What is…phonemic awareness?

In our ‘what is…’ series we’re taking things back to basics! From phonics to decoding, blending and more, we’re going to break things down and give you our expert advice on each area, to help answer any questions you may have around teaching reading.


Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, discriminate, and manipulate single sounds in spoken words. It comes under the broader umbrella term phonological awareness which includes larger parts of speech such as parts of sentences, words, syllables, rhyme, and alliteration.

Why is phonemic awareness important?

Phonemic awareness is essential for learning the alphabetic writing system which is based on the Alphabetic Principle: letters spell sounds in words. To teach children how the sounds of speech map onto letter representations, children must be able to segment (separate) sounds in words for spelling and blend (push together) those sounds for reading. Phonemic awareness ability is a strong predictor of children who wexperience reading success.

What are phonemic awareness skills?

There are three phonemic awareness skills needed for learning to read and spell. These skills can be developed with targeted practice:

1. Blending is being able to push sounds together into a word. When beginner readers read a new word, they need to recall the letter/sound bonds and to hold onto the sounds in their heads and then blend them together into a word. This process takes place in working memory which is limited and fleeting. Many children find blending difficult. To find out more on how to teach blending check out a previous blog.

2. Segmenting is being able to separate sounds in a word. When children spell, they listen to the separate sounds in the words and write letters for them on the page. Some children also struggle with segmenting. A great way to reinforce segmenting is through word-building. Research has shown that phonics (the letters that represent sounds) and phonemic awareness develop together. For this reason, it is preferable to do phonemic awareness activities using letters and not just orally. To learn more about word-building read more here.

3. Phoneme manipulation is being able to play with sounds in words: delete, add, and swap sounds. This skill is useful for efficient error correction when reading. When the student makes a reading error, e.g., reads the word ‘how’ as ‘hoe’, he/she can quickly change the sound to /ow/ using the context of the sentence. Phoneme manipulation is an effective exercise in playing with sounds. A great activity for developing this skill is a word chain activity. Read more about creating and using word chains now.

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