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Phonemic Awareness and Letter/Sound Associations: Practices for Teachers

Educational Consultant at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) Harrisburg
Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023
  • Letter Associations
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Sound Associations

Learning to read is one of the most complex and important skills we will create in our lives. Human brains were never wired to read. Neural pathways must be established and integrated in our brains to connect and bond written language to spoken language and meaning.

To read words accurately and effortlessly, we must form a memory for each word. We do so by engaging in an orthographic mapping process (Ehri, 2014), where for each word we initially encounter, we connect graphemes, letter and letter combinations, to phonemes, the individual speech sounds of our language, to our understanding of a word’s meaning from our oral language. The orthographic mapping process is a bonding of a word’s written form, its orthography to its spoken form, its phonology, and its meaning. The orthographic mapping process is not an activity. It is a cognitive process that results in the storing of individual words as a mental orthographic image that allows us to read words “as if by sight” instantly and effortlessly.

For teachers, a deep understanding and knowledge of the contributors to the orthographic mapping process is essential.

We will begin with phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is a subskill of phonological awareness. Phonological awarenessis the awareness of or sensitivity to the sound structure of language. Phonological awareness is an umbrella term used to describe awareness at different levels of spoken language (Lane, 2022).

Phonemic awareness is a subskill of phonological awareness. It is the capacity to attend to and manipulate the smallest units of sound, phonemes. Phonemes are the individual units of sound in spoken language and the physical act used to produce the sound or the articulatory gesture. Being phonemically aware means being aware of the sounds and their associated articulatory gestures or mouth movements (Lane, 2022).

Phonemic awareness is the most complex level of phonological awareness. Blending individual sounds in a word and then joining the sounds together to form a word when decoding/reading, and segmenting sounds, or separating the individual sounds of a word to encode or spell a word, are the most essential phonemic awareness skills. The very purpose of phonemic awareness instruction is to support decoding and encoding (Lane, 2022).

The importance of phonemic awareness to reading and spelling is long-established in the research. More than 30 years ago, Marilyn Adams, in her seminal text, Beginning to Read,wrote, “Faced with an alphabetic script, the child’s level of phonemic awareness on entering school may be the single most powerful determinant of the success that she or he will experience in learning to read and of the likelihood that she or he will fail” (1990, p. 304). With such critical impact on reading success, it is essential that teachers know how to teach phonemic awareness. What are effective practices for teaching phonemic awareness? Next week, I will be presenting a webinar that will outline how to teach phonemic awareness during which I’ll share the principles of Structured Literacy and more. I hope you’ll register here for this presentation.

Register here


Adams, M.J. (1990).  Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. The MIT Press.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(5), 5-21. 

Lane, H. (2022). Practical Strategies for Decoding and Encoding. [Webinar]. Oregon RtI:

About the Author
Pam Kastner, Ed.D
Dr. Pam Kastner
Educational Consultant at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) Harrisburg

Pam Kastner, Ed.D., is an educational consultant at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) Harrisburg, where she serves as the state lead for literacy in Pennsylvania.

Dr. Kastner along with the PaTTAN Literacy team has led Pennsylvania’s Dyslexia Screening and Early Literacy Intervention Pilot Program, extension and expansion.

Dr. Kastner serves on the Pennsylvania Taskforce for Higher Education. The taskforce's goal is to embed the science of reading and Structured Literacy in higher education institutions. She presented at the National Summit on the Science of Reading in Higher Education in 2022, and is on the steering committee developing a Summit on the Science of Reading in Higher Education in Pennsylvania planned for May 2023.

Dr. Kastner is an adjunct professor at Mount Saint Joseph University in the reading science program, where she teachers in the Masters’ and Doctoral program.

She serves as president of The Reading League Pennsylvania, The Reading League Journal’s Practitioner Editorial Board, and is a member of The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement coalition.

Learn more about Dr. Pam Kastner