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What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning. Separating the spoken word "cat" into three distinct phonemes, /k/, /ć/, and /t/, requires phonemic awareness.

The National Reading Panel has found that phonemic awareness improves children's word reading and reading comprehension, as well as helping children learn to spell. Phonemic awareness is the basis for learning phonics.

Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are often confused since they are interdependent. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate individual phonemes. Phonological awareness includes this ability, but it also includes the ability to hear and manipulate larger units of sound, such as onsets and rimes and syllables.

Studies by Vickie Snider from the Journal of Education have shown that phonemic awareness has a direct correlation with students’ ability to read as they get older. Phonemic awareness builds a foundation for students to understand the rules of the English language. This in turn allows each student to apply these skills and increase his or her oral reading fluency and understanding of the text.

Phonemic awareness relates to the ability to distinguish and manipulate individual sounds, such as /f/, /ʊ/, and /t/ in the case of foot. The following are common phonemic awareness skills practiced with students:

  • Phoneme isolation, which requires recognizing the individual sounds in words, for example, "Tell me the first sound you hear in the word paste" (/p/).

  • Phoneme identity, which requires recognizing the common sound in different words, for example, "Tell me the sound that is the same in bike, boy and bell" (/b/).

  • Phoneme substitution, in which one can turn a word (such as "cat") into another (such as "hat") by substituting one phoneme (such as /h/) for another (/k/). Phoneme substitution can take place for initial sounds (cat-hat), middle sounds (cat-cut) or ending sounds (cat-can).

  • Oral segmenting: The teacher says a word, for example, "ball," and students say the individual sounds, /b/, /ɑ/, and /l/.

  • Oral blending: The teacher says each sound, for example, "/b/, /ɑ/, /l/" and students respond with the word, "ball."

  • Sound deletion: The teacher says word, for example, "bill," has students repeat it, and then instructs students to repeat the word without a sound. The teacher might say, "Now say bill without the /b/." Students should respond with /ɪl/.

  • Onset-rime manipulation, which requires isolation, identification, segmentation, blending, or deletion of onsets (the single consonant or blend that precedes the vowel and following consonants), for example, j-ump, st-op, str-ong.
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