Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Understanding Phonological vs. Phonemic Awareness: Key Differences Explained

According to research, students with strong phonological awareness are likely to become good readers. On the other hand, students with weak phonological skills will likely have reading difficulties.

Phonological and phonemic awareness are fundamental elements of learning to read, yet there’s still a lot of confusion between these two concepts and their relationship to phonics and decoding. This post will clarify the definitions and differences between the two. You’ll also find simple reading activity examples you can use.


What is the difference between phonological and phonemic awareness?

In simple terms, phonological awareness is the umbrella term for understanding sound structures in language, while phonemic awareness is an element that specifically deals with individual sounds. 

Let’s look into the definitions of each term and the skills involved:

Understanding phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is best explained as an umbrella term that covers all skills having to do with identifying and working with the spoken sounds in sentences, words, and parts of words. 


The skills under the umbrella of phonological awareness include:

    ◊ Recognizing rhyme and alliteration

    ◊ Segmenting a sentence into words

    ◊ Identifying syllables in a word

    ◊ Blending and segmenting onset-rimes


Phonemic awareness is the most advanced skill — and the last to develop.

Phonological Awareness Umbrella

According to one study, phonological awareness is a strong predictor of reading success, even beyond other cognitive and language abilities.

Understanding Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of skills under the umbrella of phonological awareness, but it has been identified as an essential component of learning to read and write. It’s the ability to notice, think about, and work with individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. This includes:

      ◊ Blending sounds into words

      ◊ Segmenting words into sounds

      ◊ Deleting and manipulating spoken word sounds


How does each help reading and literacy development?

Phonological and phonemic awareness are critical pre-reading listening skills that provide a foundation for reading development.


Phonological awareness benefits

Phonological awareness helps children recognize and manipulate larger units of sound, such as syllables and words. This skill helps children develop an understanding of the sound structure of language and makes it easier for them to recognize and decode words when reading.


Phonology is like a secret code that helps us understand how the sounds we make with our mouths turn into words that we use to talk to each other. It’s like a puzzle that we must solve to understand how language works. 


Phonemic Awareness Benefits

Phonemic awareness helps children recognize individual sounds, which is necessary for phonics instruction and the ability to decode and encode (spell) words.


Phonemes are the building blocks that we use to make different words. Just as how you can use different Lego pieces to build different creations, we can use different phonemes to build different words. For example, the sounds /b/, /p/, /a/, and /t/ are phonemes that we can use to build words “bat,” “tab,” “tap,” “apt,” and “pat.” 


The tricky part is that not all languages use the same phonemes. Some languages use different sounds to build their words. Because of this, we study phonology to understand how different languages use different phonemes to communicate. 


Overall, phonology is all about understanding the sounds we use to talk to each other, and phonemes are the building blocks that we use to make words.



What is an example of phonological awareness?

Here are some phonological awareness activity examples:

   – Counting syllables

   – One might clap out syllables in a word. For instance, clapping twice for “ro-cket” and three times for “li-bra-ry.” 

   – Counting the number of words in a sentence 

The main purpose of this would be to help a child understand that each word is its own entity and that multiple words make up one thought or a sentence.

Identifying and making rhyming words

A teacher might give students a focus word, such as “rain.” Students would then identify that “main,” “plane,” and “chain” all rhyme with “rain.”


A fun classroom activity for rhyming is “Flip and Rhyme”:


Teachers use picture cards, hiding all pictures until it’s time to get students to begin rhyming.

“Let’s count to three and then it’s time,

to flip the card and make a rhyme!

One…two…three… [say picture card word]”

Card Words/Rhyming Words: 

   1. bag/crag, drag, flag, gag, jag, lag, nag, rag, sag, stag, tag, wag, zigzag

   2. can/ban, bran, clan, fan, gran, man, pan, plan, ran, tan, van

   3. mop/bop, chop, clop, crop, drop, flop, glop, hop, lop, pop, slop, shop, top

   4. bed/bread, dead, fed, head, led, med, led, red, said, sled, shed, shred, wed

After counting to three, teachers flip a Couple Card/picture card (or flip to the next slide in the PowerPoint), and students say the word for the picture in unison. Students can come up with as many spoken rhyming words as possible.

For support, teachers can show more pictures, some that DO rhyme and some pictures that do NOT rhyme, asking students to decide. 

Daily Dos Flip and Rhyme Activity

What is phonemic awareness and why is it important? 

Phonemic awareness is a specific compartment of phonological awareness that involves recognizing and manipulating individual sounds, or phonemes, in spoken language. This includes being able to isolate, blend, segment, and manipulate phonemes in words. 


Phonemic awareness is a crucial precursor to learning phonics, as it allows children to understand that words are made up of individual sounds. However, it’s the least practiced. To be fluent readers and accurate spellers, students should:

    ◊ Be aware of sounds that make up spoken words

    ◊ Easily manipulate sounds

    ◊ Link speech and print


One study found that phonemic awareness has a direct impact on learning to read and that it can be effectively taught to young children, including those in low-income and inner-city classrooms.

Daily Dos, first distinguishing that sounds and words are different in “Different or the Same,” and then isolating specific sounds WITHIN those words in activities like “Odd Duck” and “Find Five”

What is an example of phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a skill that helps us understand and manipulate the individual sounds, or phonemes, in spoken words. It’s kind of like being a detective who can break down words into their smallest parts and figure out how they fit together. For example, if you hear the word “cat,” you can identify that it has three sounds: /k/-/a/-/t/


Another example is the ability to replace one phoneme with another to form a new word (substitution), such as changing the /b/ sound in “bat” to a /k/ sound to form “cat.” 


Here is a sample activity from the Daily Dos activity, “Switch”:


“We will be switching parts of words for different sounds. Right now, we are going to switch the very first sound of the word for a new sound.”

Example: “If I take the word BLOCK, and I switch the sounds /b/ for the sound /k/. I now get CLOCK.”


Teachers say the main word (the picture shown in the PowerPoint and student checklist) and then say, “Switch [first sound of the word] for [new sound].” “What do we get? [answer].”

If using PowerPoints or student checklists: The sounds to be switched are shown beneath the picture, more as a prompt and an opportunity for students to be exposed to new spellings. The letters/sounds are not there to be read by students. Teachers say the sounds to be switched.


   1. Frown: Switch /f/ for /b/ (brown)

   2. Slug: Switch /s/ for /p/ (plug)

   3. Glue: Switch /g/ for /b/ (blue)

   4. Grass: Switch /g/ for /b/ (brass)

   5. Play: Switch /p/ for /k/ (sloth)

   6. Flash: Switch /f/ for /k/ (clash)

Daily Dos, Switch Activity

Phonemic awareness is a complex piece of phonological awareness that’s essential for developing reading and spelling skills. We learn to decode and understand written language by recognizing and manipulating phonemes.

What are the 6 phonemic awareness skills?

Important note: There’s a pre-requisite skill that needs to be in place before the 6 skills of phonemic awareness are even possible: auditory discrimination. Being able to hear the difference between words and spoken sounds allows the following skills to form. If a child cannot hear the differences or similarities, there may be a deeper disadvantage or obstacle to be evaluated or the child may need more direct and careful instruction on the differences in sounds.

Once students begin to hear the differences and similarities in spoken words and sounds, they can begin to build the foundation for reading and writing through the 6 phonemic awareness skills:

   1. Isolation: Identifying individual sounds (phonemes) in a word

   2. Blending: Blending, or continuously combining, individual sounds (phonemes) together to form a word (real or nonsense)

   3. Segmenting: Breaking a word down into its individual sounds (phonemes)

   4. Adding: The ability to add a specific sound to a word to create a new word (real or nonsense)

   5. Deleting: The ability to remove a sound (phoneme) from a word and form a new word

   6. Substituting: The ability to substitute one sound (phoneme) for another in a word to form a new word

What’s the best way to practice phonemic awareness?

In the case of general education and tier 1 implementation, educators should practice these skills with students frequently and consistently from Pre-K through 1st grade.  

The phonemic awareness skills, previously discussed, do have a sequence. Students must be able to:

   1. Hear sounds

   2. Recognize and isolate sounds

   3. Blend and segment sounds

   4. Manipulate sounds

By layering instruction, scaffolding the skills, and being consistent, students will have a strong foundation for:

    ◊ Learning the letter-to-sound correlations

    ◊ Learning to decode

    ◊ Writing using phoneme-grapheme knowledge

Further research is required

In a recent meta-analysis of research on phonemic awareness, it was found that computer programs and parents can be a powerful supplement to teacher/classroom instruction.

As research grows in the education field, our information has become more defined. Previously, phonemic awareness was seen as an activity that could be “done in the dark,” or without connection to written phonics. More recently, in “The Reading League Journal,” Susan Brady clarified that phoneme awareness instruction should be integrated with letter instruction, as previously suggested by the National Reading Panel in 2000.

Scholars have said that advanced phonemic awareness training, training past first grade without the connection to written phonics, may not have added benefits or even be evidence-based. Phonemic awareness can connect to a phonics lesson to ensure students understand sounds, but an extensive program need not be implemented.

That being said, there’s still ongoing research about the quantity of time needed, the process used, and the scope and sequence of the skills laid out, as it pertains to effectiveness.


The lingo and terminology may be complex, but simply put: Students need to learn about the spoken words and their place in our language (phonological awareness). Then, students need to learn about the parts and sounds of those spoken words (phonemic awareness) so they can eventually weave this skill into sound-spelling relationships (phonics) and sounding out words (decoding).

Close this search box.

Enter Your Email to Follow Our Blogs

The Teacher’s Platform Subscription (one year)

The Entire Platform Collection gives you access to every printable document, every visual PowerPoint lesson, and every updated document and resource for the entire Express Readers Program TK-2nd Grade.

Item# 5099 | $ 49.00 / 12 months

Already a member? Please Login here