Phonemic awareness affects speech and literacy

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and mentally manipulate the sounds (phonemes), sound sequences, and sound structures in a syllable or word. The term is often used interchangeably with phonological awareness; strictly speaking, there is a difference, but the two terms overlap enough that the only people who truly care about the differences between them are nerds like me.

Good phonological awareness skills make learning to read, write, and spell a lot easier. Children and adults who are strong readers and good spellers also tend to be strong in phonological awareness. It is possible to develop literacy without strong phonological awareness; deaf people, for example, are often able to read and write quite effectively in English, even though they cannot hear the sounds of the language. In general, however, a child with poor phonological skills will often have to work much harder to learn to read and write at grade level.

But phonological awareness is not just important for literacy. Most conversation does not take place in a soundproof booth with just one person talking at a time. By enabling us to "fill in the gaps" in what we hear, good phonemic awareness helps us process speech in noisy places and over bad telephone connections.

I have listed below ten stages of phonemic awareness, in typical order of development. In other words, pre-phonemic listening is generally the first of these skills to develop, followed by rhyming, segmentation, isolation, and so on. Weak skills at any one of these levels will probably limit development of later-developing skills.

Clicking on the link for each skill will take you to a more detailed discussion of that skill, as well as activities you can use to encourage their development. For a number of reasons, I recommend that you use nonsense words for these activities.

Pre-phonemic discriminatory listening skills: the ability to distinguish among non-speech environmental sounds (e.g., a beanbag falling on a wooden floor versus a plastic ball falling on a wooden floor), and to identify objects by the sound they make (e.g., a horn, a bell, a helicopter, etc.)

Alliteration and rhyme: the ability to identify and produce words that rhyme or that begin with the same phoneme.

Phoneme Segmentation: the ability to analyze the syllables and individual phonemes of a word, phrase, or sentence.

Phoneme Isolation: the ability to identify the first, middle, or last phonemes in a monosyllabic word.

Phoneme Deletion: the ability to identify how a word would sound if a part of it were omitted.

Phoneme Substitution: the ability to replace a phoneme in a word with another phoneme to form a new word.

Phoneme Blending: the ability to identify a word when hearing parts of the word presented in isolation.

Letter-sound correspondence: the ability to identify the phonemes represented by individual letters and combinations of letters.

Phonetic reading: the ability to "sound out" and pronounce unfamiliar or nonsense words based on spelling.

Phonetic spelling: the ability to use prior knowledge of spelling rules to write familiar words the student has not learned to spell.

If you would like additional ideas for activities you can use to help your child build phonological awareness, take a look at the books I've listed below. All of them are available from, have reviewer ratings averaging at least four stars, and are appropriate for classroom or home use. I have not used all of them in my own practice, but I can certainly say that they are based on solid and accurate knowledge of phonological development.

Wiley Blevins:
Phonemic Awareness Activities for Early Reading Success (Grades K-2)

Catherine Yuh:
Phonemic Awareness: Playing with Sounds to Strengthen Beginning Reading Skills by Jo Fitzpatrick; Illustrated

Nancy Jolson Leber
Picture Sorting For Phonemic Awareness: Reproducible Picture Cards With Hands-On Sorting Games & Activities That Get Kids Ready for Reading

Janiel Wagstaff:
Irresistible Sound-Matching Sheets and Lessons That Build Phonemic Awareness

A child with a phonemic awareness disorder may be misdiagnosed as having an articulation disorder. Like children with articulation disorders, children with poor phonological awareness mispronounce many words, especially in the early stages of speech development and have no particular trouble with longer, more phonologically complex words.

However, a deficit in phonological awareness is not an articulation disorder. A child with an articulation disorder mispronounces certain sounds due to lack of oral motor coordination or bad habits formed when learning to speak. A child with a phonological awareness deficit may be able to pronounce all sounds correctly, but has trouble analyzing what sounds are part of a word, and in what order they occur. A child with PAD may say mat clearly, but be unable to tell you what the beginning sound is, or where the /t/ sound comes in the word.

It is also important to remember that children that are not deaf or hard of hearing can have a phonemic awareness deficit. Their difficulties are not a result of difficulty hearing speech, but a lack of awareness about the sound structures of words. Deafness or hearing loss can certainly contribute to difficulties with phonological awareness, and make treatment more difficult, but many children with this disorder have hearing in the average normal range.

Return from Phonemic Awareness to Speech-Language Development home page.

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