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Phonics, phonemic awareness, and phonological awareness may all sound really similar, but they are all different yet important skills required for successful reading.

Watch this lesson to find out about each one and how to develop them.

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Reading and Phonics

Karim is an elementary school teacher and he wants to make sure that his students are good readers when they leave his class. He’s heard that phonics is important to reading and that his students should have something called phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, but he’s not sure exactly what those are. At the end of the day, he just wants to know how to teach his students to read.Reading is based on phonics, or the link between written and spoken language. When you see the letter ‘t,’ you know that it makes a /t/ sound.

If it is followed by an ‘i,’ ‘m,’ and ‘e,’ you know that the word is ‘time.’ That is phonics. A good understanding of phonics is crucial to the ability to read. To help Karim figure out how to teach his students, let’s look at two elements of phonics-phonological awareness and phonemic awareness-and what types of activities Karim can do in his classroom to support each.

Phonological Awareness

Karim understands that phonics involves linking spoken and written language, but he still doesn’t know what phonological awareness is or how he should teach it to his students. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of a variety of sound units. Phonology is the study of the sound of speech, so phonological awareness is about recognizing the different sound units in speech. For example, Karim loves the word ‘polysyllabic.’ It just sounds so cool! When he breaks the word down into its parts, he can see that it has 5 syllables and many different sounds, like the ‘p’ sound at the beginning of the word. He is using his phonological awareness.

Recognizing syllables, including segmenting words into syllables and chunking letters into syllables, is a big part of phonological awareness. So is the ability to match sounds to words.So how can Karim teach his students to develop better phonological awareness? Activities like rhyming games, breaking words up into syllables, and other activities like that will help them hone their phonological awareness.

Phonemic Awareness

As we’ve seen, phonological awareness includes understanding syllables and matching sounds to words. It also includes something called phonemic awareness which Karim is not familiar with. Phonemic awareness is a specific type of phonological awareness that focuses on recognizing phonemes.

Phonemes are, essentially, the smallest unit of language. For example, blends like ‘sh-,’ ‘ph-,’ and ‘st-‘ are all phonemes. Just as you can remember phonological awareness by thinking of phonology, you can remember phonemic awareness by thinking of phonemes.Karim wants his students to be able to recognize blends and to have letter awareness. In other words, he wants them to develop strong phonemic awareness. But he’s not sure how to teach it to his students.

One fun activity that Karim can do with his students is to make a game out of substitutions. That is, students will be given a word and asked to change a letter or blend to make a new word. For example, Karim can give his students the word ‘lake,’ and ask them to make a substitution. One of the students might substitute ‘c’ for the ‘l,’ making the word ‘cake.’ Another might substitute an ‘i’ for the ‘a’ making the world ‘like.

‘ Substitution activities like this one build phonemic awareness, which in turn supports phonological awareness. As students become more proficient at both of those, they will become better readers.

Lesson Summary

Phonics is the link between written and spoken language and is necessary to be a proficient reader.

Both phonemic and phonological awareness are part of phonics. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of a variety of sound units, while phonemic awareness is a specific type of phonological awareness that focuses on recognizing phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest unit of language and can be taught through asking students to make phoneme substitutions to change words.

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