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Exploring the Key Differences: Phonics vs. Phonemic Awareness

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Written by
Voyager Sopris Learning
Updated on August 7, 2023
Quick Takeaway
Teaching phonemic awareness can help improve students’ reading, spelling, and vocabulary skills. While this teaching method has its challenges, it’s a key stepping stone to learning phonics. There are differences between phonics, which deals with letter-sound connections in writing, and phonemic awareness, which focuses on understanding sounds in spoken words. Despite their differences, both phonics and phonemic awareness play integral roles in developing competent readers, and their combined use is advised for successful literacy instruction.

The importance of early reading development is nothing new to educators. Science and research have proven how early instruction and intervention can set up learners for future academic success when strong foundational reading skills are established. 

When it comes to teaching children how to read, two key terms often come up in discussions: phonics and phonemic awareness. These concepts play a significant role in early reading development and are crucial for building a strong foundation in literacy skills.

However, understanding the differences between phonics and phonemic awareness is essential for educators and anyone involved in teaching children to read effectively. Ultimately, by understanding these unique characteristics, we can make informed decisions about instructional methods and tailor our approaches to meet the specific needs of young learners.

Pam Kastner, Ed.D., an educational consultant at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) Harrisburg, presented on the idea of phonemic awareness, letter/sound associations, and Structured Literacy, stating, “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.”

Understanding the building blocks of the complex yet critical skills of phonics and phonological awareness helps educators use these predictors to create instruction and intervention for children as early as preK and first grade.

Phonics: Unveiling the Power of Letter-Sound Relationships

Phonics is a powerful instructional approach that unveils the intricate relationship between individual letters and sounds in written language. It serves as a key building block for developing fluent readers and lays the foundation for decoding words accurately and fluently. 

At its core, phonics is concerned with teaching children how letters or groups of letters (graphemes) correspond to single sounds (phonemes) in words. By understanding these letter-sound relationships, children can decipher written words, leading to improved reading comprehension and overall literacy skills.

Despite there being a few cons or cautions, the role of phonics is non-negotiable when it comes to reading instruction. Successful teaching methods and strategies can be used to enhance the positives and decrease the negatives when it comes to phonics instruction.

Pros of Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction can positively guide and aid teaching methods and strategies in early childhood classrooms. Activities that address skills like word decoding, vocabulary, and spelling are all based in phonics. Not only does phonics instruction increase these skills, but it also helps students transfer those skills to new knowledge and instills a sense of confidence and independent learning in young children.

One of the main pros of phonics instruction is that it equips learners with the skills to decode words by recognizing and blending letter-sound relationships. This ability to decode unfamiliar words independently enhances reading fluency and comprehension. Once students understand letter-sound correspondences, students can decipher the pronunciation and meaning of new words. Phonics instruction expands learners’ vocabulary, enabling them to read and understand a broader range of texts. Phonics instruction also helps students develop spelling skills by providing a foundation for understanding the relationship between sounds and letters.

Ultimately, the foundation of phonics instruction teaches students to recognize patterns and generalize their understanding of letter-sound relationships. This skill transfer allows learners to apply their phonics knowledge to decode and spell new words they encounter. The ability to decode words independently through phonics instruction fosters confidence in young readers. It empowers them to engage with texts on their own, promoting a sense of autonomy and a love for reading.

Phonemic Awareness: Unlocking the Sound Structure of Language

Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill in early literacy that focuses on unlocking the sound structure of language. It involves developing the ability to recognize and manipulate individual sounds, known as phonemes, within spoken words. Phonemic awareness is a crucial precursor to successful reading and plays a vital role in developing strong reading and spelling skills. 

At its core, phonemic awareness is about understanding that spoken words are composed of a sequence of distinct sounds of language. It goes beyond simply recognizing letters or words on a page and delves into the oral language aspect of literacy. By focusing on the sounds within words, phonemic awareness enables learners to develop a deep understanding of the sound structure of language.

Dr. Kastner states, “With such critical impact on reading success, it is essential that teachers know how to teach phonemic awareness.” There are advantages and limitations of phonemic awareness instruction, but the right activities and techniques can successfully develop phonemic awareness in all students.

Advantages of Phonemic Awareness Instruction

Phonemic awareness instruction has many advantages, such as improvement in reading, spelling, and vocabulary. It also helps with identifying a need for early intervention. Phonemic awareness activities can lead to phonological awareness skills as well, furthering a learner’s understanding of whole words and the English language.  

Improved Reading Skills

Phonemic awareness instruction is strongly linked to improved reading abilities. Developing phonemic awareness helps learners recognize and manipulate individual sounds in words, which enhances their decoding skills and reading fluency. 

Strong Foundation for Phonics

Phonemic awareness provides a solid foundation for phonics instruction. It helps learners understand that words are made up of individual sounds, which can then be connected to specific letters or letter combinations. For example, the word cat is a foundational lesson in identifying letters and sounds that can later help them identify new words like category or catastrophe in later grades.

Enhanced Spelling Abilities

Phonemic awareness instruction contributes to improved spelling proficiency. By recognizing and manipulating individual phonemes in words, learners gain a more solid grasp of the sound structure of language.

Vocabulary Expansion

Phonemic awareness instruction promotes phonological awareness, which enhances vocabulary development. This heightened awareness of sound structures aids in vocabulary acquisition and retention of new words. 

Early Intervention for Reading Difficulties

Phonemic awareness instruction is particularly valuable for early intervention with struggling readers. It targets the specific skill of manipulating and recognizing phonemes, which is essential for overcoming reading difficulties.

Limitations of Phonemic Awareness Instruction

There are limitations of phonemic awareness instruction that may lead to the need for adaptations, variables, and implementations. Phonemic awareness instruction, as with all instruction, may present challenges for which some students—and teachers—may need extra support.

Individual Variability

Some learners may naturally acquire phonemic awareness skills without explicit instruction, while others may struggle despite targeted instruction. This highlights the importance of ongoing assessment and differentiation to cater to students’ specific needs.

Implementation Challenges

Phonemic awareness instruction requires explicit and systematic teaching methods. It can be challenging for educators to deliver effective instruction consistently, especially in large classrooms with diverse student needs. School administrators can help with this by being actively involved in selecting effective curriculum and resources that include explicit instruction, differentiation, and intervention. This can help lessen the burden on classroom teachers to feel the need to address all the potential challenges on their own. 

Limited to Auditory Skills

Phonemic awareness instruction primarily focuses on auditory skills, which may not fully engage students with different learning preferences or strengths. Students who are more kinesthetic or visual may struggle to identify the different units of sound by ear but may instead be able to identify a first sound and last sound by visually identifying the first and last consonant of the word. Because of this, incorporating as many hands-on and kinesthetic activities to phonemic awareness instruction will allow students with different learning preferences or strengths to make more connections to the learning. For example, using classic games like hop-scotch or a deck of cards to break words down into their phonemic elements can help students with limited auditory skills by adding in movement and tactile objects. 

Comparing Phonics and Phonemic Awareness

In literacy instruction, phonics and phonemic awareness are often confused or used synonymously. These concepts play vital roles in helping children develop strong reading and decoding skills, but they have several distinctions. 

In short, phonemic awareness is an auditory and oral ability to recognize sounds, and phonics is the visual and auditory ability to recognize the relationship between the letter-sound. While phonics and phonemic awareness are interconnected, they focus on distinct aspects of language development. Understanding the similarities and differences between phonics and phonemic awareness is crucial for educators, parents, and anyone involved in supporting young learners on their literacy journey.

Phonics and phonemic awareness are keys to literacy. Therefore, a balance of phonics and phonemic awareness in reading instruction will unlock the door to reading success. From the beginning sounds of letters and words to the comprehension and analysis of full passages and texts, teachers can turn the instruction of an initial sound into a lifelong skill.

Focus

Phonics primarily deals with the relationship between letters and sounds in written language, while phonemic awareness focuses on the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. This manipulation may involve skills like phoneme deletion to create new words. 

Modalities

Phonics instruction incorporates both visual and auditory elements, because it involves recognizing letters and their corresponding sounds. Phonemic awareness, on the other hand, is solely an auditory skill, focusing on the ability to perceive and manipulate sounds in spoken language. 

Instructional Sequence

Phonics instruction typically follows a structured sequence, starting with letter recognition and progressing to more complex phonics patterns. Phonemic awareness instruction, however, does not have a fixed sequence and can be integrated into various activities at different stages of early literacy development. 

Transferability

Phonics skills acquired through decoding can be applied to both reading and spelling. Phonemic awareness, on the other hand, primarily supports the development of decoding skills and does not directly transfer to spelling or writing. 

Relationship

Phonemic awareness serves as a precursor to phonics instruction. Phonemic awareness provides the foundation for understanding how phonics works. Once students have a better understanding of vowel sounds, they can then move into sound relationships and how that affects spoken words and speech sounds.

Best Practices for Integrating Phonics and Phonemic Awareness

Integrating phonics and phonemic awareness in early literacy instruction is crucial for developing strong reading and decoding skills. By combining these two components effectively, educators can provide a comprehensive approach that supports children’s understanding of the sound-symbol relationship in written language. 

There are a number of best practices for integrating phonics and phonemic awareness in teaching, including (but not limited to) explicit and differentiated instruction that involves sequential progression, multisensory elements, and ongoing feedback in an authentic context.

Sequential Progression

It is important to start with phonemic awareness activities before introducing explicit phonics instruction. Follow a sequential progression, gradually introducing phonics concepts that align with learners’ growing phonemic awareness skills.

Multisensory Approach

Engaging learners through a multisensory approach that incorporates auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities is the best approach to reach all types of learners. This enhances understanding and retention of phonics and phonemic awareness concepts.

Explicit Instruction

To provide explicit instruction in both phonics and phonemic awareness, instructors must clearly explain the relationships between separate sounds and letter names, model strategies for segmenting and blending sounds, and provide guided practice opportunities. When teachers explicitly walk students through the alphabetic principle, they are moving students from simple awareness of the alphabet into the reading and understanding of words.

Authentic Contexts

To connect phonics and phonemic awareness instruction to authentic reading and writing experiences, teachers should use meaningful and engaging texts to demonstrate how phonics principles apply in real-world situations.

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiating instruction based on students’ individual needs and abilities can be done by conducting regular assessments to identify specific areas of strength as well as areas that require additional support.

Integration with Literacy Activities

Integrating phonics and phonemic awareness into various literacy activities throughout the day will help prevent them from being taught in isolation. Incorporate them into shared reading experiences, guided reading sessions, word work centers, and writing activities. Any time spoken words are used, it is an opportunity to address speech sounds and sound relationships.

Ongoing Assessment and Feedback

Teachers must continuously assess students’ progress in phonics and phonemic awareness and provide timely feedback. Regularly monitoring students' growth and adjusting instruction accordingly will ensure their needs are being met.

Home-School Connection

Fostering a strong home-school connection can be done by providing resources and suggestions for parents to support their child’s phonics and phonemic awareness development at home. While parents may not get into the weeds of graphemes or digraphs, they can still practice speech sounds in the form of identifying rhyming words or alliteration in books at home.

Conclusion

While the major difference between phonics and phonemic awareness is important to identify, the relationship between the two is important to emphasize as well. Whether working with letter-sound relationships or the sound structure of language, these fundamental elements are seeds we plant that will later bloom and grow into a beautiful life long skill. Implementing phonemic awareness early will empower students to become confident and successful readers. Our goal at Voyager Sopris Learning is to not only empower students in this way, but also to empower schools and educators to feel confident in their ability to help students on their literacy journey.