phonological awareness umbrellaPhonological awareness is an umbrella term that refers to the ability to think about the sounds that make up spoken language. It includes being able to:

  • Hear and break sentences down into individual words
  • Hear and break words down into syllables
  • Hear and break syllables down into smaller chunks, called onsets and rimes (e.g., pat can be broken down into the onset “p” and the rime “at” and slip would be broken down into “sl” and “ip”)
  • Notice and understand rhymes
  • Notice alliteration (i.e., Five fluffy foxes)

Phonological awareness is a strong predictor of future reading success. Being able to break words down into their smaller components is the only way to learn to sound out words.

Phonemic awareness

Also included under the umbrella of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness relates to the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the smallest units of sound (phonemes) in human speech that make up a specific language.

The English alphabet has 26 letters that represent 44 phonemes (speech sounds). Some letters make more than one sound (i.e., The letter C can be pronounced as /s/ or /k/, and both sounds are present in the word “circle”). Sometimes combinations of letters are used to represent a single sound (sh-, ch-, etc.), and sometimes words contain letters that make no sound at all (silent letters). This can make learning to read very difficult.

5 Phonemic Awareness Skills

In order to successfully learn to read, students need to be able to:

  • Match phonemes - the ability to identify words that begin with the same sound.
    • Q: Do “cat” and “car” start with the same sound or different sounds?
    • A:  Same sound
  • Isolate phonemes - the ability to isolate a single sound from within a word.
    • Q: What is the first sound in the word “mat”?
    • A: /m/
  • Blend phonemes - the ability to blend individual sounds into a word.
    • Q: What happens if we add a /s/ sound to the beginning of the word “tint”?
    • A: “stint”
  • Segment phonemes - the ability to break a word into individual sounds.
    • Q: How many sounds make up the word “car”? How many sounds make up the word “cash”?
    • A: “car” has 3 sounds /k/ /a:/ /r/, “cash” has 3 sounds /k/ /ae/ /sh/
  • Manipulate phonemes - the ability to modify, change, or move the individual sounds in a word.
    • Q: What word do we get if we change the /s/ sound in “sink” to an /r/ sound?
    • A: “rink”

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.

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 make 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. 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


The following printable handouts provide strategies for building letter-sound correspondences and phonemic awareness skills. 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+).

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 [4]. 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 [5] (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 [6], the Test of Phonological Awareness-Kindergarten (TOPA-K) [7], the Yopp-Singer Test of Phoneme Segmentation [8] and the Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, DIBELS [9]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.


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

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

[3] Rosner, 1974; Weiner, 1994

[4] Weiner, 1994

[5] Stanovich, 1994

[6] Rosner, 1993

[7] Torgesen & Bryant, 1993

[8] Yopp, 1995

[9] Kaminski & Good, 1996