While the terms phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are often used interchangeably, phonemic awareness really is a subset of phonological awareness. Tasks that work on phonological and phonemic awareness are oral and do not include working with the symbols of print.1 (see separate section on phonics, another of the five key reading skills, which involves the relationship between sounds and associated written symbols.)
Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize that words are made up of a variety of sound units…A child with strong phonological awareness should be able to recognize and use rhyme, break words into syllables, blend phonemes into syllables and words, identify the beginning and ending sounds in a syllable and see smaller words within larger words (i.e. “cat” in “catalog”).2
Phonemic awareness involves only the phoneme, which is the smallest unit of sound:
A reader with strong phonemic awareness will demonstrate the ability to hear rhyme and alliteration (the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of several different words used in a sentence or paragraph), find the different sound in a set of words (i.e. “bat”, “ball”, “wet”) and blend and segment phonemes.
Phonological and phonemic awareness lay an important foundation for later reading success. Being able to identify, distinguish between, and manipulate individual sounds is especially important in spelling. Dyslexics can have difficulty making the connection between a visual symbol (a letter) for an auditory experience (a sound), which is phonics.
Difficulty rhyming words (such as bat, cat, and hat) is a common early indication of dyslexia. Not distinguishing between similar sounds (such as /d/ and /t/) at the beginning, middle, or end of a word is another example of struggles with phonological awareness. (Forward-slashes on either side of letters indicate that you should read or say the sound of the letter(s) rather than the name(s) of the letters.) A student with this challenge would have trouble when asked to use colored blocks to show the change from had to hat by replacing the block where they heard the different sound with a different-colored block. If they can’t hear the difference between similar sounds, they might try to spell chug and it comes out jug instead. If they can distinguish between the sounds but are having difficulty with only the pronunciation of the similar sounds, that can indicate speech articulation issues.
A student having difficulty with phonological and phonemic awareness should begin with a program that starts at the sound level before moving on to phonics, which is sound-symbol association. Some dyslexics, and most individuals with auditory processing disorder, need to start here in order for the phonics-based instruction to be effective.
We’ve provided this set of Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Assessment and Exercises as an informal assessment and a starting point for intervention.
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