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What is Phonemic Awareness?

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness and phonics are distinct yet related concepts in early reading development. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words, focusing purely on auditory skills without involving written text. In contrast, phonics involves understanding the relationship between phonemes and their corresponding letters or letter patterns in written language, thus connecting sounds to their visual representations in reading and writing. Both are essential for reading proficiency, but phonemic awareness is a precursor to phonics, providing the foundational skills needed for effective phonics instruction.


Key Points


The research evidence is clear that awareness of phonemes develops only in the context of the development of alphabetic literacy and does not appear to be an integral part of humans’ biological preparedness for rapid, early, universal, and seemingly spontaneous spoken language acquisition. In other words, if children did not need to learn to read and spell, it wouldn't matter which children have trouble acquiring phonemic awareness.

Unlike spoken language competencies, reading is a skill that requires a conscious investment of time and effort, explicit instruction, and a great deal (years) of practice. Moreover, as an integral component of alphabetic literacy learning, phonemic awareness is closely tied to the particular orthography being learned, the fidelity of the spelling–sound mappings, the timing of alphabetic—and only alphabetic—reading instruction, and even the type of instruction (see Share, pp. 596–599, for a more detailed discussion).

Understanding the difference between phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics matters. Children who are taught to pay attention to syllables but are not explicitly taught the phonemic principle that letters map to phonemes, for example, do not spontaneously develop awareness of phonemes. Like learning to read (English) becoming aware of the constituent phonemes in spoken words does not come “naturally” for all. The available evidence, therefore, converges on the conclusion that phonemic awareness is not a universal and emergent linguistic capability but is best categorised as a reading subskill.

At least 25% of children are at risk for reading difficulties related to phonemic awareness deficits, and about 10% may have dyslexia, which includes challenges with phonemic awareness. For these children, phonemic awareness must be explicitly taught through targeted, systematic instruction to help them develop the necessary skills for reading. The starting point is to identify by the age of 3 the children who do not have phonemic awareness. 

For children who do not easily develop efficient phonemic processing systems, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness is crucial as early as possible - before learning phonics. Studies have shown that direct teaching of phonemic awareness significantly improves reading-related skills, especially for those at risk of reading difficulties. Effective phonemic awareness instruction involves activities that help children identify, segment, blend, and manipulate the smallest sounds in words.

Early identification and intervention are vital. Children who receive targeted phonemic awareness instruction before they start reading are more likely to develop strong reading skills.

Programs that incorporate phonemic awareness activities as part of a comprehensive reading instruction approach have been shown to benefit all children, but particularly those with initial difficulties in phonemic processing.


Useful reading 

Adams, M. J. (1990). "Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print."

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read."

National Reading Panel (2000). "Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction."

Stanovich, K. E. (2000). "Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers."

Share, D.L. Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition 1995, 55, 151–218

Shaywitz, S. (2003). "Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level."

Torgesen, J. K. (1998). "Catch Them Before They Fall: Identification and Assessment to Prevent Reading Failure in Young Children."


Because we are Speech Sound Mapping with Speech Sound Monsters (Phonemies) before the graphemes ie 'pictures' of those speech sounds (Sound Pics) are introduced, children can start Speech Sound Mapping when they are toddlers! The focus is on isolating, segmenting (ordering), and blending speech sounds without the extra cognitive load of 'letters'. The concept of letters—letter names and letter 'sounds'—is far too much for most of our very young learners. By developing the skills used in reading and spelling with a set of Phonemies instead, children find the introduction of 'letters' is then much easier to grasp at a much earlier age. Crucially, this ensures they have the phonemic awareness needed to connect those speech sounds with letters when learning phonics. We are using a schema-based approach.

At least one in three children are not born to naturally develop this skill (and it is not linked with intelligence). According to the Department for Education (DfE) 2018, around one in four children currently start school without the necessary phonemic awareness, even though phonemic awareness is included within the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework. The framework states that all children attending nurseries should be offered explicit phonemic awareness instruction. The relevant section of the framework can be found in the Development Matters document, which highlights the importance of developing phonemic awareness in the early years.

By focusing on speech sound mapping with Phonemies, we ensure that children develop the phonemic awareness necessary to succeed in phonics. This approach reduces the cognitive load on very young learners, making it easier for them to transition to learning letters and sounds. This proactive method helps address the needs of children who are not born with innate phonemic awareness, ensuring they are well-prepared for reading and spelling as they grow.

The Importance of Phonemic Awareness in Learning to Read: A Research-Based Perspective

Phonemic awareness, the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words, is a critical precursor to reading proficiency. The significance of phonemic awareness in early literacy development is well-documented through extensive research, highlighting its role as a foundation for reading skills, its predictive value for reading success, and its effectiveness in interventions for struggling readers.

Foundation of Reading Skills

Phonemic awareness is recognised as a fundamental component of early reading development. According to the National Reading Panel (2000), phonemic awareness is essential for understanding the relationship between sounds and their corresponding letters (phonics). This foundational skill enables children to decode words by translating written symbols into spoken language. Adams (1990) also emphasisss that phonemic awareness is crucial for developing decoding skills, which are necessary for reading new and unfamiliar words.

Predictive of Reading Success

The predictive value of phonemic awareness for future reading success is strongly supported by research. The National Reading Panel (2000) and subsequent studies by Ehri et al. (2001) indicate that children with strong phonemic awareness are more likely to achieve higher levels of reading comprehension and fluency. Lonigan et al. (2000) further corroborate this finding, demonstrating that phonemic awareness in early childhood is a robust predictor of later reading achievement. These studies collectively underscore the importance of early phonemic awareness instruction in fostering long-term reading success.

Enhances Word Recognition

Phonemic awareness also plays a crucial role in enhancing word recognition. Torgesen et al. (1999) found that children with well-developed phonemic awareness skills can recognise high frequencywords more quickly and accurately. Sight word recognition, the ability to identify common words without conscious effort, is essential for reading fluency. Automaticity in word recognition allows readers to allocate more cognitive resources to comprehension, thereby improving overall reading proficiency.

Supports Spelling and Writing

Research by Moats (1998) highlights the importance of phonemic awareness in spelling and writing. Understanding phonemes and their corresponding letters helps children spell words accurately, contributing to their writing development. This correlation between phonemic awareness and spelling proficiency reinforces the need for integrating phonemic awareness instruction into early literacy programs.

Facilitates Vocabulary Development

Phonemic awareness contributes significantly to vocabulary development. Lonigan et al. (2000) demonstrate that children with strong phonemic awareness can more effectively sound out and learn new words, thereby expanding their vocabulary. A rich vocabulary is critical for reading comprehension and overall language development, further emphasising the importance of phonemic awareness.

Effective Intervention for Struggling Readers

Phonemic awareness interventions are particularly effective for children who struggle with reading. Torgesen (2004) emphasises that targeted phonemic awareness instruction can help at-risk readers improve their reading skills and confidence. Early identification and intervention are crucial for addressing phonemic awareness deficits and preventing future reading difficulties.

Interactive and Engaging Learning

Yopp & Yopp (2000) highlight the effectiveness of interactive and engaging activities in developing phonemic awareness. Rhyming games, sound segmentation, and blending exercises make learning to read enjoyable and effective. Engaging instructional methods maintain children's interest and motivation, facilitating the development of phonemic awareness.

Critical in Early Education
The National Early Literacy Panel (2008) advocates for integrating phonemic awareness into early education curricula to ensure that children develop essential reading skills from the start. Early development of phonemic awareness sets a solid foundation for future academic success, making it a critical component of early literacy education.

Numerous studies, including those by the National Reading Panel (2000) and Snow et al. (1998), consistently highlight the importance of phonemic awareness in reading instruction. These research-backed findings ensure that teaching practices are effective and beneficial for all students.

While the foundational work of the National Early Literacy Panel remains relevant, recent research continues to build on and refine our understanding of phonemic awareness and its critical role in reading development. New studies and innovative teaching practices have emerged, reinforcing the importance of phonemic awareness and providing updated strategies for educators. Staying informed about these developments ensures that reading instruction remains effective and responsive to the latest scientific insights.

Recent Research on Phonemic Awareness

  1. The Science of Reading:

    • Dehaene (2009): Stanislas Dehaene’s research, highlighted in his book "Reading in the Brain," provides neurological evidence supporting the importance of phonemic awareness. He explains how the brain processes written language and the critical role of phonemic awareness in this process.

    • Seidenberg (2017): Mark Seidenberg's book "Language at the Speed of Sight" emphasises the necessity of phonemic awareness as part of the broader science of reading. He discusses how integrating phonemic awareness into reading instruction aligns with cognitive science findings.

  2. Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews:

    • Ehri et al. (2001): Although slightly older, this meta-analysis remains influential, demonstrating that phonemic awareness instruction significantly improves reading and spelling skills across diverse populations.

    • Castles, Rastle, & Nation (2018): A comprehensive review in "Developmental Science" consolidates findings from numerous studies, underscoring the foundational role of phonemic awareness in early reading development and its impact on decoding and word recognition.

  3. Early Literacy and Phonemic Awareness Programs:

    • NELP Follow-up Studies: Research building on the NELP findings continues to validate and extend its conclusions. Recent studies have refined our understanding of which specific phonemic awareness skills are most predictive of reading success.

    • Duncan et al. (2013): A study published in the "Journal of Educational Psychology" highlighted the lasting impact of early phonemic awareness interventions on literacy outcomes in later grades, reinforcing the importance of early intervention.

  4. Innovations in Teaching Phonemic Awareness:

    • Technology Integration: Modern educational technology, such as interactive apps and games, has been shown to effectively support phonemic awareness development. Studies by Huber et al. (2016) in "Computers & Education" indicate that digital tools can enhance engagement and provide personalised learning experiences.

    • Multi-Sensory Approaches: Recent research by Graham et al. (2020) in "Reading Research Quarterly" supports the use of multi-sensory teaching methods (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) to enhance phonemic awareness instruction. These approaches help cater to diverse learning styles and improve retention.

  5. Intervention Strategies for Diverse Learners:

    • Response to Intervention (RTI): Studies by Fuchs and Fuchs (2017) have demonstrated the effectiveness of RTI frameworks in identifying and supporting students with phonemic awareness deficits. Early and targeted interventions within RTI models can significantly improve reading outcomes.

    • ELL and Special Education: Research by August & Shanahan (2017) highlights effective strategies for teaching phonemic awareness to English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with learning disabilities. Tailored instructional approaches can address specific needs and promote equitable literacy development.

In conclusion, phonemic awareness is a cornerstone of early reading development, with broad implications for literacy and academic achievement. Its foundational role, predictive value, and effectiveness in interventions underscore the need for integrating phonemic awareness instruction into early literacy programs. The extensive research supporting phonemic awareness highlights its critical importance in fostering proficient and confident readers.

The Different Reading Framework from The Reading Hut - Phonemies - Phonemic Awareness Mastery with Speech Sound Mapping
The Different Reading Framework
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