What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a strong predictor of a child’s ability to read well. Children with strong phonemic awareness skills are more likely to read on grade level than children without this necessary skill. Phonemic awareness is, in great part, a necessary precursor to phonics, print vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. So what is it, exactly?


The ability to identify sounds within spoken words and to manipulate those sounds to make other words.

For example, you are using phonemic awareness skills if you can

  • say the individual sounds in “carbonate”
  • identify the difference between “carbonate” and “carbonation”
  • pick out the similar sounds in “carbonate” and “incarcerate”
  • find the two stressed syllables in “carbonate”
  • replace the “ate” sound in “carbonate” with “ize”

Later, I will discuss the various sub-skills in phonemic awareness, as well as instructional strategies. In the meantime, if you can perform these simple tasks, you are demonstrating phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is not phonics. With phonics, you convert text into speech, but with phonemic awareness, you only focus on the sounds.

Phonics = sounding out written words.

Phonemic awareness = identifying and manipulating spoken sounds.

They are closely linked, but they are not the same.

Although it may seem obvious to us as adults, the idea that words are not single units but collections of sounds requires a cognitive leap for most children. After all, we speak in complete words, and whole words have specific meanings. Children grasp whole words easily, but then we ask them to pick out the parts within words, which often do not have any meaning of their own. It is an “a ha” moment for children when they realize this concept. All of phonemic awareness stems from that conceptual understanding.

Phonemic Awareness Is for All Students

Instruction in phonemic awareness can begin when children are quite young, certainly before they enter kindergarten. If students miss, or fall behind, in this critical skill, they will struggle to read. They will already be behind in learning the foundational skills that lead to grade-level reading. And they will fall farther and farther behind in reading as they get older. Based on our student data, I believe that much of the later reading difficulties can be explained by students’ poor phonemic awareness.

We required our tutors to address phonemic awareness at all grade levels, even with students in middle and high school. Students certainly can have, and should have, strong phonemic awareness skills by that age. However, if students in upper grades are struggling to read, there is a strong possibility that they have poor foundational skills, particularly phonemic awareness.

With our requirement that all teachers provide phonemic awareness instruction, we saw students in middle and high school making two, three, and even four grade-level jumps in their reading ability. We saw many students in elementary school making greater than a grade-level gain during a single semester. Simply put, students need the foundational skills so they can learn the more advanced skills. (See “Students can only learn the next step” in chapter two.)

Common Misconceptions Regarding Phonemic Awareness

  1. Children will grasp phonemic awareness naturally, such as through nursery rhymes and songs.
  2. Children past a certain grade, such as first or second grade, will have mastered phonemic awareness and do not require any additional instruction.
  3. Phonemic awareness skills, in general, do not progress beyond a first or second grade level, i.e., there is no more to learn.

The first two assumptions are mistakes because, obviously, students are not mastering phonemic awareness skills. Their reading difficulties indicate that they are not grasping phonemic awareness, and later instruction in phonemic awareness produces measurable reading improvement.

Common reading assessments may indicate that a student has “mastered” phonemic awareness, but assessments may not measure phonemic awareness skills past the second grade or third grade. The assessments we used for our reading programs had this problem. The pre-test results would indicate that students had achieved mastery, leading tutors to believe that they did not need to provide any instruction in this reading skill (in spite of our requirements). We had to teach them what “mastery” meant: “mastery” meant only that the student had achieved second grade level. For a student in second grade, that was fine; for a student in third grade or higher, not so much.

The third assumption is a mistake because, frankly, phonemic awareness skills become more sophisticated than the level taught in the lowest elementary grades. Phonemic awareness progresses from individual sounds to patterns, enunciation, accents, meters, and rhythms. For example, teachers generally introduce the concept of poetic meters around the fourth or fifth grade. The ability to identify meter, with a regular pattern and number of accented and unaccented syllables, is a phonemic awareness skill.

The bottom line

Most students struggling to read will benefit from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, and all students benefit from instruction in increasingly sophisticated phonemic awareness skills.