Post Promise: Literacy is one of the most vital skills we teach in the primary grades. In this post I’ll help clear up what phonological awareness is and how it’s different from phonemic awareness and phonics. This will set the stage for future posts where I share what skills are involved in phonological awareness and strategies to teach phonological awareness to a classroom of learners with different learning styles.
Hey there, teacher friend! Let’s have an honesty minute. When you think about helping your learners become readers, what’s going through your mind? Do you get excited sizzles of inspiration? Or does your stomach curl into a ball in intimidation? If it’s a little (or more) of the second, I’m here to help!
This is actually one of the most important skills we’ll teach in primary grades. There is a correlation between ability to read and graduation rate. In fact, students who don’t become proficient readers are four times more likely to not graduate from high school. What we do in kindergarten, first, and second grades affects our students’ entire futures.
Leading our primary students to become readers is a huge responsibility, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. It can be a daunting task with a class full of expectant faces trusting YOU to make all those building blocks from letter recognition to sight words come together in the beautiful adventure of reading.
There are many components that come together in the ability to read, and I’m going to break them down for you! Think of phonological awareness like a video game made of different levels. Each level requires more skill to master than the one before it.
For early learners, the main priority is to make sense of spoken language. They need to be able to recognize and comprehend what they hear before they can start to break apart what that spoken language is made of and begin to manipulate it themselves.
Phonological awareness is understanding that spoken language is made of smaller parts. Our learners hear language all the time, so they may naturally begin to grasp some parts of phonological awareness. However, we still need to make sure ALL of our students understand ALL of the skills that make up phonological awareness.
These smaller parts of language are words, syllables, and sounds. The unit of a word is maybe the most intuitive. Children definitely recognize the word recess, and they know what it means!
Students need to learn what syllables are and be able to identify syllables within words. Syllables are made of sounds, which are the smallest units of spoken language. Sounds are known as phonemes.
Phonological awareness includes being able to hear a word, like dog, and know it is made of one syllable. Students also need phonological awareness to know that the word dog rhymes with log.
So, a student with phonological awareness would not only know that “recess” means free time (and hopefully going outside!), but they would also be able to break the word into two syllables. They would be able to tell you it rhymes with mess and guess but not with book.
In the past, phonological and phonemic awareness have been used interchangeably. That has caused some confusion, because they are actually two different, but very related, concepts. Remember our video game analogy? Phonemic awareness is the most advanced skill in phonological awareness.
Phonemic awareness is all about the sounds, or phonemes, of the spoken language. This skill could be mastered by someone without ever seeing the alphabet or words in writing. Phonemic awareness only requires being able to hear language being spoken.
A student who has phonemic awareness would recognize the sounds that make up the word dog and be able to make those sounds. They could correctly make the sounds for d, o, and g, and blend them together to make the word dog.
At this level, they could hear that there is a dog outside the window and expect to see a four-legged furry critter rather than a bulldozer. They can relate the sounds of the word to the whole part and know what it stands for.
However, they might not be able to rhyme dog with log and frog and know that it doesn’t rhyme with hat. They also wouldn’t be able to tell you that dog has one syllable while recess has two.
Phonics connects sounds to the symbols of written language. In order to succeed at phonics, students must be proficient with the alphabet as a written system. Phonics is the ability to be able to recognize a sound, or phoneme, and associate it with the written symbol, or letter, that represents that sound. A student who doesn’t know the alphabet and recognize the sounds it represents would not be able to develop the skill of phonics.
For example, phonics is being able to see a written word, make the corresponding sounds, and put them together to say the complete word. If a student sees the word “dog” written, they must be able to know the letter “d” as well as what sound it makes. By working their way through each letter in the word, they can speak all of the sounds in that word and finally blend it all together.
In order to master phonics, students must have phonemic awareness. They can’t connect the sounds that letters make to the symbols they represent if they don’t know and understand those sounds.
However, students can have phonemic awareness without being proficient in phonics. They may be able to repeat the three sounds, or phonemes, in “dog” and blend it together without being able to point out the letters that make up those sounds.
One more time…
Let’s look at another example just to make sure the distinction between these three topics is clear.
Let’s take the word clock.
Phonemic awareness allows a student to recognize the four sounds, or phonemes, in this word: /c/, /l/, /o/, and /ck/. If you (the teacher) say these four sounds separately, a student could blend them together, say clock, and know that it means the gadget hanging on the wall that tells them when it’s time for lunch.
Phonics lets a student match the three phonemes to their written symbols, the letters of the alphabet. They could see the word written, sound out the phonemes, and put it together to make the whole word.
Having phonological awareness means a student could tell you there is one syllable in clock and that it rhymes with lock but not ball. They need to have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to be able to do this.
I’m so glad you asked! Simply knowing the components that make up the skill of literacy, and understanding the difference between them, adds to our knowledge base. It can make us more effective teachers, but only if we add strategies to this knowledge!
In my next post in this series, I’m going to share with you the different skills that are included in phonological awareness. We’ve already talked about a couple, like rhyming and counting syllables.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I made a four part video series: Phonological Awareness 101. This post covers only part of Video 1. In the video series, I also share the secret sauce to teaching phonological awareness.
I’ll give you a hint: it’s a way to make this strongly auditory skill more relatable to all the students in your classroom. Plus, the techniques can be incorporated directly into your regular instruction time dedicated to phonological awareness. I’ll also share some tools I made that I use in my classroom regularly to save you time so you can implement these strategies as early as today.
Check in, teacher friend! Do you have more questions about phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, or phonics? Let me know!