What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to understand that language is made up of individual sounds, known as phonemes.  Phonemes are the smallest unit of spoken language. For example, phonemic awareness allows you to hear four individual sounds /f/ /r/ /ŏ/ /g/ and know that the word is fish. A person with phonemic awareness is also able to separate words into the sounds that make it up and blend separate sounds into words. Additionally, someone with this skill can add and remove sounds in words. 

Why is it important?

The skills a child learns in achieving phonemic awareness are essentially pre-reading skills.  Phonemic awareness is the foundation necessary for children to read and also write.  Phonemic awareness is believed to be the strongest determinant of a child’s success in reading and writing.  Only after a child’s mastery of phonemic awareness can they move on to phonics, the second component essential for reading.  Phonics is the relationship between written words and the sounds they make.  Children need to be able to hear separate sounds before moving on to using the alphabet. 


For many children, phonemic awareness happens instinctively, as part of their natural development.  Some children may start to develop an awareness as early as one year old, through an interest in rhymes and songs. In toddlerhood, they progress to hearing gaps between words. Around the time of kindergarten, the child should be able to separate words by syllable, recognize and create rhymes, and identify the different sounds a word makes.    

Other children may require direct instruction designed to develop this skill completely. This instruction is usually for children in kindergarten through third grade.  One of the reasons why phonemic awareness can be difficult for some learners is that our 26-letter alphabet consists of 44 phonemes (or sounds).  On top of that, there are 250 ways to spell phonemes!  

The first step in developing phonemic awareness is the ability to identify the individual sounds that make up a one-syllable word.  For example, the word ‘dog’ has three phonemes: d/o/g.  This is different from letters.  Each has a distinct sound.  Although ‘boat’ has four letters, it has three phonemes or sounds.  Next, is the ability to separate longer words by syllables.  This is often taught by clapping.   

Layers of phonemic awareness

A more in-depth look at phonemic awareness involves 6 layers of phonemic awareness.  

  1. Phoneme isolation. This is the ability to hear and isolate the individual phonemes (sounds) in a spoken word. 
  2. Blending. This is the ability to put different sounds together to form words. 
  3. Segmentation. This is the ability to break down a spoken word into its separate phonemes. 

After the above is achieved a child can move on to a more challenging skill known as manipulation.  This involves the adding, subtracting, and substituting of phonemes.  Manipulation skills are the most closely related to reading outcomes.  

  1. Phoneme addition. This is the ability to add phonemes to a given word to create a new word. 
  2. Phoneme subtraction. This is the ability to delete phonemes from a word to create a new word.
  3. Phoneme substitution. After mastery of addition and subtraction, this is the ability to remove one sound and replace it with another to form a new word.

Practice with phonemic awareness 

There are many strategies to help children develop phonemic awareness.  Some of these activities include identifying the beginning and ending sounds of a word, finger tapping, blending strips, and games that include taking away or adding sounds.  

The following activities focus on developing the 6 different types or layers of phonemic awareness:

Reading with your child  

Reading aloud to your child as much as you can. Simply listening helps them become familiar with sounds and syllables.  Rhyming books are great.  As you read, ask them if they hear words that sound the same.  

Counting syllables 

Choose a word like watermelon and make sure to pause between each syllable. Have your child clap, jump, or stomp for each syllable they hear. 

Singing songs

“Apples and Bananas” – This song helps children hear how different sounds can change a word. Your child can practice changing the vowel sounds.

“Down by the Bay” – Ask your child to point out the rhymes in both the chorus and verses.  

“Miss Mary Mack” – This rhyming song can also be used to count syllables.  

Willaby Wallaby Woo” – Another song great for practicing sound manipulation. 

Connecting sounds

Have your child create words by putting sounds together.  Tell your child to start with /f/ and add /ox/.  What word do you hear? 

Taking apart sounds

Give your child a compound word such as rainbow or butterfly. Tell your child, “Say the word rainbow. Now take away “bow”. “Now what word is left?”

Playing guessing games

“I-Spy” can be used to practice any skill related to phonemic awareness.  For example, you can focus on the sounds a word begins with.  Say, “I spy something that starts with /p/”. You could also play a rhyming game. For example, you could say “find something you wear that rhymes with blue.