Phonemic Awareness: What it Is, and How it Impacts Reading - Horizon Academy

Phonemic Awareness: What it Is, and How it Impacts Reading 

Dec 26, 2023

Phonemic Awareness: What it Is, and How it Impacts Reading 

Phonemic awareness is the best predictor of a child’s reading skills during the first two years of school. You may have heard a teacher, an SLP, or a school psychologist use the term “phonemic awareness” when discussing literacy or diagnosing a child with dyslexia. But what is phonemic awareness, and why is it such a big deal in a student’s literacy education? Who needs to learn phonemic awareness, and what does learning it look like?

Background Information

In 1997, the United States government established a committee called The National Reading Panel, a group whose aim was to assess the effectiveness of different programs, approaches, and methods used to teach children to read. They underwent a massive study and arrived at many conclusions that are still supported by updated research. 

The National Reading Panel gave us The Big Five concepts at the core of effective reading instruction: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. 

Every school should be well aware of these essential components that make up “reading” and teach literacy with emphasis on each of them. Listed first in the Panel’s “Big Five,” phonemic awareness is the foundation of reading, and if children do not have it, they will likely struggle to read and spell. 

What is a Phoneme?

First, let’s break down the word Phonemic. Phonemic is the adjective form of the word Phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech.  A phoneme is a sound. Phon is the Greek root that means “sound.” A few examples of phonemes are the spoken sounds /sh/ like in “shut,” /f/ like in fish or graph, or /ē/ like in “we.” Phonemes are typically expressed in those slashes called “virgules,” and that is to distinguish them from just letters. A phoneme is not a letter, like N or E. Letters are symbols, or visual representations of sounds. The term for the concept of symbol-sound correspondence is Phonics, which is another of the Panel’s Big Five, but not our topic for today.

We have around 44 phonemes in the English language. Some are consonant sounds, like /s/ /z/ /m/ /p/ /sh/, and some are vowel sounds like /ă/ as in apple, or /oo/ as in moon. 

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate speech sounds. If students can do that, they are more likely to be able to read, because when we read a word, we are combining our knowledge of phonemes with our knowledge of letters.

In the word “chat,” there are three phonemes. /ch/ /a/ /t/. Say them to yourself. When you say those sounds one at a time, you are segmenting! That is one of the most important Phonemic awareness skills! Segmenting refers to pulling apart the individual sounds of a word and saying them one by one. 

Now, put together the three sounds /b/ /er/ /d/. When blended together, those sounds make the word “bird.” You’ve just done another of the most important Phonemic awareness skills, known as blending (and sometimes called elision). 

Segmenting and blending are among the most critical Phonemic awareness skills, and if students lack them, they require daily practice. 

Other key phonemic awareness skills include: 

  • isolating sounds… What is the first sound you hear in “slack?” [answer: /s/] What is the last sound you hear in “bump?” [answer: /p/]
  • more advanced skills like deletion… Remove the first sound in “fall” and say the word [answer: all]), and 
  • substitution… Say “town.” Now say “town” but instead of /t/ say /d/” [answer: down]


Some fantastic news is that these skills are remediable. If a student demonstrates poor Phonemic awareness skills, just a few minutes of daily structured practice is very likely to improve their reading abilities. 

If a student has dyslexia, it is likely that their phonemic awareness skills are impaired. During a school’s evaluation process, it will be critical that the student’s phonemic awareness skills are tested in addition to their cognitive abilities.

Some questions a parent may want to ask the child’s teacher, school, or special education program:

  • How does your curriculum address phonemic awareness? (Remember: This skill is one of the Big Five, and the Big Five apply to all students, not just students with dyslexia. The school should be prioritizing phonemic awareness in the general education curriculum, yet it is absolutely critical for students with or at risk for dyslexia.)
  • How are my child’s phonemic awareness skills?
  • Has my child received any phonemic awareness testing? How do their skills compare with their peers? 
  • Is anything being done to remediate my child’s poor phonemic awareness?

Phonemic Awareness Testing

If a child is referred for evaluation due to struggles with reading, writing, or spelling, it is critical that the evaluation include a battery of phonemic awareness testing in addition to cognitive testing. 

Many tests, both formal and informal, measure a child’s phonemic awareness abilities. Formal evaluations must be completed by a professional, such as a speech language pathologist, a special educator, or a psychologist. Informal assessments may be given by teachers to screen students for reading difficulties, or to establish where to begin working through a phonemic awareness curriculum. 

While many tests include measures of phonemic awareness, The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing 2 (CTOPP-2) is extremely well-rounded and addresses the many sub-skills of phonemic awareness and processing.

A Few Phonemic Awareness Instructional Tips

It is important to note that, according to research, students experience the most improvement when only practicing one to two phonemic awareness skills at a time. Daily practice with phonemic awareness need not exceed 10-15 minutes. A 5-minute lesson or segment of a literacy block is all your students need to make progress. Additionally, isolated practice of phonemic awareness skills contributes most to a child’s reading abilities before third grade. At third grade and after, research indicates that instructional time for poor readers would be better spent on phonics. 

Phonemic Awareness in O-G

At Horizon Academy, students receive small group or one-on-one instruction in literacy fundamentals daily in addition to their English Language Arts class. During Orton-Gillingham sessions, at our school titled TLC, or Therapeutic Language & Literacy Class, students practice phonemic awareness skills daily, progressing from simple to complex skills at the quickest rate they can handle. TLC class typically begins with a 1-3 minute phonemic awareness warm-up. Then, throughout the TLC lesson, students practice blending sounds to read real and nonsense words, and every time they spell a word, they first isolate the sounds by tapping their fingers (segmenting). Not only does this give them explicit phonemic awareness practice, but it also supports their spelling by allowing them to break down the word in advance to discover and consider any confusing elements prior to spelling it on paper. They work through potential errors before making them, leading to more success and an emotionally sound lesson. 

Gabi Guillory Welsh, MAT-SPED, FIT/OGA

Director of Therapeutic Language & Literacy

Horizon Academy

Horizon Academy faculty receive extensive training on phonemic awareness. All homeroom teachers and SLPs are Orton-Gillingham trained, and Horizon also employs several O-G trained interventionists to work with small groups and individuals. Every student’s phonemic awareness skills are assessed at the beginning of each year, and the students’ strengths and weaknesses determine their individualized instruction.