See It and Say It: The Difference Between Phonics and Phonemic Awareness

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Learn how to teach your child to read and write by understanding the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness.

Phonics is one of the building blocks of learning to read and write and an essential part of early childhood literacy. Phonemic awareness may sound like the same thing — and they are both integral to learning language — but there are important distinctions between them. Emphasizing both phonics and phonemic awareness when teaching children words builds the strongest foundation for rich language skills.

Phonics vs. phonemics

For adults who’ve been reading since before they can remember, it’s hard to understand how difficult it can be to learn the basics of language. The process of learning words, how they’re built out of letters, how they fit together, and what they mean is literally what sets humans apart from animals. But even though our brains are wired to learn these things, they’re still a great leap in each child’s mental development. The intuitive process children use to bridge that gap relies on phonics and phonemic understanding.

Most adults are familiar with the basic concept of phonics, which involves the relationship between written letters, words, and their associated sounds. Phonics instruction helps students decode words by “sounding it out” based on the most common sound-spelling relationships. The ability to decipher unfamiliar words is crucial for learning to read.

Phonemic awareness is similar but not the same. Phonics focuses on how sounds look in writing, while phonemic awareness is understanding that each word is comprised of a series of sounds. Consequently, most phonics instruction is written, and most phonemic awareness lessons are oral.

Students must learn that words are made up of sounds before they can understand the sound-spelling relationships of written words. The two concepts are intertwined despite having different meanings.

Teaching phonics

Teaching kids to connect written letters with sounds is phonics instruction, a foundational element of early education. Learning the relationship between the symbols that make up the alphabet and the sounds they produce is one of the key building blocks of literacy.

The most effective way to learn phonetics is a structured and repetitive review of each letter and its associated sound. Using multiple senses helps to reach every type of learner. For example, you could have children write a letter in shaving cream using their fingers while repeating its sound. This leverages movement, touch, and smell to build the connection between the symbols and their pronunciations.

Once students learn each letter and its sound, they’re ready to move on to common letter blends — the sounds produced when letters such as “ch” or “sh” are used together.

Phonemic awareness

Segmenting and blending are two of the most important phonemic awareness skills to teach children. Segmenting is the act of breaking a word into individual sounds; blending is the ability to put those sounds together to say a word.

If children know enough phonics to recognize the sounds each word represents, they will be able to use phonemic awareness to sound out unfamiliar words and learn them. For example, deciphering the sounds in C-A-T and saying those out loud is segmenting. Recognizing those sounds as “cat” is blending. Knowing phonics is essential to having good phonemic awareness, and phonemic awareness is an important step of transferring that knowledge into the ability to read.

An easy way to remember the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness is that phonics is visual while phonemic awareness is auditory. Both are effective tools for helping children understand the symbols and sounds that create our alphabet and the words those letters build. Create good readers and writers from an early age by emphasizing both phonics and phonemic awareness.

Lumiere Children's Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to improve the lives of children and their families and discover our weekly reading group enrichment classes.