Both phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are important skills to master for learning to read well. Studies have shown that strong skills in these areas are predictors of strong readers in the early grades. It is important to note that these are learned skills and for most children that means they will need to be worked on directly in order to learn therm.

Phonemic vs. Phonological awareness vs. phonics

Phonological awareness is a term which refers to the ability to manipulate larger units of oral language ( e.g. words, onsets and rime, syllables). Examples include rhyming words, the first or end sounds of a word, or syllables.

Phonemic awareness focuses on the smaller units of individual sounds within a word. An example is being able to identify that the word ‘mat’ has three sounds – m -a- t.

Phonics is the mapping of oral sounds to the printed letters and understanding the connection between therm.

Progression of skills

Building blocks

While these are learned skills, there is a progression from skills that are easier to skills that are more difficult tasks.

The first skills to develop are word awareness and rhyming ability. Rhyming can be learned through nursery rhymes and songs. These skills are learned early on between ages 4-5. The ability to produce or make up a new rhyme may take a longer than just hearing that a word rhymes. It involves the understanding of word onset and rime. For a one syllable word, the onset is the first sound(s) in the word and the rime is the last sounds (e.g. mat – onset is ‘m’ and rime is ‘at’, strap onset is ‘str’ rime is ap).

The ability to divide simple words into syllables happens around the age of 5 to 51/2 years old. Manipulation of the syllables (e.g. leaving off a syllable or adding a syllable to a part of the word) will be learned at around 6 years old.

Lastly, the phonemic awareness skills are learned over several years in the first and second grades. These skills involve manipulation of the sounds in a word. Initially this is as simple as being able to segment the word into its sounds. Later your child should be able to change the sounds around in a word or leave off sounds in a word.

What you can do at home

Reading books together is always important but when you are reading you can have some fun with the words. Try to highlight the rhyming words or the words the start with the same letters. Then you can come up with your own rhymes and saying that start with the same sounds. Think up words that start with one sound and see how many you can come up with. Point out letters in your environment and choose books that focus on the alphabet.

What to look for in a program when you need extra help

When you are choosing a program, look to see that it has a focus on all aspects of reading, including specific work on phonological and phonemic awareness. The program should be supported by research, including research with those with disabilities. The program should be direct, intensive and consistent. Be prepared to work several times a week with the program to see the progress.


The skills needed for reading need to be taught directly. These include phonological and phonemic skills along with phonics. You can be working on these at home, but if you sense your child is delayed in these skills, seek out help early and keep in close contact with your child’s teacher to monitor their progress in school.