Phonological Awareness vs Phonemic Awareness

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Phonological awareness? Phonemic awareness? Aren’t they the same thing anyway?

Believe it or not, these two terms are often used interchangeably as if their meanings are exactly same. Are you ready for this? They actually aren’t. Let’s break down these terms and discuss how they differ.

Both phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are both pre-reading listening skills that relate to phonics. When thinking of phonological awareness, think of it as an umbrella term that encompasses the ability to hear and manipulate units of sounds in spoken language. It refers to the skill of alliteration (sounds repeating themselves). Remember the classic “Sally sold seashells by the seashore”? You were practicing the skill of alliteration without even knowing it. Phonological awareness also involves onset and rime as well as counting syllables.

Think of phonological awareness as a cake with phonemic awareness being one of the layers in the cake. In relation to academics, phonemic awareness is usually the area that teachers spend a significant amount of time teaching. That makes it the TOP layer of the cake. Phonemic awareness refers to awareness of individual phonemes (smallest units of sound) in spoken words and manipulation of those sounds.

It is very important to not confuse letters of the alphabet with sounds. Although there are 26 letters in the alphabet, the English language has 44 phonemes! For example, phonemic awareness provides us with the ability to hear the /m/, /a/, and /t/ sounds individually in the word “mat”. Ah now, we have reached the point of how these skills tie into speech and language concepts.

Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) are experts in the area of phonemes with a wealth of knowledge devoted to reading and writing phonetically while utilizing the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This allows SLPs to write words exactly how children produce them in terms of sounds instead of letters. In terms of speech, children who exhibit phonological disorders (simplification of a speech sound that effects intelligibility) often demonstrate difficulty with organizing the patterns of sounds in the brain and therefore sounds like a sound produced in the wrong way. Severe phonological disorders can put a child at risk for issues with reading and writing.

Phonological awareness skills begin development around preschool years. By age 3, you can actually start to work on these skills. Of course, these skills will continue to enhance and grow once your child enters school and begins formal reading instruction in Kindergarten. Games/Songs such as “Miss Mary Mack” as well as reading Dr. Seuss Books with your child are excellent ways to begin practicing and building phonological awareness skills at home.

To help you quickly remember the difference between phonological awareness, I created this helpful handout!

Click to download the Phonological VS Phonemic Awareness Visual Sheet!

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