What is Phonemic Awareness?

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness sound so similar it's no wonder they are easily confused. When you are just starting to teach your students how to read, both of these concepts are really important, but knowing how and when to use each is going to be the key to your student's reading success. Whether you are just starting out in the teaching world, or a seasoned veteran, I'm here to help you sort it all out with tips and tricks and a few fun activities your students will love. 

Phonemic awareness helps students break down individual sounds within words. Use these tips and tricks to make the most of your phonemic awareness instruction.

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

So, what is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonological awareness and how can these concepts help our students learn to read? 

Phonological Awareness

It's best to think of phonological awareness as a big umbrella or big idea where you will start your reading instruction with your students.

Phonological awareness includes:
  • Identifying words that rhyme 
  • Recognizing beginning sounds
  • Segmenting a sentence into words
  • Identifying the syllables in words
  • Being able to blend and segment on-set rhymes

Use these tips to help you differentiate between phonological and phonemic awareness.

Because phonological awareness focuses more on the oral than written, these are the first skills your beginning readers should be focusing on.

Phonological awareness is crucial because students need these foundational skills to become successful readers. When our students are just starting to learn to read we focus on phonological awareness, but our end goal is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness

While Phonological awareness focuses more on the big picture and oral skills, phonemic awareness breaks it all down even more. Phonemic awareness narrows down the focus from words within sentences to individual sounds within the word. 

In technical terms, phonemic awareness is a person's awareness of the phonemes in a word.  And... phonemes are just sounds. So, in layman's terms - phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds to read and spell words.  

It's important to note that the focus is on the sound and not the spelling pattern. In the English language, there are often multiple letters or letter combinations that make the same sound.  

Phonemic awareness focuses on the sound and not the spelling pattern of the words being taught.

Phonemic awareness includes skills such as the ability to notice individual sounds within words, blending sounds into words, and segmenting words into sounds. 

It also includes deleting, adding, or changing sounds in a word as well as the ability to substitute sounds to make new words.

Phonemic awareness helps students with reading comprehension and spelling but should be taught even before students actually learn to read. 

Hearing the sounds in words and being able to identify them is the starting point for our youngest students. 

What are the Best Ways to Teach Phonemic Awareness?

I love teaching students to read and part of that is working on phonemic awareness skills. The key to an effective phonemic awareness activity is to focus on the sounds students are hearing.  Some students really struggle with this, but with practice, they will get it. Here are some phonemic awareness activities I use in my classroom.

Listening Games

Since these activities are often done orally at the beginning, I like to introduce them as Listening Games. When we are sitting on the carpet we love to play these games.  I will tell students the goal: "Tell me the first sound you hear" and then I'll start saying words.  After I say a word, the class will tell me the beginning sound.

Use a listening game to help your students identify sounds within words as you teach phonemic awareness.

For example, I might ask students to tell me the first sound they hear in the word balloon. Students will hopefully reply with /b/. Or if I ask students to name the sound in the word watermelon, they should reply with /w/. 

We continue this process with 10-15 words.  Once students have a general understanding of the specific skill, we might increase our speed. This simple activity might only take 30 seconds to 1 minute.  But it is a powerful activity for that little amount of time.

You can do listening games the same way with a variety of different skills.  Just introduce the skill first and model the activity.  I have a feeling your students will love listening games as much as mine do!

Center Activities for Phonemic Awareness

Once students are learning to read, some phonemic awareness practice can move out of oral activities and into written activities.  These activities are great for centers because students can work on their own.  

They will likely be whispering or saying the target word as they listen to the sounds. This individual practice can really help them improve their overall phonemic awareness.

Use center activities to help your students practice phonemic awareness in a fun game-like way.

As with any center activity that students are working on individually, it is important to make sure that the skill or concept has already been taught and practiced.  If a center activity is similar to something you've already done, like a listening game, make that connection for students.  It will help them understand what they are doing when they work on their own.

Beginning Sounds Matching Game

First up, I want to share one of my favorites for strengthening phonemic awareness skills. This matching game asks students to match picture cards to letter cards that have the same beginning sound. This game is a great one if you're just getting started with phonics centers, plus it's versatile and can be used in multiple ways. 

Use a beginning sounds matching game like this as part of your phonemic awareness activities this year.

My favorite way to play is to place picture cards in a sensory bin and place letter cards in a pocket chart. Students will draw cards from the sensory bin and sort them under the proper letter to show the beginning sound. This resource includes a whole list of other things to use the cards for, as well as practice worksheets, so you'll have plenty of options!

Color by Code Activities

Another great, low-prep option to target phonemic awareness skills is color-by-code pages. Personally, I love these activities because they can be used in lots of different situations and are super engaging to students. Plus, they're simple to differentiate if you have students working at different levels. 

Color by code activities like these are a great way to get in some creative phonemic awareness practice.

These pages focus on isolating the beginning sound in words. Students will trace the letter for the word, find the letter in their picture, and then color by code. There is also a more difficult version included that asks students to write the letter instead of tracing it. 

Poke Cards

Another one of my favorite center activities for phonemic awareness skills is poke cards.  Not only do students love them, but they are a great self-checking activity too!  

If you are not familiar with Poke cards, they are similar to task cards. However, there is a hole under each answer choice.  Students will use a pipe cleaner, coffee stirrer, or anything that will fit through the hole to mark their answers.  Then they can turn the card over to see if their answer was correct.

Use self-checking poke cards like these as center activities you can use to help teach phonemic awareness.

You can prep a set of Poke cards in just a few minutes.  I like to print them on card stock and laminate them for extra durability.  Then I sit down with my hole punch and a Sharpie marker.  After punching a hole under each answer choice I turn the card over and circle the hole that represents the correct answer.  Then they are ready for students.

Write the Room

Another great center activity to work on segmenting sounds and writing words is Write the Room. In a Write the Room activity like this one, cards are hung around the room and students find them and answer them on a corresponding answer sheet. It's like a little phonics scavenger hunt!  

In this particular game, students will focus on identifying the beginning sound for many different words. The set included cards with and without words for differentiation. This makes it easy to reuse the activity as students progress in skill level. 

A write the room activity like this gets your students up and moving as they are learning about phonemic awareness.

Write the Room is a great way to add a little movement into the day.  If your students are not ready to move around the room during centers, these cards can also be used in a stationary center or for a game of Scoot with the entire class.

Beginning Sounds Tic-Tac-Toe 

Everyone loves to play tic-tac-toe, right? The best part about this activity is it that your students won't even realize they're learning! This game uses a spinner to land on a letter. After students have their letter they will search their board for a picture with that beginning sound. If they have one, they place a marker down, if not their partner gets a turn to spin. 

A Tic-Tac-Toe game like this will help teach phonemic awareness in a game-like way your students can play with a partner or in a small group.

Students will work on beginning sounds, while also carefully selecting where to place their marker to help them win tic-tac-toe! Students love this one and it's a great way to target phonemic awareness skills in a fun way. 

Boom Cards

Here's one last phonemic awareness activity that my students love . . . Boom Cards!  Boom Cards are like digital task cards that students work on using a tablet or computer.  The use of technology really increases student engagement.  They tend to think of these more as games instead of learning activities.  

Boom cards like these are a great addition to your phonemic awareness lessons because they can be used both at school and at home for extra practice.

Boom Cards are so easy to use as a center activity.  Because my students loved them so much, I created a variety of Boom Cards for phonics and other skills.  

More Phonemic Awareness Fun

Phonemic awareness is such an important foundational skill for our young learners. There are so many fun ways to get your students practicing and understanding phonemic awareness. I know you and your students will love practicing phonemic awareness with fun games and activities. Be sure to check out The Chocolate Teacher TPT store for tons more phonemic awareness activities you and your students are sure to love!

Save these Phonemic Awareness Ideas

Be sure to pin this to your favorite classroom Pinterest board so you can come back for more phonemic awareness ideas and activities.  

Looking for fun and exciting ways to teach phonemic awareness in your classroom this year? These activities will get your students excited about practicing phonemic awareness skills and give them lots of opportunities to show their learning throughout the year. #thechocolateteacher #phonemicawareness #teachingphonemicawareness

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