They sound similar—and they are—but they’re not the same thing. How are phonological and phonemic awareness related? One is a subset of the other, but both are important!
Phonological awareness is a broad term that drives listening and speaking from the first days of early literacy.
Just like a train engine pulls freight cars, phonological awareness is the driving force behind a set of smaller skills, one of which is phonemic awareness.
Children who practice phonological awareness are practicing lots of skills, not just one. They can:
- recognize that “mat” and “man” have the same beginning sound.
- pick out the words in a poem that rhyme.
- sing lyrics to a repetitive song.
- know that the word "cat" has three distinct sounds, but the word "scat" has four.
Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words and word parts are made up of even smaller units—individual sounds or phonemes—that can be put together or taken apart to form new words (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).
Compared to phonological awareness, phonemic awareness is just one part among many skills within a larger group.
Phonemic awareness examples include:
- blending words.
- segmenting words into parts.
- isolating sounds.
- all auditory (not printed) activities.
For example, a child practicing phonemic awareness may understand that the word dodge has three sounds: /d/ /o/ /j/—but five letters, and not every letter makes a sound (the /e/ is silent).
How does phonological awareness prepare kids for kindergarten?
Research shows that both phonological and phonemic awareness are important indicators of children’s eventual success in learning to read. In fact, children who become successful readers invariably possess phonological and phonemic awareness, while children who struggle with reading rarely do (Adams, 1990; Juel, 1991; Stanovich, 1986; Torgesen, 1998).
Children develop phonological awareness as they play language games and as they listen to and repeat rhymes, songs, poems, and stories. As they become more familiar with spoken language and how it works, they begin to develop phonemic awareness by identifying and isolating the same sounds at the beginning or end of words, and then manipulating sounds to make words and take them apart.
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