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Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonological Awareness: What’s the Difference?

Wondering what the difference is between “phonemic awareness” and “phonological awareness?” Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably - but they’re not the same!

Phonological awareness is the awareness of the sounds that make up spoken language. It doesn’t involve any written letters - just sounds. Phonological awareness involves skills like: rhyming, counting the number of words in a sentence spoken aloud, identifying the first sound in a word, and segmenting a word into its sounds.

Phonemic awareness is part of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate individual phonemes. Phonemes are speech sounds (for example, the /m/ sound in the word “mat” or the /k/ sound in “bike”).  

Here’s a simple analogy to help:

Phonological awareness = bread

Phonemic awareness = rye bread

Phonemic awareness is made up of a set of skills, and those skills are part of overall phonological awareness.

Neither phonemic awareness or phonological awareness involves alphabet letters or words in print. These skills are practiced by speaking and listening.

If you work with preschool students or young children who are learning to read, both phonological awareness AND phonemic awareness are extremely important! The stronger a child’s phonological awareness is, the more likely they are to become a successful reader.

Here are a few activity ideas to work on phonemic awareness skills:

  • Play “I Spy.” Say, “I spy something that begins with the sound /s/.” Have children look around the classroom or their home for an item that begins with that sound.
  • Have children sort pictures or small objects. You might take a group of picture cards, some that begin with /b/ and some that begin with /t/. Say, “Some of these pictures begin with /b/, like ‘bat.’ Some of these pictures begin with ‘t,’ like ‘turtle.’ Let’s sort these pictures by their beginning sounds.”

And here are some activities for practicing other phonological awareness skills:

  • Play “Rhyming Simon Says.” Say, “Simon says, touch the body part that rhymes with ‘rose.’” (Each child should touch their nose.)
  • Play “Mystery Word:” say the syllables in a word with a pause in between (example: “ze-bra”). Students have to tell you the whole word (zebra).

From Sounds to Spelling is a phonics program for Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade students that includes systematic instruction on phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.

At the Kindergarten and 1st grade levels, students practice brief, playful phonological activities several times each day. (2nd grade students also start the year with phonological awareness activities and then transition to phonics-embedded phonological awareness practice later on in the school year).

Activities are included at the beginning of every lesson, as well as in a “Transitions” sheet that teachers or homeschooling families keep handy throughout the day. Whenever you have a few extra minutes, engage students in one of the activities. Here’s an example sheet at the Kindergarten level:

All activity directions are written out for you, so you can build students’ phonological awareness and phonemic awareness without having to guess or spend time planning activities.

To learn more about how the From Sounds to Spelling phonics program helps build students’ phonological awareness (including phonemic awareness), phonics, and early reading skills, click here. And look for the “free trial” button so you can get a free week of materials, plus a free diagnostic assessment!

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