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Unraveling the Differences: Phonological Awareness vs. Phonics

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Updated on
Modified on September 28, 2023
Quick Takeaway
Phonological awareness and phonics are two fundamental pillars of early literacy development. Phonological awareness involves recognizing and manipulating sounds in spoken language, while phonics connects these sounds to their written symbols. Emphasizing both in instruction empowers young learners to become confident readers and writers, equipping them for successful language proficiency and communication. Choosing the right approach to teaching these skills can significantly influence a child’s literacy journey, so it’s crucial to consider individual needs, developmental stages, and evidence-based practices.

In early literacy development, two key terms often arise: phonological awareness and phonics. While they may sound similar, these concepts hold distinct roles in the process of learning to read and write. Understanding the differences between phonological awareness and phonics is crucial for educators, parents, and anyone involved in fostering strong reading skills in children.

Research conducted by the National National Reading Panel found that Panel found that “appropriate teacher education does produce higher achievement in students.” The panel’s research, along with many others’, continues to emphasize the importance of explicit instruction and the the science of reading of reading, which both emphasize phonological awareness and phonics when teaching reading.

If you’re an educator seeking to enhance your teaching strategies, understanding the distinctions between phonological awareness and phonics is essential for reading success. 

By embracing a balanced approach in reading instruction that incorporates both aspects, we can empower young learners to become confident readers and writers. So, let’s embark on this enlightening exploration and unlock the keys to phonological awareness and phonics in the fascinating world of literacy.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness refers to the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds (phonemes) in spoken language. It is a crucial precursor to reading and writing skills, as it helps children develop an understanding of the sound structure of words.

Phonological awareness involves various components, including rhyme, alliteration, syllable segmentation, and phonemic manipulation. As children learn more about the letter sounds and letter names, their awareness and ability to understand the alphabetic principle sets the stage for reading benefits.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the most advanced and crucial component of phonological awareness. It is a subset and building block for phonological awareness. It involves the ability to manipulate and identify individual phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound in the English language. This is crucial for both the visual component of reading words on a page as well as the auditory component of spoken words.

Fostering phonemic awareness awareness ensures that students gain a strong grasp of language mechanics. Phonemic awareness equips students with the necessary tools to recognize and isolate phonemes, enabling them to identify the distinct sounds patterns that form words. This heightened sensitivity to individual phonemes facilitates the development of phonological awareness, which, in turn, enhances overall literacy skills. 


Alliteration helps children attend to and differentiate the sounds at the beginning of words. For example, in the classic she sells sea shells by the sea shore, students are about to learn the consonant “s” through a sing-song rhyme. The ability to notice the first sound of a word through alliteration will lead to future skills, like breaking down more separate sounds during segmenting. 

Syllable Segmentation

By honing the skill of phonological awareness, students can break down words into their constituent parts through syllable segmentation. A deep understanding of units of sound that contains a vowel sound helps children recognize and manipulate larger sound units within words, which can eventually lead to skills like the ability to identify digraphs or blend sounds. Developing this skill lays the foundation for proficient decoding, spelling, and reading fluency. 

The Benefits of Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness brings a range of benefits to children’s early literacy development, ranging from reading readiness to other important transferable skills. These benefits extend beyond the immediate acquisition of reading and writing skills and have a lasting impact on overall language proficiency. Phonological awareness serves as a crucial predictor of reading readiness. By understanding the sound structure of words, children can more effectively connect spoken language to written text, leading to improved reading comprehension and overall reading success and enjoyment.

At the root, phonological awareness directly impacts word recognition and spelling abilities. By understanding the phonemic makeup of words, they can accurately match sounds to letters, improving both word reading and spelling accuracy. Phonological awareness also contributes to vocabulary development. This heightened sensitivity to phonemes and sound patterns helps students recognize and remember new words, expanding their vocabulary repertoire. 

Phonological awareness not only benefits reading skills, but it also promotes active listening and speaking skills. Listening skills are beneficial not only in literacy activities but also in classroom settings and everyday communication, improving overall comprehension and understanding. The development towards proficiency in oral language skills carries over into improved verbal expression, communication, and overall language fluency.

These phonological awareness skills are transferable across different aspects of literacy. The ability to manipulate and analyze sounds in spoken language supports the acquisition of other literacy skills, such as phonics, fluency, and comprehension. By fostering these skills, educators and parents empower children to become confident, competent readers and writers, equipping them with essential tools for lifelong success in communication and language proficiency.


In phonics instruction, children learn how to associate specific sounds with corresponding letters or letter combinations. Drs. Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman emphasize the importance of phonological skills skills developed during phonics instruction: “Phonological skill develops in a predictable progression. This concept is important, as it provides the basis for sequencing teaching tasks from easy to more difficult.”

By understanding the sound-symbol relationships, children can decode and encode words, enabling them to read and write with accuracy and fluency. Phonics instruction typically starts with basic letter-sound relationships and gradually progresses to more complex phoneme-grapheme relationships.

  • Letter-Sound Correspondence: Phonics instruction begins by teaching children the sounds associated with individual letters or groups of letters. By learning these correspondences, children can start blending sounds together to form words.

  • Blending: Blending is the process of combining individual sounds to read words. Blending skills allow children to read unfamiliar words and develop reading fluency.

  • Segmenting: Segmenting is the opposite of blending. It involves breaking down words into individual sounds. Segmenting skills are crucial for spelling as children learn to map sounds to their corresponding letters.

  • Decoding: Decoding refers to the ability to sound out and read unfamiliar words. Decoding skills allow children to tackle new words and expand their reading vocabulary.

  • Encoding: Encoding is the process of translating spoken sounds into written language. Encoding skills help children spell words accurately and develop their written language proficiency.

Comparing Phonological Awareness and Phonics

While phonological awareness and phonics are both essential components of early literacy instruction, they differ in their focus and scope. Understanding the distinctions between these two concepts can help educators make informed decisions about how to support children’s reading and writing development effectively.

It is important to note that phonological awareness and phonics are not mutually exclusive. They work together to help children become successful readers and writers. Phonological awareness skills provide the basis for understanding the sound structure of language, while phonics instruction enables children to make connections between sounds and written symbols. 

By integrating both phonological awareness activities and systematic phonics instruction, educators can provide a comprehensive approach to literacy development. This balanced approach ensures children have a solid foundation in understanding and manipulating sounds while also developing the foundational skills needed to decode and encode written language effectively.

Choosing the Right Approach

When it comes to teaching and fostering skills in any domain, selecting the right approach is essential. This holds true for early literacy development, where the choice of instructional approach can significantly impact a child’s progress and engagement.

In the context of phonological awareness and phonics phonics instruction, making informed decisions about the most appropriate approach is crucial for promoting effective learning outcomes. 

Each learner is unique, with different strengths, learning styles, and developmental stages. Consider the specific needs of the learners you are working with. For example, studies have shown that all students, including students who may experience dyslexia or other reading challenges, greatly benefit from Structured Literacy. Considering the developmental stage of the learners, phonological awareness typically develops earlier than phonics skills. Younger children may benefit from activities that focus on developing phonological awareness, such as rhyming and alliteration games. 

It is important to incorporate a balanced approach that integrates both phonological awareness and phonics instruction. Engaging learners in activities that develop phonological awareness skills lay the foundation for successful phonics decoding and encoding. Also, staying informed about current research and evidence-based practices in early literacy instruction will allow educators to keep up with advancements in the field to make informed decisions.

Regular assessment and monitoring of learners’ progress is vital to inform instructional decisions. This information will help you tailor instruction and intervention to meet individual needs and make adjustments as necessary. With a plethora of instructional strategies and methods available, it can be overwhelming to determine the best fit for your learners. However, by considering certain key factors and reflecting on individual needs, you can make a well-informed decision that aligns with the unique requirements of your learners. 


Research from the National Reading Panel and a growing body of evidence surrounding the the science of reading of reading continues to emphasize the importance of phonological awareness and phonics in reading instruction and intervention.

Schools and educators can foster these strong reading skills through a balanced approach of both. At Voyager Sopris Learning®, we strive to offer reading programs that make teachers feel more confident in their reading intervention.