Phonemic Awareness


A phoneme is a speech sound. It is the smallest unit of language and has no inherent meaning. The word "sun" has three phonemes: /s/ /u/ /n/.

  • Although there are 26 letters in the English language, there are approximately 40 phonemes, or sound units, in the English language. (NOTE: the number of phonemes varies across sources.)
  • Sounds are represented in 250 different spellings. For example, the phoneme, or sound, /f/ can be spelled in several ways: ph, f, gh, ff.
  • The sound units (phonemes) are not inherently obvious and must be taught. The sounds that make up words are "coarticulated;" that is, they are not distinctly separate from each other.

Phonemic Awareness (PA) is:

  1. the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992; see References).
  2. essential to learning to read in an alphabetic writing system, because letters represent sounds or phonemes. Without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense.
  3. fundamental to mapping speech to print. If a child cannot hear that "man" and "moon" begin with the same sound or cannot blend the sounds /rrrrrruuuuuunnnnn/ into the word "run", he or she may have great difficulty connecting sounds with their written symbols or blending sounds to make a word.
  4. essential to learning to read in an alphabetic writing system.
  5. a strong predictor of children who experience early reading success.

Phonemic Awareness Development Continuum

Examples of Phonemic Awareness Skills

  • Sound and Word discrimination: What word doesn't belong with the others: "cat", "mat", "bat", "ran"? "ran"
  • Rhyming: What word rhymes with "cat"? bat
  • Syllable splitting: The onset of "cat" is /k/, the rime is /at/
  • Blending: What word is made up of the sounds /k/ /a/ /t/? "cat"
  • Phonemic segmentation: What are the sounds in "cat"? /k/ /a/ /t/
  • Phoneme deletion: What is "cat" without the /k/? "at"
  • Phoneme manipulation: What word would you have if you changed the /t/ in cat to an /n/? "can"

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Teaching Tips: Blending

  1. When children are first learning to blend, use examples with continuous sounds, because the sounds can be stretched and held.

    Example: "Listen, my lion puppet likes to talk in a broken way. When he says /mmm/ - /ooo/ - /mmm/ he means mom."

    Non-example: "Listen, my lion puppet likes to talk in a broken way. When he says /b/ - /e/ - /d/ he means bed."

  2. When children are first learning the task, use short words in teaching and practice examples. Use pictures when possible.

    Example: Put down 3 pictures of CVC words and say: "My lion puppet wants one of these pictures. Listen to hear which picture he wants, /sss/ - /uuu/ - /nnn/. Which picture?"

    Non-example: ".../p/ - /e/ - /n/ - /c/ - /i/ - /l/. Which picture?" (This is a more advanced model that should be used later.)

  3. When children are first learning the task, use materials that reduce memory load and to represent sounds.

    Example: Use pictures to help children remember the words and to focus their attention. Use a 3-square strip or blocks to represent sounds in a word.

    Non-example: Provide only verbal activities.

  4. As children become successful during initial learning, remove scaffolds by using progressively more difficult examples. As children become successful with more difficult examples, use fewer scaffolds, such as pictures.

    Example: Move from syllable or onset-rime blending to blending with all sounds in a word (phoneme blending). Remove scaffolds, such as pictures.
    "Listen, /s/ - /t/ - /o/ - /p/. Which picture?"
    "Listen, /s/ - /t/ - /o/ - /p/. What word?"

    Non-example: Provide instruction and practice at only the easiest levels with all the scaffolds.

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  • Phonemic awareness should be assessed from the beginning of kindergarten through the spring of first grade.
  • All students should be assessed a minimum of three times per year to be sure adequate progress toward end of year goals is made.
  • Students who are identified as at risk of reading difficulty should be monitored 1 or 2 times per month to ensure effectiveness of intervention and to allow timely instructional changes.

Four of the DIBELS measures can be used to assess phonemic awareness skills:

TIP: For more information about Phonemic Awareness, including additional teaching strategies and video clip examples of instruction, visit the Big Ideas in Beginning Reading website.