instruction principles phonemic awareness teaching strategies

Principles for Phonemic Awareness Instruction

The research is quite clear about principles for phonemic awareness instruction. We will look at instructional strategies next, but all effective strategies and instructional activities are based on the same three principles, as follows.

  1. Instruction needs to be explicit and systematic.
  2. Instruction should focus on only one or two phonemes at a time.
  3. Instruction follows a “continuum of complexity.”

Explicit and Systematic

“Explicit” means the instruction will clearly focus on specific sounds. As you plan instruction in phonemic awareness, complete this sentence: “Students will focus on the [fill in the blank] sound.” With explicit instruction, pre-determine which sounds students will use as they learn the various phonemic awareness sub-skills. The opposite of explicit instruction is “implicit” instruction, in which case you hope students will naturally figure out how sounds work in words through a lot of exposure. What the research says: Explicit instruction works well; implicit instruction does not.

“Systematic” means having a plan for what you will do first, second, third, etc. It means knowing what sounds students will study and the order in which they will study them.

For example, with youngest children, you will spend a lot of time on rhyming words. Once students understand what “rhyming” means, you might concentrate on words that end with the “-ack” sound, then move to the “-ish” sound, and then study words with the “-eek” sound. Later, you might move to words with the same starting sounds. You might focus on words that begin with “b”, then move to “c” and then to “l”.

The point of systematic instruction is to plan ahead what you will teach and when. The opposite of systematic instruction is random instruction, which I call chaotic instruction. Chaotic instruction does not work for phonemic awareness. Systematic instruction is necessary to help students build mental patterns for sounds within words.

Focus on One or Two Phonemes

Even as adults, if you get too much information at once, your ability to understand, retain, and use the information drops off pretty quickly. This consideration is even more pronounced in children. They simply cannot process and build mental patterns on many concepts at once.

Think about learning to touch type on a keyboard. You have all the keys in front of you, so you should be able to type every word correctly on day one, right? Of course not. Instead, you begin learning a few simple patterns, perhaps with common words, and you practice them until you can type them correctly without thinking. Later, you practice a few new patterns. Eventually, you are pretty good with the entire keyboard and you have fairly good accuracy. This works because our brains are exceptional at creating patterns.

A large part of teaching students to read is helping them develop mental patterns and understanding how language works. If they try to focus on too many concepts or too much information at once, they won’t develop those patterns. The brain simply cannot do it. Conversely, if they begin to develop mental patterns based on a limited set of information, they will be able to apply that understanding and use those mental patterns to grasp new information later.

This is true with instruction in phonemic awareness. What the research says, and what we told out tutors to follow, is to focus only on one or two phonemes at a time. Once students can consistently find them, use them, change them, etc., then—and only then—do we go on to another set of phonemes. With a concentrated focus on only one or two phonemes, students brains will actually develop the strong neurological connections needed to gain phonemic awareness.

With phonemic awareness instruction, we are not trying to teach everything there is to know and do, at least not all at once. Instead, we are helping students understand how sounds work within words, how they can find them, and how those sounds can be changed.

Bottom line: focus on one or two phonemes until students can consistently demonstrate their understanding of those sounds. Then move on to the next one or two.

Continuum of Complexity

Some sounds are easier to identify than others. Some sub-skills are easier to perform than others. For both sounds and skills, there is a continuum of complexity, from least complex to most complex and from the simplest to the most difficult. Everyone starts at the lowest level of these continua.

Continuum of Complexity: Sound Types

Based on the continuum of skill types (see below), students can perform a variety of actions before they advance to phonemic awareness, including finding rhymes, recognizing different sounding words, and counting syllables within words. Once students begin to understand that words are collections of unique sounds, you can begin to address phonemic awareness skills.

Start with easy sounds first, and then advance to more challenging sounds. Easy sounds are hard and soft consonants, and long and short vowel sounds, particularly those produced by individual letters. Easy sounds are those sounds that do not require you to move your mouth when you make them. These sounds are fairly easy to identify with a little practice.

Farther up the continuum of sound complexity are diphthongs, which are vowel sounds that make the mouth and tongue move when producing them. These are harder to pick up because they are made of several sounds at once. As students develop their phonemic awareness, they learn to pick out the individual parts of sounds. For example, the word “way” has three separate sounds. The “w” sound and the two sounds within the “ay”.

Along with diphthongs are blends and digraphs. Blends are created when you combine two consonants but can hear two sounds, such as the “pl” sound. Digraphs are created when you combine two consonants and you can only hear one sound, such as the “th” sound. These are a little more challenging to recognize. Many children who struggle to read have a hard time identifying what sound, or sounds, they are hearing in blends and digraphs.

Eventually, with effective instruction, students advance to the point where they can identify vocalized and non-vocalized sounds (those that make the vocal chords vibrate or not), aspirated and non-aspirated sounds (those followed by a puff of air or not), and the schwa sound (the “uh” sound that unaccented single vowels make).

Your role is to find out what types of sounds the student can consistently identify, and then select the next step in the continuum of complexity for sounds. If you introduce sound types that are too complex, the student will not be able to perform the phonemic awareness skills with those sounds.

My best advice: Assume the student is at the bottom of the continuum and have the student demonstrate sub-skills with easy sounds. Then, quickly move up to more complex sounds until the student begins to make mistakes. That point is where your instruction will begin.

Continuum of Complexity: Skill Types

Children do not have an inborn understanding of sounds within words. As mentioned previously, most students can naturally grasp an understanding of whole words and the concept that words have meaning, but it is quite a leap from whole words to parts of words.

In fact, most students can perform a host of skills before they begin analyzing and manipulating sounds within words. The following skill continuum describes the skills according to the approximate age students can perform them with instruction and practice.

Age Range


Before age 5

Imitate simple rhymes

Recognize what words do not rhyme

Within age 5

Recognize when word sounds have been changed

Count out (such as clap) syllables within words

Blending initial sounds of words with the remainder of the word
(example: l – og)

Find rhyming words
(example: What rhymes with “log”?)

Identify initial sounds
(example: What is the first sound in “log”?)

Within age 6

Remove part of a compound word
(example: Say “watermelon” but without “water.” What do you get?)

Remove a syllable
(example: Say “melon” but without “mel.” What word do you get?)

Blend 2-, 3-, and 4-phoneme, 1-syllable words, with and without blends
(example: What word do you get from c – a – t?)

Substitute phonemes to make a new 1-syllable words
(example: What word do you get if you change the “h” in “hat” to a “k” sound?)

Within age 7

Remove the first or last non-blended sounds of 1-syllable words
(example: Say “door” but leave out the “d” sound. What word do you get?)

Within age 8

Remove the first sound of a word that begins with a blended sound (example: What word do you get if you remove the “k” sound from “clean”?)

Within age 9

Remove inner or ending sounds of words with blended sounds
(example: Can you say “blend” without the “b” sound?
example: If you remove the “s” sound from “dusk,” what word do you get?

(adapted from Moats and Tolman’s article “The Development of Phonological Skills”)

The most important thing to notice from this continuum is that it is, actually, a continuum. Not only do the skills get more challenging over time but also the later skills are more advanced versions of early skills.

This means that students need to learn the simpler skills to get ready to learn the more difficult skills. Students will only learn the more challenging skills if they have learned the simpler skills first.

As with the continuum of sound types, we cannot assume that students have learned the earlier skills when we first start working with them. Instead, if we are going to find the appropriate next step in learning, we try out those early skills with students, see if they can do them consistently, and then move up the continuum until the student starts to struggle. In this way, we find out what students already know and what they are able to learn next.

One last thing about this continuum of skill complexity: it does not end at age 9, as suggested in the chart. This chapter has provided many examples of higher, more challenging skills.