Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness–two common terms in the world of dyslexia–can be confusing in their definition and audible similarity.

Both “phonological” and “phonemic” contain the Greek root “phon” meaning sound. “Phonological” also contains the root “log,” meaning word. Phonological awareness relates to sounds and words. It’s an overall awareness of segments of speech including rhyming, alliteration, segmenting sentences into words, words into syllables, and dividing a word into onset/rhyme or individual sounds. These skills are essential to pre-reading and can be done with your eyes closed–meaning we do not need to see or write letters to practice these skills because they are all achieved with only sounds. They follow a developmental track, so we would not expect a student to master later developing phonological awareness skills if earlier developing skills are not yet solidified. If a student cannot identify two words that rhyme, we would not expect them to be able to break down a word into its individual sounds. Strong phonological awareness skills are essential for a student to learn how to decode (read) words. Early elementary teachers typically follow this developmental track in their lesson planning.

Here is a breakdown of approximately when children should have developed these skills:

AgePhonological Awareness SkillWhat does it look like?
~5 years oldClapping/Counting SyllablesHat (1 syllable) & Table (2 Syllables)
~5 years oldRecognizing Rhyming WordsWhich words rhyme? Cat, Hat, Man
~5 ½ years oldProduces a Rhyming WordWhat word rhymes with dog? Log!
~5 ½ years oldBlends Onset and Rime/t/ /oad/ make the word “toad”
~5 ½ years oldIsolates the Beginning SoundWhat is the first sound in “boy?”
~6 years oldBlending 2-3 Sound Words/m/ /o/ /p/ make the word “mop”
~6 years oldSyllable DeletionSay “spider” without “der”
~6 years oldSegments 2-3 Sound WordsTap out the sounds in the word “map”
~6 ½ years oldPhoneme SubstitutionChange /m/ in “mat” to /k/ to make “cat”
~6 ½ years oldSegments 3-4 Sound WordsTap out the sounds in the word “spot”
~7 years oldInitial & Final Phoneme DeletionSay “beep” without /p/
~8 years oldInitial Position (blends) DeletionSay “stop” without /t/
~9 years oldMedial & Final (blends) DeletionSay “sport” without /t/

Phonemic awareness refers to a student’s appreciation of the individual sounds within a word through segmenting and blending. This is due to an increased ability of a student to identify individual sounds within a word. It pertains to sounds, not letters. For example, segmenting the sounds in the word “shop” would look like /sh/, /o/, /p/ not “s…h…o…p”. These definitions sound similar to one another. One definition to keep in mind that may help distinguish the two is that a phoneme is a basic unit of sound in a language. Phonological awareness is a larger umbrella term encompassing a variety of skills, including phonemic awareness skills (blending and segmenting sounds).

At its core, dyslexia is a deficit in the phonological system of language. If someone does not have a strong phonological foundation, building phonological awareness skills, including phonemic awareness skills is extremely difficult, which then leads to difficulty receiving effective reading and writing instruction in school. Challenges with phonological awareness skills are the most consistent and accurate early markers of dyslexia. Individuals with dyslexia tend to have unclear phonemic representations–i.e. knowing how each sound is different from any other sound in language. For example, the vowel sounds in the words “bat” and “bet” have a distinct difference in how they are produced in our mouth. For individuals with unclear phonemic representations, these vowel sounds could become easily confused and lead to reading and spelling errors.

Unclear phonemic representations lead to an individual having poor phonological and phonemic awareness skills which leads to difficulty with decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling). Matching a symbol (letter) to an unclear speech sound (phoneme) is extremely difficult for a dyslexic student. Therefore, trying to break up letters to then match to an unclear phoneme when reading and trying to break down the sounds to match to a letter when spelling is a frustrating and laborious process.

Understanding phonological and phonemic awareness and how they relate to dyslexia can empower educators and parents to look for potential early signs of dyslexia. Teaching these skills and allowing our students to gain confidence can help them be more successful in reading and spelling tasks.

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz

Red Square Pegs was established to empower dyslexics by embracing dyslexia through awareness and shared experiences and to be a symbol of acceptance, pride, and confidence.