Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness: What’s the Difference?

Reading teachers have so many terms thrown our way; and MAN, it can be confusing. Today, I want to unpack the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. What are these two terms? How are they alike? How are they different? Why should we care? Let’s look more deeply.

Phonological Awareness

The ability to manipulate chunks of speech sounds is phonological awareness. When we read silly poems and nursery rhymes to toddlers, we are working to develop their phonological awareness. As kids sing these verses, they are beginning to recognize rhyme. If your preschooler replaces words in a silly song you’ve taught him to make it sillier, he is also developing phonological awareness. My kids would fiddle around with onsets and rimes in their speech when they were in that pre-kinder stage. They’d chant things randomly like “F-eed the d-og.” Or “P-at the c-at.” Additionally, they’d walk around saying words that started with the same consonant sound such as, “You ding dong doggie!” to our beagle when she’d get in the trash. The ability to clap syllables in words is also an example of developing phonological awareness.

phonological awareness and phonemic awareness
What is the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness?

Phonological Awareness Definition

With those concrete examples in mind, we can expand our working definition of phonological awareness to “the ability to manipulate chunks of speech sounds such as rhyming words, finding alliteration, blending and segmenting onset and rime, and clapping syllables.   

Phonemic Awareness

When I was first putting all these early literacy terms together in my own mind, all those characteristics describing phonological awareness sounded a lot like phonemic awareness. I wasn’t wrong. The term “phonemic awareness” is the most advanced level of the umbrella term “phonological awareness.” That’s why people tend to use them so interchangeably and confuse the heck out of us.

Phonemic Awareness Defined

Phonemic awareness is a child’s ability to manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in words. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. These make up the 44 phonemes in the English language. When students develop phonemic awareness, they can blend sounds into words, segment words into individual phonemes, add sounds to words, delete phonemes from words, and substitute sounds. As you read in the last sentence, “sounds” and “phonemes” can be used interchangeably. Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, though, probably shouldn’t be, even though one is a part of the other.

The Importance of Helping Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness Develop

We would like to think that our children come to us in Kindergarten with solidified phonological awareness. They should have been reciting nursery rhymes, singing songs, and saying little poems since toddlerhood. Right? Wrong. We all know that’s a fantasy for many of our students. This makes it imperative that we work these skills into our lessons. Children who struggle with phonological and phonemic awareness have a much harder time learning to read and write. Students who have reading disabilities often improve when explicit phonological awareness instruction is incorporated into their lessons.

So, there you have it…some simple definitions of phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Remember, phonological awareness is the umbrella term for all the different ways kids manipulate spoken sounds. Phonemic awareness is the fine-tuning to the individual sound level.  We will dive deeper into resources for helping children transition into stronger phonemic awareness in upcoming posts.

 Before You Go

If you’re stoked about working with your students on phonemic awareness, specifically segmenting sounds, you may want to check out these three seasonal products I offer in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

Fall Themed Sound Box Bundle

These sound boxes, also known as Elkonin boxes if you’ve been teaching reading for a long time, bring in a fall vibe while helping your students segment CVC words, words, with digraphs, and words with beginning and ending blends. Check them out!

Holiday FREEBIE CVC Sound Boxes

Here’s a way to help kids segment those CVC words with a holiday flair. Bonus? They’re FREE!

Winter-Themed Sound Box Bundle

Here’s another set of sound boxes that incorporate CVC words, words with digraphs, and words with beginning and ending blends. Print them, laminate, and cut them apart. Fill small boxes with cotton balls (snow) and hide these throughout. Have kids find them, and say the sounds as they touch each box.

Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness: What's the Difference?
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