What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness (PA) is the ability to hear and manipulate the different sounds in our language. Basically that means that kids should be able to hear, put together, and separate the sounds in spoken words.

  • Phonemes are the smallest unit of speech – they are single sounds that hold no meaning on their own. For example: the sounds in the word “sat” are /s/ /a/ /t/. The sound /s/ by itself doesn’t mean anything until combined with /a/ and /t/ – to make a word.
  • It is not the same as phonics because phonics uses print (letters to represent sounds) and PA is an auditory skill.
  • It is best taught to children in kindergarten and first grade (ages 4-7). PA activities are broken up into age groups for you on the Lesson Ideas page, so that you’ll know when to teach which skills.
  • PA is often confused with phonological awareness, but it is actually a subpart of it. More on phonological awareness later.

Why Do I Need To Teach Phonemic Awareness?

  • PA lays the foundation for the understanding that sounds are represented by letters. Without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense.
  • It acts as a primer for kids to learn to read. Sure you can paint without a primer, but you’re more likely to see stains, patches, and chipping later on. It’s the same as seeing difficulties with decoding (figuring words out), reading fluently (quickly), or spelling correctly without PA!
  • Our written language is difficult to decode (figure out). It has approximately 43 phonemes (sounds), yet we only have 26 letters to represent them – and those sounds are represented in about 250 different spellings (ex: the sound /j/ can be spelled j, g, dge).
  • All of those different sounds can be difficult to figure out because we speak so quickly that it can be hard for kids to hear the single sound units. The sounds tend to blur together resulting in a child who pronounces train as chrain, or giraffe as graffe. This inability to hear each sound will be evident in their spelling later on.
  • PA is a strong predictor of children who become good readers.

How Do I Teach Phonemic Awareness?

Ok, so now we get to the fun part . . . learning how to teach it.

  • As important as PA is, you do not want to spend more than 10-15 minutes a day on PA skills.
  • Many of these techniques and activities can (and should be) played as games – you can do them anywhere because you don’t need anything but your voices and ears!
  • There are many PA skills, but research has shown that isolating, blending, and segmenting are the most important ones – so those are the ones we will focus on the most on this site. We will also cover phoneme deletion and substitution.

The following PA skills are listed in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest and should be introduced in this order so that your child can build upon his/her skills. Once you’ve introduced a skill and have given your child enough time to practice it, you can then move on and/or mix them up for additional practice if needed.

Isolating Phonemes

Isolating phonemes means just that . . . isolating and/or identifying a sound. It can be the initial sound (at the beginning), medial sound (in the middle), or the final sound (you guessed it – the last sound). However, you usually only work on one at a time because you don’t want to confuse your child. So you may want to start by working on initial sounds for a week (different activities/games each time, of course) and then final sounds the next week. Medial sounds are the hardest to isolate because they are the hardest to hear, so wait until your child has a good grasp on the other two before working on these. Here are some examples (remember that specific lessons will be found under PA in Lesson Ideas):

  • Initial sound: What is the first sound you hear in the word sit? /s/
  • Final sound: What is the last sound you hear in the word sit? /t/
  • Medial sound: What sound do you hear in the middle of the word sit? /i/

Blending Phonemes

This is where you have kids put sounds together (blend) to make words. You do this without showing them any letters or writing – just by talking – so, you give them sounds and they make the words. This is one of the critical PA skills because it will be used to later blend written sounds together to figure out and read words (we’ll get to that in the phonics section). You can start off with just blending the initial sound to the rest of a word, then on to final sound, next blending syllables to make words, and finally individual sounds to make a word. Here are some examples:

  • Blending initial sound: What word is /s/-un? sun
  • Blending final sound: What word is ra – /t/? rat
  • Blending syllables: What word is par – ty? party
  • Blending words: What word is /m/ /a/ /n/? man

The cool part about these exercises is that once your kids get the hang of it, you don’t have to stick to easy words because they are not written – so you’re not expecting your kids to read them, just say them. This gives you a chance to practice with big and interesting words that will add to your child’s listening and speaking vocabulary – making them easier to add to their reading and writing vocab later on!

Phoneme Segmentation

This one is a little harder for kids to do, so don’t expect them to master it right away. The object here is to get them to split the sounds of a word apart (the opposite of blending) – so you give them a word and they give you the sounds. This PA skill will also help them decode words, but will be even more helpful when they learn to spell and write. Here you want to start with smaller words before you move on to larger words. Here’s an example:

  • Segmenting phonemes:
  • (easy word) What are the sounds in the word bus? /b/ /u/ /s/
  • (harder word) What are the sounds in the word rich? /r/ /i/ /ch/
  • (even harder) What are the sounds in the word boiling? /b/ /oi/ /l/ /i/ /ng/

Remember that the purpose here is to have your child split up each individual sound, not to split the word into syllables! This is why it’s so hard for kids to do this one – they want to give you the syllables or just split the first sound. For example, here are some typical responses you’ll get from a child that has poor PA when asked to segment the word boiling:

/boil/ /ing/ or /b/ /oil/ /ing/ or /b/ /oi/ /ling/

You may be asking yourself – “so what, why does it matter?” It matters because it means that they can’t hear them as individual sounds. When you work on phonics, reading, and spelling later on it will be much easier for them to identify and spell these individual sounds if they know them before hand – again, you’re laying a critical foundation that will make it easier for them to read. These kids who know them spend less time figuring words out and more time on meaning, which equals better comprehension!

Adding, Deleting, and Substituting Phonemes

These PA skills involve changing the sounds of a word to make new words. These are the hardest of the PA skills because they’re not things that we naturally do with language unless we’re taught. While these are important skills to have, I haven’t included many of these in the PA section of our lessons. In my experience (and humble opinion), I have found these to be more effective when used as phonics instruction with the addition of letters and manipulatives, rather than just as an auditory skill. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t practice these, I would just focus more on blending and segmenting phonemes at first. Here are some examples:

Adding phonemes:

  • (initial sound) What word do you get when you add the sound /m/ to eat? meat
  • (final sound) What word do you get when you add the sound /d/ to car? card

Deleting phonemes:

  • (initial sound) What word do you get when you take away the sound /s/ in snap? nap
  • (final sound) What word do you get when you take away the final sound /t/ in tent? ten

Substituting phonemes:

  • (initial sound) Change the sound /c/ in cat to /b/ – what word do you get? bat
  • (final sound) Change the last sound /t/ in pet to /n/ -w hat word do you get? pen
  • (medial sound – these are hard!) Change the middle sound /e/ in pen to /a/ – what word do you get? pan

Ok, are you still with me? Congratulations . . . you have just been through Phonemic Awareness 101! As I said before, you need not learn all of these at once, so take your time. You can pace yourself and your lessons based on how well your child does with each skill. Remember that you should make these daily lessons and practice sessions fun and quick!

For lesson ideas with detailed directions and activities for each skill, please visit our Lesson Ideas page!