Phonemic Awareness

The following section of the module is an adapted excerpt from an LD@school article. Click here to access the original article, Learning to Read: The Importance of Both Phonological and Morphological Approaches.

Phonemic awareness relates to the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound in human speech and form the sound system of a specific language. In English, although we have 26 letters in our alphabet, there are 43 phonemes (sounds) because some letters have more than one sound. For a complete list of phonemes in the English language, see page 27 of the resource Foundations for Literacy: An Evidence-Based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teacher. Click here to access this document.

Citing multiple research studies, Bryant ­­et al [1] note the strong “connection between young children’s awareness of phonological segments, particularly of phonemes, and their progress in learning to read”. Many other studies consistently confirm that phonemic awareness along with letter recognition are the two best early predictors of reading success, and more recent studies [2] have demonstrated that phonemic awareness skills influence children’s broader academic success throughout most of their schooling.

5 Phonemic Awareness Skills

In reading, we are interested in a child’s ability to distinguish the sounds in three different locations: at the beginning of words; at the end of words; and in the middle of words. Each of these is a different skill. Once these three skills are mastered, the child needs to learn how to blend sounds together to make a full word. As words becomes more complex, more complex phonemic awareness skills are needed.

There are five different types of phonemic skills of importance. These are outlined on the Reading Rockets website (click here to access this webpage) and include the following:

  • Phoneme matching - the ability to identify words that begin with the same sound.
  • Phoneme isolation - the ability to isolate a single sound from within a word.
  • Phoneme blending - the ability to blend individual sounds into a word.
  • Phoneme segmentation - the ability to break a word into individual sounds.
  • Phoneme manipulation - the ability to modify, change, or move the individual sounds in a word.

Unfortunately, many people with LDs have difficulty developing these skills. It is important to understand these skills and to recognize if a child is having difficulty with them. Teachers – and family, too – need to understand that if this is the case, it is not because the child is not trying. Rather, it is because the physiology of a child’s brain makes the task extremely difficult.

Blending Phonemes

Once a child is able to isolate sounds, they need to learn to blend those sounds together. The child would be asked, “What word do we have if we blend together the following sounds: /p/  /a/  /t/ ?” Like other phonemic awareness skills, this often needs to be taught through modelling and blending the word orally with the child. The initial slow blending needs to be done increasingly quickly so the child can hear the full word properly.

What is particularly heartening is that we know that phonemic awareness training, where children are taught how to blend sounds and how to delete sounds, can be extremely effective and subsequently makes a significant difference in reading ability [3]. With children who have LDs, this training needs to be explicit and intensive in order to be effective.

Phonemic awareness skills of isolating and blending sounds in simple words are usually mastered by Grade 1. And the ability to manipulate phonemes is usually mastered by the end of Grade 1 or early Grade 2.  For a full list of ages at which specific segmentation and manipulation skills are typically mastered, click here to visit the Reading Rockets website.

Teacher and student give a high-five with the alphabet on the blackboard

Teaching Phonemic Awareness: Phonics

While phonemic awareness focuses on the sounds of language, phonics involves the association of sounds to written letters (phoneme-grapheme correspondence) and includes “sounding out” unfamiliar words.  A large body of research confirms that readers who can use a phonics approach by sounding out unfamiliar words are more successful readers.

The longstanding findings of the effectiveness of explicit teaching of phonics was again re-affirmed in a recent thee-year pilot project launched by New York City in 2008 with 700 children in ten low income schools. Results were matched with 350 children in ten demographically similar schools who did not receive the same instruction. Students who received explicit phonics teaching showed significantly greater gains than children who did not in word identification, word attack, comprehension and spelling as measured by the Woodcock-Johnson III assessment.

The following printable handouts provide strategies for phonics instruction. To read the original article associated with these handouts, click here to access the article Reading and the Brain: Strategies for Decoding, Fluency, and Comprehension.


Click here to access the handout Interventions for Sound/Symbol Association and Phonetic Coding (K-2).

Click here to access the handout Interventions for Sound/Symbol Association and Phonetic Coding (3+).

Yet many people with LDs have great difficulty in being able to use a phonics approach either because they cannot hear the different sounds (phonological awareness) or they may have difficulty in blending sounds together. Nagy, Berninger and Abbott [4] note that, “an increasing body of research has documented how a variety of symptoms of reading disability can be traced to a basic phonological deficit.” This challenge makes a phonics approach to reading almost useless to them. Educators need to attend to these students who are not responding to phonics, and offer them alternatives such as morphological approaches, which will be discussed in the next section of the module.

Assessing Phonemic Awareness

Educators can do some informal exploration of a student’s phonemic awareness, starting with an exploration of their ability to segment – or isolate – sounds in short words.

  1. Let the student know that you are going to play a word game. Then tell them that you are going to say a word and they have to tell you the first sound in that word [5]. E.g., “What sound do you hear at the beginning of the word pat?” (/p/). We start with the initial sound in a word first – that is the easiest.
  2. Then we ask for the last sound. E.g., “What sound do you hear at the end of the word pat?” (/t/).
  3. If the child can do both of those, then ask, “What sound do you hear in the middle of the word pat?” (/a/).
  4. More complex versions of these skills would involve identifying consonant blends such as bl, tr, sp, at the beginning, at the end and in the middle of words.

Teacher and child working on letter sounds

Other tasks that help us understand a child’s phonemic awareness abilities include the following [6] (ordered from simplest to most challenging):

  • Rhyming: "Tell me all of the words that you know that rhyme with the word ‘cat’.”
  • Word to word matching: "Do pen and pipe begin with the same sound?"
  • Phoneme segmentation: "What sounds do you hear in the word ‘hot’?"
  • Phoneme counting: "How many sounds do you hear in the word ‘cake’?" (Three: /k/ /ā/ /k/)
  • Blending of sounds: "What word would we have if we blended these sounds together: /m/ /o/ /p/?")
  • Phoneme deletion: "What word would be left if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?" Or, at a more difficult level, “Say the word ‘play.’ Now say it again but don’t say /p/.”

There are multiple phonemic awareness assessment tools supported by research that can be used beginning in Kindergarten and going through higher grades, including the Rosner Test of Auditory Analysis Skills [7], the Test of Phonological Awareness-Kindergarten (TOPA-K) [8], the Yopp-Singer Test of Phoneme Segmentation [9] and the Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, DIBELS [10]Click here to access a full list of research-supported phonemic awareness measures on the LD Online website.

Having evidence to know whether a student has difficulty with phonological processing is essential in knowing how to best meet their needs. If a student does have difficulty with phonemic awareness, talk with the Special Education Resource Teacher at your school. They can do additional assessment and together you can plan what type of explicit instruction in auditory analysis the student will receive.

Technology & Phonemic Awareness

There are a variety of Apps that help students work on phonemic awareness. Montessori Letter Sounds is one option, which includes four increasingly challenging games. This App encourages students to work independently and learn to self-correct. Another option is ABCmouse, which includes a large selection of early learning activities. Click here to access the ABCmouse website for more information.


[1] Bryant, Nunes, & Barros, 2014, p. 211

[2] Blomert & Csépe, 2012; Bryant et al, 2014; Vaessen & Blomert, 2010

[3] Rosner, 1974; Weiner, 1994

[4] Nagy, Berninger, & Abbott, 2006, p. 136

[5] Weiner, 1994

[6] Stanovich, 1994

[7] Rosner, 1993

[8] Torgesen & Bryant, 1993

[9] Yopp, 1995

[10] Kaminski & Good, 1996