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Phonemic Awareness: What It Is & Why It's Important

So here's something you already know: If you teach young children, then you are a reading teacher.

Here's something you may not know: If you are teaching children how to read, then not only should you be knowledgable about phonemic awareness, but you should be doing activities daily with your students to help support their development in that area.

Here's the reality: Very few teachers can clearly articulate what phonemic awareness is and why it is important for young readers.

Having been a teacher of children with dyslexic tendencies, I utilized phonemic awareness exercises daily with my students, because this is typically an area of weakness for individuals with dyslexia. Having transitioned back into a "mainstream" classroom, I continue to prioritize phonemic awareness exercises daily with my students, because I know how vital it is for students in the foundational years of reading instruction.

Phonemic awareness is important crucial for all readers. So if phonemic awareness is a murky concept for you, then this post may be a good starting point for you. I am sharing an overview of important concepts in my own words, and at the end of this post, I am listing other resources, made available by people who are far more knowledgable than I am. In all, I hope to provide you with multiple perspectives from which to glean a better understanding of phonemic awareness and how it impacts your reading instruction.

This information also holds true for parents as well. Phonemic awareness skills can easily be developed at home! Use this information not only to shape your classroom instruction, but also to better inform parents about new ways they can work with their children.

Okay, let's clear up a big misunderstanding: phonemic awareness and phonics ARE NOT the same thing. Phonemic awareness is defined as the ability to hear, recognize, and manipulate individual sounds within words. These sounds are known as phonemes. Hence, the term "phonemic awareness."

If you notice, that definition is based upon hearing sounds within words. It has nothing to do with print or associating those sounds with letters. In fact, that is where phonics comes in. See how this works? 

Phonemic awareness begins long before a student picks up a book to read. In fact, phonemic awareness development is a great predictor of future reading success. Phonemic awareness helps students gain an understanding of how sounds work within words. As they develop as readers, they will associate those sounds with letters, which directly impacts the way they blend sounds together to read words or spell words in their own writing.

Phonemic awareness is the starting point, a foundation, on which readers build their understanding of print and the way words work. So, that being said, if you have a child who struggles to develop phonemic awareness, even after consistent practice and explicit instruction, then that may be a warning sign to you that something else is going on. If no other factors are inhibiting his/her development, that child may be displaying dyslexic tendencies, of which early identification is essential.

So you've got this. Now, what can you do?

The answer depends largely on the age of the students you teach. Younger students, or those who are still developing foundational skills for reading, should be exposed to phonemic awareness exercises on a daily basis. Students who have established a reading foundation, but are extending and building those skills (typically 3rd grade and older) only need phonemic awareness exercises 2 or 3 times per week. Also, for those students, you would more accurately want to focus on phonological awareness, rather than phonemic awareness. I'll share more about this in a future post. :)

While you can implement these activities into your whole-group instruction, phonemic awareness activities are often most effective when used in small group instruction. The following are some basic phonemic awareness exercises that are useful, appropriate, and fun for young learners, who typically enjoy playing with words and sounds. I have also provided an example or two to better explain the activity. In a future post, (coming soon!) I will share some resources that I created to use with my students. 


Example: Do these words rhyme? cat, rat (yes)

                Can you think of a word that rhymes with top? (hop)

Counting Phonemes

Example: Say pig. How many sounds do you hear in pig?  (3 sounds- /p/, /i/, /g/)

Phoneme Isolation

Examples: Say bag. What is the first sound you hear in bag? (/b/)

                  Say stop. What is the last sound you her in stop? (/p/)

                  Say bug. What is the middle sound you hear in bug? (/u/)

Phoneme Deletion

Examples: Say trap. Now say trap without the /t/. (rap)

                  Say mat. Now say mat without the /m/. (at)

Phoneme Substitution

Examples: Say man. Change the /m/ in man to /p/. What is the new word? (pan)

Say top. Change the /o/ in top to /i/. What is the new word? (tip)

Say run. Change the /n/ in run to /t/. What is the new word? (rut)

And if you want to know more...

If you want to learn more about phonemic awareness and activities you can use, the following list includes what I consider to be some useful, practical sources of information. Start clicking! :)

Adventures in Literacy Land: Phonemic Awareness

A Teacher's Guide to Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic Awareness Development Continuum

Phonemic Awareness in Young Children

Building Phonemic Awareness with Phoneme Isolation - ReadWriteThink

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