Phonological Awareness vs Phonemic Awareness: What’s the Difference

woman reading book to her child

Many of us remember the ad from the 90’s Hooked On Phonics, but there is more to phonics than just that. Speech-language pathologists talk about phonological awareness. Both of these terms have some similarities and can quickly become mixed up in our heads. 

This article will cover the differences between these two essential parts of phonics.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the development aspect of different components of any spoken language. People with strong phonological awareness can easily recognize when words rhyme, notice syllable patterns and word repetition

There is a direct correlation between phonological awareness and reading ability. However, poor readers seem to have weaker phonological awareness skills. 

Related: How to learn English as a second language

Examples of Phonological Awareness

Within each of these skills, some readers will find themselves stronger in some areas over others. But here are a few examples of phonological awareness.

  • Rhyming. Being able to identify words that have similar endings.
  • Alliteration. Being able to identify words that have similar beginnings.
  • Syllable, Word, and Sentence Segmentation. This ability allows readers to take everything apart and quickly break down sentences.
  • Onsets. Readers will notice patterns at the beginning and endings of words.
  • Phonemes. Readers can easily make out individual sounds.
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What is Phonemic Awareness?

On the other hand, Phonemic Awareness refers to the knowledge of a phoneme in correlation to the individual’s ability to manipulate the sounds within each word. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. We use these to create syllables and words. 

Phonemic awareness is a complex ability that children develop after they learn to manipulate words through syllables. Readers who lack phonemic awareness may have difficulty decoding words and learning phonics. 

Examples of Phonemic Awareness

Here are just a few examples of phonemic awareness.

  • Blending. This example is the ability to put sounds together to make spoken words. 
  • Segmentation. This example is the ability to segment a word that is heard into individual phonemes. 
  • Manipulation. This example is the ability to manipulate phonemes to create new words within the same word family.

What is Phonics?

Phonics is the letter sound that our brains associate with the patterns that we use to spell words. It assumes that the student already knows the alphabetic principles. Phonics helps to teach these letter-sound associations from the written text. 

How Does Phonological Awareness Develop?

It is critical to support and grow the skills that boost phonological awareness. These skills are essential for students to be able to hear and manipulate the individual sounds of words. It is often easier to listen to the large units within a language rather than individually. 

For example, breaking down the word watermelon into water and melon, then segmenting the word further to wa-ter, and then finding the individual sounds. W-A-T-E-R.

Phonological awareness starts at the word level when children first begin to learn. They will then often start to blend those words. For example, water becomes watermelon.

Or they will learn the opposite, how to manipulate segments. For example, you can take the word watermelon and change the melon part with a new word to get waterbed.

Once students can understand these segments, they can continue to blend and manipulate these compounds to understand better new words they come across. This method is an excellent way for students to learn new and bigger words. 

Want to make sure that your child is on the right track? Sage Reading offers tutoring.

Related: Reading Disabilities. What you need to know

Phonological Awareness Activities

Activities that help to boost phonological awareness are:

  • Segmenting syllables. This activity helps students break down words into smaller parts.
  • Deleting rimes. Remove the last syllable of the word. 
  • Isolating phonemes. This activity has students select specific phonemes.
  • Blending onset. Pairing phonemes together.
  • Matching phonemes. For example, matching words that all start with the same sound.
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How Does Phonemic Awareness Develop?

Phonological awareness is a skill that develops in a predictable profession. These skill tasks begin at a basic level and go through a sequence, moving toward more difficult. Each of these skills will pair with age groups considered specific accomplishments within those variables. 

A prerequisite for phonological awareness is a basic listening skill. This leads to the acquisition of a vocabulary that consists of several thousand words. These skills come from the ability to imitate and produce basic sentences. These skills use language to express needs, share experience, react, and understand what others are talking about.

Phonemic Awareness Activities

All of these activities can help to improve phonemic awareness. These activities all revolve around the smallest units of sound. 

To do this, all you have to do is break down the sounds of a word to the smallest unit. For example, being able to hear B, A, G in the word bag. 

Related: Early Literacy Skills You Should Be Teaching Your Child

How are Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness Alike?

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness both center their attention on the sound of the words rather than the letters. Exercises for both of these can be done in darkness.   

As you speak a word, clap with the syllables. Rather than read the letters, you are blending the sounds together. It’s about the awareness of the sounds rather than reading the physical letters. 

How Are Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness Different?

The biggest difference between these two is that phonemic awareness allows you to hear and manipulate the smallest sounds within the word. Whereas Phonological awareness is the skill of hearing and manipulate the units, no matter what size, in spoken words. Phonological awareness includes syllables, rime, onset, and phonemes. 

Other Similarities

While these two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not quite the same. Both of these break down words by sounds rather than letters. Some other similarities these two things have in common are more apparent when we look at some examples. 

Counting the number of syllables in a word is considered to be phonological awareness. Counting the number of sounds, however, would be phonemic awareness activity

Why They Matter

Both of these forms of awareness are some of the strongest identifiers of reading success. Without these skills, students may struggle to learn critical reading skills. Using the exercises we talked about throughout this article, you can help your students improve their phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. 

Is your child struggling with phonics? Sage Reading can help.

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