The Foundation of Word Recognition: PHONEMIC AWARENESS

The Foundation of Word Recognition: PHONEMIC AWARENESS

The Foundation of Word Recognition skills: PHONEMIC AWARENESS

When you are building something—it doesn’t really matter what, it could be a house of cards or a mansion—you must have a strong foundation. The same is true for building lifelong and successful readers who deeply understand what they are reading. When we think about what gets readers ready for the complex work of understanding written language we must begin with phonemic awareness. It is the foundation that all the future instruction rests on. 


Let’s start with the why!  The simple view of reading is word recognition x language comprehension = reading. For anyone who has taught reading you know there isn’t anything simple about it. We see that demonstrated in the Scarborough reading rope illustration. Reading is a complex combination of skills used simultaneously. We are focusing specifically on word recognition skills, which begins with phonological awareness.

Phonemic awareness is a subskill under a larger umbrella of phonological awareness. At the heart of phonemic awareness is one’s ability to hear, recognize, and manipulate sounds in words. You have probably heard the saying, “Phonemic awareness can be done in the dark!” It all comes down to hearing the individual sounds in words. Essentially, phonemic awareness was invented by humans enabling the invention of a written code for language. When someone can recognize the smallest sounds in words, phonemes, and match them with a written code (letter spellings), called graphemes, the code is cracked. This process is often referred to as developing alphabetic principles.  


Basically, when it comes down to it, phonological awareness, and more importantly phonemic awareness, is a MANDATORY prerequisite to breaking the code, attaching letters to sounds, and orthographically mapping words results in automatic and fluent reading. Said in easier terms, it is the first step to creating readers who read with EASE. It is the foundation for all future work in word decoding. 


As a teacher I can remember learning about phonemic awareness, especially the importance of students segmenting and blending sounds in words. However, the field of neuroscience is constantly developing and plays a crucial role in teachers’ understanding of the best ways to develop readers. Recent findings indicate that readers need to not only have basic abilities to blend and segment words but also need more advanced stages where phonemes are easily manipulated by adding, deleting, or substituting sounds in words (Kilpatrick, 2015). It’s also clear that regardless of a student’s age or grade, if phonemic awareness skills are underdeveloped, those skills must be strengthened for significant progress to be made (Kilpatrick, 2015). 

How can we help students develop phonemic awareness skills?

Let’s start by looking at the complexity of phonemic awareness and then move to some ways to practice each level. Phonemic awareness starts with being able to hear individual sounds in words by isolating, identifying, and categorizing various phonemes. Remember this is at the sound level—readers aren’t thinking about the letter attached to the sound, just the sounds. Then they move to segmenting and blending sounds in words in preparation for phonics instruction. Last, readers should continue manipulating phonemes in words. At this stage, phonemic awareness and phonics are reciprocal and begin influencing each other. Another important aspect of phonemic awareness is that students must be able to manipulate sounds quickly and easily. The graphic below shows the various stages of developing phonemic awareness skills

phonemic awareness skill diagramphonemic awareness skill diagram
phonemic awareness skill diagramphonemic awareness skill diagram
phonemic awareness skill diagramphonemic awareness skill diagram

Important understandings about building phonemic awareness skills

  • Phonemic awareness can and should be taught. (Burkins/Yates, 2021)
  • Students take different amounts of time to develop mastery skills of phonemic awareness. 
    Most children with reading difficulties have not yet fully developed their mastery of phonemic awareness. (Burkins/Yates, 2021)
  • It is important that students continue to work on phonemic awareness through the manipulation category. (Kilpatrick, 2015)
  • Phonemic awareness and phonics are reciprocal and complementary processes. Kids need phonemic awareness for phonics to work successfully. (Burkins/Yates, 2021)
  • Embed phonemic awareness instruction throughout the day, making sure it is consistent and follows the hierarchy of phonemic awareness skills. (Burkes/Yates, 2021)
  • If older students cannot manipulate phonemes in words with ease, provide phonemic awareness activities as part of the intervention.  


Explore hand2mind’s phonemic awareness activities for more ideas to improve skills!






Burkins, J. & Yates, K. (2021). Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading 

    into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Steinhouse. 

Kilpatrick, David A. (2015) Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading

   Difficulties.  Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, inc. 

National Institute for Literacy. (2006). The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to

   Read Put Reading First: Kindergarten through Grade 3. Center of Improvement for Early 

   Reading Achievement.

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April Connelley

April Connelley is an Educational Consultant for Hand2Mind. She is a life-long learner and educator with 24 years of experience in elementary and special education. She is a passionate reader and advocates for students to develop life-long reading habits by finding their reading identity. She offers expertise in literacy, instructional coaching, professional learning, and curriculum development. April spent fifteen years working directly with PreK-5th grade students, six of those years focused on targeting students most in need of reading intervention. The remainder of her time in public education focused on bringing written and taught curriculum together working as an instructional coach and district curriculum administrator. Additionally, outside of public education, April fulfills the role of a Literacy Specialist working with multiple districts across a geographic region.

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