Phonemic Awareness Skills for Reading

Do you know the most overlooked reason children struggle to read? It’s weak phonemic awareness skills.

When the pandemic began, my first-grade daughter started doing distance learning with her first-grade class.

I’ll never forget that just four days into distance learning, I walked upstairs to where my husband was working remotely and said,

“Kyle, I think Molly has a learning disability.”

I’d been working on writing with her and she just couldn’t get words out onto the paper.

Since I taught second grade for 8 years, I quickly worked backward with her. And soon, I discovered she had extremely limited phonemic awareness.

This blog post will break down the basics of phonemic awareness. It is for you if you are:

  • a parent with a child that is struggling to read and write,
  • a parent who wants to prevent reading and writing problems,
  • a teacher who needs a very basic overview.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Read more here.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

First, you need to understand that the English language is a code of written symbols (letters) that represent 44 phonemes (speech sounds).

We tend to think that reading is a visual process since we see the words. But the truth is those letters represent sounds that we process incredibly rapidly in our brains.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to separate and manipulate sounds within words.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Good readers can effortlessly manipulate sounds within words. However, most poor readers seem unaware that the words represent groups of sounds.

Research has consistently demonstrated that weak phonemic awareness is the primary cause for reading failure or reading challenges (Kilpatrick, Equipped for Reading Success, p. 13)

Researchers estimate that 95% of people have the cognitive ability to read, and if they are trained in phonemic awareness, we can prevent reading failure.

So as you teach your child to read, it is critical you spend as much time on phonemic awareness as you do on the alphabet.

Phonological Vs Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is part of phonological awareness. It’s helpful to think of it as an umbrella term.

Phonological awareness is the understanding of sounds in spoken language while phonemic awareness is the awareness of each individual sound within a word.

While this seems simple and obvious to students, it is not. Learning to speak is a natural process.

But we process spoken language in order to create meaning from the words. We don’t focus on each individual sound.

Five Phonemic Awareness Skills for Reading

They are:

  1. Identifying
  2. Isolating
  3. Blending
  4. Segmenting
  5. Manipulating

asian girl in flower print dress and blue cardigan sweater leans against a tree while reading a book. The black text reads good readers effortlessly manipulate sounds in words.

Where to start with Phonemic Awareness?

Even if you believe your child has mastered phonological awareness, it’s important to start at the word level.

You don’t want to take for granted that your child has mastered any skill so work from the top down.

Phonemic Awareness Skill 1: Identifying Phonemes

When your child can identify phonemes, it means they can correctly name a certain sound within a word.

For example, your child can tell you what phoneme (sound) words have in common.

Here’s how you can practice identifying phonemes with your child:

  • Say, “cat, cookie, cactus.”
  • Ask, “What sound do these words start with?”
  • Child: /k/

Please note that the letter inside the slashes represents a sound not a letter name.

Phonemic Awareness Skill 2: Isolating Phonemes.

Your child can isolate phonemes when they are able to hear one individual sound.

Your child can attend to how words start or end in the same sound. They can also tell you what the middle sound (usually the vowel) of word is.

Here is how your child would isolate the first or initial sounds:

  • Adult: “Say the word shop.”
  • Child: “Shop.”
  • Adult: “Good. Now what is the first sound in the shop?“
  • Child: “/sh/”

Here is how your child would isolate the final or ending sounds:

  • Adult: “Say the word shop.”
  • Child: “Shop.”
  • Say: “Good. Now what is the last sound in the shop?“
  • Child: “/p/”

Here is how your child would isolate the middle sounds

  • Adult, “Say the word shop.”
  • Child, “Shop.”
  • Adult, “Good. Now what is the middle sound in the shop?“
  • Child: “/o/”

asian girl with chin on stack of books. text reads five phonemic awareness skills 1. identifying 2. isolating, 3.blending, 4. segmenting, 5. manipulating

Phonemic Awareness Skill 3: Segmenting Phonemes

This is one of the most important phonemic awareness skills. It is the skill your child will use in order to spell words.

When your child segments phonemes, they can separate a word into its individual sounds.

Here’s what it sounds like when your child can segment phonemes:

  • Adult: “Say the word block.”
  • Child: “Block.”
  • Adult: “Good. Now say what sounds you hear in block.”
  • Child: /b/ /l/ /o/ /k/

Phonemic Awareness Skill 4: Blending Phonemes

When your child can hear individual sounds and identify the word, they are blending phonemes. This becomes very important because using phonics requires blending sounds.

Here is how you can practice blending phonemes with your child:

  • Adult: “Listen carefully. I’m going to say some sounds. /d/ /o/ /g/. Say those sounds.”
  • Child: “/d/ /o/ /g/.”
  • Adult: “What word is that?”
  • Child: “Dog.”

I like to play this as I-Spy in the car with my son:

  • Adult: “I spy with my little eye some /f/ /l/ /a/ /g/ /s/.”
  • Son: (points) “Flags”

Playing when the item is around is a nice way to scaffold, or take a step-by-step approach, to blending.  Your child can use the environment to make meaning while trying to blend.

a mixed race toddler with short brown curly hair looks to the left. His chin rests on his folded hands and a stack of books. The black text reads weak phonemic awareness is the primary reason for reading failure.

Phonemic Awareness Skill 5: Phoneme Manipulation

The skill of phoneme manipulation is the most advanced phonemic awareness skill. It builds on all the prior skills. In order to be successful, your child needs to be able to isolate, segment, and blend.

Manipulating phonemes has three parts: adding, deleting, and substituting. So each needs to be addressed as a separate skill.

Adding Phonemes

Adding phonemes is when your child can add a new sound to a word to produce a new word.

It sounds like this at the end of a word:

  • Adult: “Say plan.”
  • Child: “Plan.”
  • Adult: “Good. Now add /t/ to plan”
  • Child: “Plant.”

Adding phonemes sounds like this at the beginning of a word:

  • Adult: “Say top.”
  • Child: “Top.”
  • Adult: “Good. Now add /s/ to top.”
  • Child: “Stop.”

Deleting Phonemes

Deleting phonemes is when your child can remove a sound from a word to produce a new word.

It sounds like this when your child can delete phonemes at the end of words:

  • Adult: “Say storm.”
  • Child: “Storm.”
  • Adult: “Now say storm without /m/.”
  • Child: “Store.”

At the beginning of words, it sounds like this when your child can delete phonemes:

  • Adult: “Say fear.”
  • Child: “Fear.”
  • Adult: “Now say fear without /f/.”
  • Child: “Ear.”

Substituting Phonemes

Substituting phonemes is when your child swaps a new sound for another sound in a word.

It sounds like this when your child can substitute phonemes at the beginning of a word:

  • Adult: “Say hop.”
  • Child: “Hop.”
  • Adult: “Now change /h/ to /m/.”
  • Child: “Mop.”

It sounds like this when your child can substitute phonemes at the end of a word:

  • Adult: “Say run.”
  • Child: “Run.”
  • Adult: “Now change /n/ to /b/.”
  • Child: “Rub.”

Your child can also practice substituting vowels sounds like this:

  • Adult: “Say cat.”
  • Child: “Cat.”
  • Adult: “Now change /a/ to /o/.”
  • Child: “Cot.”

Seven Essential Phonemic Awareness Skills

Here is a quick recap on the seven essential phonemic awareness skills:

  1. Phoneme Identifying: name the common phoneme in a group
  2. Phoneme Isolating: separate out one phoneme in a word – usually beginning or end.
  3. Phoneme Segmenting: split a word into all its phonemes
  4. Phoneme Blending: hearing a group of phonemes, a child can blend into a word
  5. Phoneme Addition: add on a sound to a word to create another word
  6. Phoneme Deleting: remove a sound in a word to create another word
  7. Phoneme Substitution: swap a phoneme in a word with another one to create a new word

How to Teach Phonemic Awareness

This blog post gave an overview of how to teach phonemic awareness skills. If you find yourself in need of more help, make sure to follow Printable Parents on Instagram to see videos of me practicing with my children.

You might also want to purchase David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success. I would only recommend this for:

  • parents who have a struggling reader and have to DIY tutoring,
  • homeschooling parents who want a comprehensive guide, or
  • classroom teachers who need a systematic approach because the school/district isn’t supplying it.

Conclusion

You now have the basics about phonemic awareness skills. What you have learned in this post will get you started practicing phonemic awareness with your child.

Looking for more phonemic awareness support? Leave a comment to let me know you’re interested in more resources.

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