start teaching Phonemic Awareness?


Begin teaching your child the essential phonemic awareness skills at the preschool level using fun, age-appropriate activities and sound games.  After initial oral phonemic awareness is developed, begin to link the phonemic awareness activities directly to the printed letters. 


Exactly How Do I Teach My Child Phonemic Awareness Skills?


For specific activities to begin developing phonemic awareness skills in your child, see the article Fun Phonemic Awareness Activities to Get Your Child Started. These are free, simple, fun activities you can use to develop essential phonemic awareness skills in your child. The article Quick Evaluation of Phonemic Awareness provides parents a free quick and easy informal tool to check their child’s phonemic awareness.  These articles provide the ‘nuts and bolts’ actual activities to empower you to help your child develop essential phonemic awareness skills.



Remember!  Phonemic Awareness is only one element of reading success:


Phonemic awareness is only one critical skill for reading success. It is important to realize that while phonemic awareness training provides an essential foundational element of reading success, phonemic awareness alone does NOT insure your child will learn to read proficiently. Phonemic awareness training teaches your child to hear, recognize and distinguish sounds with a word. It is primarily an auditory skill.   Proficient reading requires many complex skills. To read the child MUST not only recognize the sound structure of spoken language but be able to link the sounds to the correct printed representation, know the printed phonemic code automatically, process printed letters phonetically,  track correctly from left to right, smoothly blend sounds together, pay attention to detail, and repeatedly practice correct phonologic decoding to begin building fluency. These are all fundamental skills necessary to master proficient decoding. These fundamental decoding skills are necessary before the child can advance and begin to master the higher level skills including fluency, proficiently handling multisyllable words, vocabulary and comprehension. 


It is important to realize that while phonemic awareness training provides an essential foundation for reading success, it alone does not teach kids to read. An effective direct-systematic-phonics program is still the most effective way to ensure your child learns the other skills that are necessary for proficient reading.  Link to the Free Reading Information page of Right Track Reading for additional information, articles and resources on teaching children to read proficiently.



This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional program Right Track Reading Lessons: A Highly Effective Step-by-Step Direct Systematic Phonic Program.  The purpose of this article is to empower parents with general information on issues related to effectively teaching children how to read. More information is located at  ~ Copyright 2006 Miscese R. Gagen


[1] National Reading Panel’s “Teaching Children to Read” Summary Report