Phonemes vs Phonemic Awareness vs Phonological Awareness, and Why it Matters to You

Have you heard someone use the term phoneme and thought that you knew exactly what they were talking about?  Later you heard the term phonemic awareness, thinking, well, that must be the same thing, right?  Then came phonological awareness.  Hey guys.  Wait a second.  What?  Why so confusing?


Learn the difference between phonemes, phonemic awareness and phonological awareness, and why it matters to you, especially if your child experiences learning and/or reading challenges.


I’m here to clear up the phoneme mystery for you, and most importantly, tell you why you should even care.


Clearing up the Terms

A phoneme is basically a sound in a word.  It is not a written letter, just a sound.  For example, when you hear the word “skip” you hear 4 distinct phonemes: /s/, /k/, /i/, /p/.


Phonemic awareness pertains to the sound structure of words.  It helps you understand that if you take the /k/ sound away, for example, you would then have the word “sip.”


Simple enough, right?  Not so simple, however, for many of our learners who struggle to read.  Back to that in a moment.


Phonological awareness refers to the sound structure of language as well, but it is much broader than phonemic awareness.  It includes our ability to understand that sentences are made up of words, words are made up of syllables, and syllables are made up of beginning and ending sounds.  Phonological awareness also includes phonemic awareness, or understanding that words are made up of individual sounds.


That’s the very bare bones description of those terms, but we really have no need to complicate it much further.  Notice that the term “phonics” is not included in the list above.  Phonics includes the sounds AND the symbols of letters and words.  Today let’s just stick to the sounds.


So Why Should You Care?

In 2000 the National Reading Panel analyzed all of the relevant research studies on reading.  By relevant I mean that the research studies did not necessarily have major flaws in their design (such as a low number of test subjects) or in their measurement.


One key takeaway from over 115,000 studies was that if a child lacks phonemic awareness, or the ability to segment and manipulate individual phonemes, that child will not be able to link those sounds to written letters


If your child hears the word “skip” and interprets that as one complete sound, we certainly can’t expect him or her to know how to spell “skip,” or to know what the first sound is, what the last sound is, or identify the vowel sound within that word.


What are we really doing when we ask a child, who happens to lack phonemic awareness, to accurately read and spell, or at the very least to understand that the written letter “s” says /s/?  We are essentially asking that child to fail.


No, look at it again.  What does the “s” say in the word “skip?”  I just told you.  Try harder!




I hope that scenario makes you cringe as much as it does me.  So much of what we do to our children who don’t pick up reading skills naturally makes me cringe.  I have plenty more to say about that, but I’ll save that for another day.


For now, just know that it’s not your child’s fault.  And when you hear people call your child’s lack of phonemic awareness a neurological deficit, know that it isn’t your fault, either.  We just need to know how to teach our learners the skills that they need to succeed.


Yes, phonemic awareness can be taught effectively!  Your non-reader, or poor reader, can become a confident, successful one.  And if you’re interested in learning how, make sure you read this.