phonics phonemic awareness

Phonemic Awareness VS Phonological Awareness – Why SHOULD You Care to Understand the Difference?

Today we are going to be looking at Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonological Awareness.

You may have heard that these two skills are very important for preparing your child for reading instruction.

But,  what do these terms mean?

They sometimes are used and referred to as if they were the same…

But… Are they REALLY the same?

In this article, we will go through the differences between Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness.

Hopefully, we will be able to clarify for you the huge confusion there is surrounding this topic.

Because, did you know that this confusion is NOT free of risks?  Yes, you heard well… There are risks!

How? Why?

Well, I believe it will become clear to you after reading the article! By the end of the post, you will also be able to clearly identify when you are working with your child on developing one skill or the other.

We will also share with you some activities to specifically encourage Phonological Awareness and some to specifically encourage Phonemic Awareness!

Let’s go!

A close look into Phonemic Awareness

As I said at the beginning, I think it is important that we clarify these 2 concepts because they are key for learning to read!

More specifically, Phonemic Awareness has been found to be the main predictor of how successful (or unsuccessful!) children will be at reading. Besides, the more you read, the more Phonemic Awareness you develop and the better you get at it.

So, as you can see, Phonemic Awareness is truly a crucial skill!

Having Phonemic Awareness means that  you are able to identify and manipulate the individual sounds, also called phonemes, that make up words.

So, let’s take a look at what a person with Phonemic Awareness is able to do:

  • Recognize individual sounds in words.S/he would know that, for instance, the word ‘cat’ is formed by the individual sounds (or phonemes): /c/ /a/ /t/

A word of caution here just in case: The number of sounds in a word doesn’t equal the number of letters…

We are talking about sounds here, not letters!

For instance, take a look at these examples:

  1. Chat: It has 4 letters, but 3 phonemes. /ch/ /a/ /t/. In order to represent the first sound on this word use the letter combination ch.
  2. Book: Again, this word has 4 letters, but 3 phonemes or individual sounds. /b/ /oo/ /k/
  3. Light: 5 letters, but 3 phonemes /l/ /ī/ /t/. In order to represent the last sound on this word /t/, we use the letter combination /ght/.
  • Manipulate phonemes.S/he also knows that if you add an ‘s’ sound at the end of the word ‘cat‘, you get the word ‘cats‘; and if you swap one of its sounds, you also can get a different word.For instance, if you replace the /k/ sound with a /m/ sound, you get the word ‘mat’.

    This is what I call, the magic of changing one sound in a word and getting a completely different word!

    There are exercises specifically designed to further develop this skill in your child.They are called Phoneme Substitution Activities. If you are interested in them, make sure to check this page out and these worksheets!


A close look into Phonological Awareness

Ok, now that we know what Phonemic Awareness is and how important it is, let’s move on to Phonological awareness.

Phonological Awareness is a broad skill that includes the Phonemic Awareness ability, but also other skills.  I think that is where all the confusion between these 2 terms comes from.

Let’s think of Phonological Awareness as the umbrella that compiles lots of skills, all of them related to sounds in language at different levels. These levels go from the sentence level all the way down to the phoneme level.

Another way of thinking about it is as Phonological Awareness being a broad skill (or a meta skill, to speak in more proper terms), and of Phonemic Awareness as a narrow skill.

When you end up with the minimal units of sound that form words (phonemes) and you are able to manipulate these, you have Phonemic Awareness.

So, taking all of this into account, let’s see what other abilities are included in the Phonological Awareness umbrella:

  • Segmenting sentences into words: Can the child recognize that the sentence “I like bananas” has 3 words: I – LIKE – BANANAS? Or that the sentence “My favourite colour is blue” has these 5 words “MY – FAVOURITE- COLOUR – IS- BLUE”
  • Segmenting words into syllables: Can the child tell that there are 2 syllables in the word pencil (pen-cil) or 3 syllables in the word basketball (bas – ket – ball)?
  • Recognizing rhymes: For instance, can the child recognize that the words cat, mat and sat rhyme? Or the rhyme on “Jack and Jill went up the hill”?
  • Onset and rime manipulation: Can the child make rhymes by himself or herself? The ability to produce a rhyming word depends on understanding that rhyming words have the same rime.
  • And finally, as I said before, the most advanced and most challenging level that you end up with is Phonemic Awareness. Remember that we are talking about the individual sounds in words!

Which skill of these 2 skills is more important: Phonemic or Phonological Awareness?

Another question that I want to address in this article is: Which of these 2 skills is more important?

I have seen that is also a very common question!

The answer is that actually both of them are important in order to train children’s ears for successful future reading.

You can start with the broad skills (as it may be easier to grasp the concept of words and sentences, and hear and identify rhymes and onsets at the beginning), but your objective is to keep refining the ability until you end up with the smallest units on words.

Why is it risky to mix up these 2 terms?

I wonder if you can you see by now why I said at the beginning of this article that it is risky to mix up these 2 terms…

If an educator or a parent thinks that just by making the child aware of things, such as rhymes or working out the number of words in a sentence he/she is developing Phonemic Awareness in a child, that wouldn’t be the case.

And remember that I  also told you at the beginning of this article that Phonemic Awareness has been found to be the most important indicator for future successful reading.

So…  If you think you are working on Phonemic Awareness when you are only working on Phonological Awareness, you are not preparing the child on developing this crucial skill for his or her future reading success.

Moreover, a common denominator in many struggling readers is the lack of PhonemicAwareness.

5 Activities for Phonological Awareness

  1. Hickory dickory dock
    The mouse went up the clock

    Humpty dumpy sat on a wall
    Humpty dumpy had a great fall

    Jack and Jill went up the hill
    To fetch a pale of water

    In other words, the first activity that I recommend you do for developing Phonological Awareness is to read nursery rhymes to your child…

    Do it often, and from an early age!As the names indicates, nursery rhymes are all about rhymes and sounds…

    Besides, children love them!

  2. ‘See you later, alligator’
    ‘Bye bye butterfly’
    ‘Oopsy Daisy’

    Use these common expressions, or make up your own! You get it: the idea is for them to rhyme!

    And If you can make them funny, even better. Children have a natural predisposition towards anything that rhymes!

  3. I love you CLAP CLAP CLAP
    I like singing CLAP CLAP CLAP

    Ask your child to clap as many times as the number of words he/she can hear in a sentence.

  4. Cat CLAP once
    Table CLAP twice (CLAP CLAP)
    Big CLAP once
    Dinosaur Clap three times (CLAP CLAP CLAP)

    Ask your child to clap as many times as the number of syllables he/ she can hear in a word.

    Which of these words doesn’t rhyme?

Activities for Phonological Awareness

We have lots of articles on the blog and videos on our Youtube channel about this topic, including tips on how to develop phonemic awareness in children.

On this article, I will share 2 activities you can do:


    Ask your child / students what words was s/he able to hear?

    Possible variation: You can also do the activity pronouncing the words like this instead: B-U-S, B-I-G, D-O-G.

  2. If you hear the sound /b/ (or whatever sound you may be working on!) in these words, clap/ jump /stomp…


One reply on “Phonemic Awareness VS Phonological Awareness – Why SHOULD You Care to Understand the Difference?”

Great points! I recently found a great way to help my child learn both skills and he’s already reading his first book less than 2 weeks later! Always begging me to “do his reading homework”…. Can’t believe it. Thanks for the article in helping me understand how important both these skills are!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FREE Learn-to-Read Materials!