Phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness: what and how to teach

phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness

Phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness can be a tricky concept, not helped by the fact that both terms start with ph! Think of phonological awareness as the big umbrella around sounds of our oral language, whereas phonemic awareness falls under that umbrella for the individual sounds, or phonemes, of our language. So phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the big chunks of sounds in our language and phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds within words. How do we help our students and children develop phonological awareness?

phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness

Concept of a word

phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness

When thinking about phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness, the first thing we want to think about is the concept of a word. A word is a big chunk of sounds, so it falls under phonological awareness. One of the first phonological awareness skills that students need to develop is the ability to hear individual words. In a sentence, students should understand where one word starts and one word ends. This supports all future literacy skills and is a key phonological awareness skill. When teaching phonological awareness, start with the biggest chunk of the word… the word itself!

I teach the concept of words by having students listen to sentences and push a cube up for each word they hear or clapping each word they hear. We then repeat the sentence tapping on each cube or clapping again. I like to use familiar nursery rhymes for this breaking it down line by line. I also connect to some early readers by telling students the sentence first before having them read it themselves.


When we think of phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness, we often think of rhyming as the key phonological awareness skill. And it is a very important skill for children to learn, but it is not the only phonological awareness skill to learn. Children need to first learn to identify the rhyming words – finding the two words that rhyme. After they have mastered that skill, then they should work on producing rhyming words, meaning if you say a word, they can say a word or two that rhymes with that word. After teaching the concept of a word, the biggest chunk, we move to the next biggest chunk… the ending chunks of words.

Teaching rhyming

phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness

Teaching rhyming is so important in the earliest years and can be done easily with songs and nursery rhymes. These naturally help instill the ability to hear the different rhyming chunks of words. Once students get to kindergarten or older, we should start explicitly teaching students to hear the ending chunk and match it to the same ending chunk in a different word. Playing rhyming games like matching cards or bingo are great ways to start. Singing songs like Down By the Bay and having students add rhyming words is another effective and easy way to practice rhyming.  

Rhyming in the older grades can be seen as something we teach once, and we move on after a week or so. I agree that the explicit teaching of it can be done after a week of practice, but the rhyming practice should be routine either in the whole group during transitions or with attention getters, or in small groups. When I am gathering my students on the rug I often say, “I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with ___” to get their attention, settle them down, and practice rhyming routinely. Also, when I am reading rhyming books, I often leave out the rhyming words and let the students call out what the word should be.


Syllables… phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness, which one are they? They are still bigger chunks of sound so syllables fall under phonological awareness. Remember, phonemic awareness involves individual sounds in words. But as we are teaching phonological awareness we are getting smaller and smaller. We started with the big word, then we broke the word up into the start of the word and then the end of the word, and now we are breaking the word up into all of its sound chunks, or syllables.

phonological awareness examples

Teaching syllables

There’s lots of different ways to have children show how to break up the different syllables. Children can clap for the different syllables, tap their arm from the wrist to their shoulder, or put their hand under their chin and feel how many times their mouth hits the hand for each syllable chunk. I personally go towards the clapping, but I also like the hand under the chin to really feel the syllable chunks.

I like to start teaching syllables with children’s names because they know them so well. And usually, the classroom has a wide array of lengths of names and a number of syllables. After names, we move on to a variety of words to see the different syllables. Teaching syllables involves a lot of practice of saying words and listening for the chunks. I like to use my syllables powerpoint to help give them fun practice. We also play syllable matching, bingo, and other games!

Syllables progression

phonological awareness examples

Teachers should never teach syllables once and then move on. In kindergarten, we want children to hear syllables because it helps them break up words as they are writing. It makes the larger words less overwhelming when they can spell them syllable by syllable.

In late kindergarten or first grade, I teach my students that every syllable has a vowel in it. This is an important spelling strategy for them to learn. Especially because with some syllables it is hard to hear the vowels (like an r-controlled vowel). In second grade and older, students learn that there are different syllable types and this helps them learn the spelling rules for multi-syllable words. All of this to say, students shouldn’t learn syllables one time because they’ll forget it! They should be brought up year after year as the children progress in their literacy skills.

Phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness: the first and last chunk

When thinking about the first and last chunk in words, it’s still a grouping of individual sounds so it falls under phonological awareness. However, they are closely related to phonemic awareness skills. Teachers should teach these chunks simultaneously. The last chunk is called word families. The first chunks might be thought of as onset and rime.

Word Families

phonological awareness

Teaching word families is like rhyming because children are listening for words that end the same. I like to use matching and go-fish, as well as other games to help practice identifying the word family ending chunk and producing more words inside of a word family. Often word families are used with CVC or simple words like to learn the ending chunks -an or -am. These are considered glued sounds and don’t follow the normal sounds of the short vowel “a”. Because of this, often the word family activities often involve switching out the beginning sounds of words to make new words within the word families. And because the words are often CVC words, then students are often connecting the individual letters to their individual sounds.

This is the connection to phonemic awareness. When children start to think about the individual sounds in words, they are practicing phonemic awareness. So working on word families can be a good transition from more phonological awareness work into more phonemic awareness work.

Onset and rime

phonological awareness

Teachers often teach Onset and rime as the beginning sound of the word and the rest. For example, in “catch” the onset is /c/ and the rest /atch/ is the rime. It is very similar to rhyming, which looks at the ending chunks. Because the focus is often on the beginning sound, it is a great connection to the phonemic awareness skill of identifying individual sounds, like the beginning sounds. It’s a great skill to practice before introducing letters to sounds and starting work on beginning sounds individually.


Phonological awareness versus phonemic awareness doesn’t have to be complicated. Teachers should use both to help students develop important literacy skills. Just remember to start with the big chunks of the words Then work your way down to the phonemic awareness skills of working with individual sounds.


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