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What is the Difference Between Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness?

What is the Difference Between Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness?

At Reading Teacher, we understand the struggle. When teachers try to learn new reading terms, they’re often faced with a storm of conflicting information, provided by everyone’s favorite yet sometimes unreliable friend: the Internet. We’ll save you the stress by outlining the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, followed by reading activities that help readers understand the tricky relationship between sounds and words.

Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness Similar

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to manipulate individual units of sound, or phonemes, and understand how they form words. If a reader can blend, separate, add, delete, or substitute sounds, then they are master manipulators - of sound, that is.


What Does It Mean to Manipulate Sounds?

When defining phonological vs. phonemic awareness, we need to know what it truly means to manipulate a sound. Take the word “cat,” for instance: to assess whether a child is able to manipulate the sounds in the word “cat,” you can ask them to blend the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/, without telling them that these three phonemes form the word “cat.”

Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness

Phonological Awareness Activities

What is a phonological awareness activity? Any lesson that asks a reader to manipulate sounds by blending, segmenting, adding, deleting, or substituting to form a word. Although we’ll continue with our “cat” example, any age-appropriate sight word can be used to practice the manipulation of sound.

  • Back to “cat”: you can directly present the word “cat” to a child and ask them to separate the sounds into /c/ /a/ /t/
  • Ask the reader: what’s another that sounds like “cat”? Answers could be “car,” “camp,” “cow,” or any other word that starts with /c/
  • Extra tricky: ask them to substitute sounds by giving them a new phoneme to start the word. Instead of /c/, substitute /r/ to sound out “rat”

What is Phonemic Awareness?
Compared to phonological awareness, which focuses on the connection between sounds and the words they form, phonemic awareness concentrates on the individual sounds in spoken language, defined as phonemes.


There are 44 phonemes in the English language - but with 26 letters in the English alphabet, how is this possible? The answer lies in the concept of digraph phonemes, in which two consonants create blended sounds. Sounds such as /sh/ and /ch/ may be composed of two letters each, but they’re still perfectly valid phonemes.

Phonological Awareness

Phonemic Awareness Activities
Because phonemic awareness is so specific, it can be difficult for educators to come up with targeted reading activities to test this skill. Because phonemic awareness assumes that readers are able to hear individual sounds, related activities can push children to become better listeners and interpreters of sound. Some simple ideas include:

  • Clap It Out: Sing a song or recite a favorite poem with your child, and clap loudly as soon as you hear a new syllable.
  • Noisy Phonemes: Find a “mystery item” in your home that makes a recognizable noise: perhaps a piece of bubble wrap, pot, or another noisy item. Have your child close their eyes, listen to the sound made by the item, and guess what it is, answering in a full sentence! This is an easy phonemic awareness activity for younger and/or more active readers.


How are Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness Similar?

Both phonological and phonemic awareness emphasize sounds instead of letters. A handy rule of thumb - or tongue, in this context! - is that because phonological and phonemic awareness attend to sounds only and not letters, any activities that test these two skills can be done in the dark.


When explaining the differences between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness to a fellow teacher, start with the basics. As tedious as it can feel, this knowledge can take reading teachers, their lesson plans, and their readers much farther than they’d expect.

Phonemic Awareness


  • Phonological awareness refers to the ability to manipulate sounds and use them to form words, while phonemic awareness is hyper-focused on the ability to hear individual sounds.
  • Both phonemic and phonological awareness are focused on sound units, not letters.
  • Phonological awareness activities ask readers to blend, segment, and otherwise manipulate sounds, whereas phonemic awareness activities highlight the connection between hearing and speaking individual sound units.

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What is Phonological Awareness and Why is it Important?

What Is Phonological Awareness and Why Is It Important?

phonological awareness

The ability to recognize sounds and how they form words is known as phonological awareness. In other words, phonological awareness is the ability to work with sounds in spoken language. Having good phonological awareness allows children to play around with sounds and understand how they come together to form words. It also helps children discriminate between and manipulate sounds. Phonological awareness is not the same as phonics or phonemic awareness because it focuses on individual sounds in spoken language. It involves various skills, including rhyming, separating a word into sounds, and identifying the first sound of the word.

To support the development of phonological skills, children have to:

  • Practice regularly
  • Focus on rhyming
  • Practice connecting sounds
  • Try breaking apart words

Why is Phonological Awareness Important?

Phonological awareness consists of skills that develop over time and are important for children to successfully read and write. It’s important to introduce phonological awareness activities in pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade. Teaching phonological awareness at an early age can help eliminate reading problems that children might face in the future.


Developing strong competencies in phonological awareness is essential for children because knowing that words are made up of sounds is essential for success in learning and reading.


It allows children to learn the meaning and pronunciation of words by comparing them to similar words they already know. Phonological awareness later helps children decode and blend words.  Children can improve their pre-reading skills by hearing a sound and identifying where it occurs in a word.


Children who are not able to identify separate sounds don’t have the ability to write and read words they have never seen before. Therefore, children with phonological awareness difficulties may think that the words “cat” and “bat” are the same if they are having a hard time distinguishing between the alphabets “C” and “B.”

How to Teach Phonological Awareness

A variety of phonological awareness activities can be implemented in the classroom to help children distinguish between sounds and take a step towards independent reading. Phonological awareness skills can be taught through poems, games, songs, and nursery rhymes. To build phonological awareness, children have to practice rhyming, syllable division, and sound segmentation.


Rhyming is the first step in teaching children phonological awareness. After introducing rhyming, teachers should ask students to practice rhymes by manipulating and adding sounds in words.


The next step of learning phonological awareness skills is to break apart syllables. Clap out words like Oc-to-ber and Su-per-man to help children count syllables in words.


The final step of teaching children phonological awareness is to help them practice sound segmentation, which is the act of pulling apart words into different sounds. You can give the example of “Hat” and tell them that the word consists of three sounds – h-a-t. 


Example: To increase phonological awareness among children, teachers can take the help of songs, poetry, and traditional rhymes. After reciting rhyming songs or chants, the teacher can ask students to count the number of syllables in a word.

Differences Between Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness

Usually, phonological and phonemic awareness are used to refer to phonological awareness. The terms are used interchangeably but have different meanings. To understand the differences between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, we first have to understand what phonemic awareness is.


Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, manipulate, identify, and work with individual sounds in spoken language. The primary difference between phonological and phonemic awareness is that phonological awareness is the ability to recognize words made up of different sounds. In contrast, phonemic awareness is the ability to understand how sound functions in words.


Phonological awareness includes identifying words that rhyme, sentence segmentation, identifying syllables in words and onsets and rimes. On the other hand, phonemic awareness includes blending sounds into words, sound segmentation, and manipulating a phoneme to form a new word.

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