Defining Phonics and Phonemic Awareness for Early Education Teachers

Phonics and phonemic awareness are both terms that deal with how children learn about letters, sound and words, but they have some key differences. Understanding the definitions of the two concepts will help you develop meaningful activities to help young children build the foundation for reading, spelling and writing. Let's start with phonemic awareness and some examples for teaching it, followed by phonics and some games.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the auditory ability to recognize that words are made up of individual sounds, or phonemes, and to manipulate those sounds. It has to do with what children are able to hear and does not involve printed words and letters. Children can have strong phonemic awareness skills and not recognize any letters or any printed words. For example a child may be able to tell you that the word man starts with the mmm sound or that it sounds the same as mommy at the beginning, but not that it begins with the letter m.

There are several phonemic awareness skills that children should be taught. Rhyming is an important part of phonemic awareness. Children should also be able to blend sound together to form words. Mmmm… aaaa…nnnnn makes the word man. Phoneme isolation is the ability to isolate a certain sound in a word, like the first sound in bat or the last sound in cap. Phoneme segmentation is the ability to separate the sounds in a word. The word math has three sounds, /m/ /a/ /th/. More advanced skills include the ability to delete and substitute phonemes in words. Taking away the /s/ sound in star to make tar or changing the /st/ in star to make car.

It is critical that children develop strong phonemic awareness skills as this is a highly accurate factor in predicting success in reading. Children with weak phonemic awareness skills are likely to struggle when learning to read.

Phonemic Activities

When planning activities for phonemic awareness remember to keep them fun and that the focus should be on the sounds in words and not the letter names. Here are a few quick and easy activities to do with young children.

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  • Read lots of rhyming books. There’s a Wocket in My Pocket by Dr. Suess, Down by the Bay by Raffi and Moose on the Loose by Carol Ochs are a few good choices.
  • Learning nursery rhymes is a great way for young children to develop their rhyming skills. They should be able to recite many nursery rhymes and to recognize the rhyming words in them.
  • Say words that rhyme with either head or feet and have the children point to the correct body part. If you say bread, they should point at their heads and if you say sweet, they should point at their feet. Play with other body parts too: hand, knee, eye, ear, etc.
  • Play a simple blending game with the children. Give them and clue and have them guess the word. “I am thinking of an animal that plays fetch and is a /d/ /o/ /g/.” Be sure to say the letter sound and not the names.
  • Practice segmenting sounds. Give each child 3 or 4 pennies or snap cubes and line them up in front of them. Say a word and have the children repeat the word and push one penny for each sound they hear. If you say mop, they would push three pennies for /m/ /o/ /p/.


Phonics is the understanding of how printed letters and sounds, or phonemes, are related. When children have strong phonics skills they are able to look at a word and recognize the letters or groups of letters within the word and the sounds that they represent. This allows them to “sound out” or decode the word. Phonics uses the sound-symbol relationship to help children recognize words. Although some children will be able to figure out how to decode words on their own without explicit instruction, most children will benefit from systematic phonics instruction.

Phonics instruction usually begins with teaching the sounds that individual consonants make and also the short vowel sounds. Often a few consonants sounds are taught and then a short vowel is added and then more consonants and another vowel, until all of the letters have been taught. This allows the children to begin decoding simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words.

Next children are usually introduced to consonant blends and digraphs. This includes the digraphs ch, sh and th as well as consonant blends like bl, pl, st and br. This is followed by long vowels with silent e and other long vowel combinations like ee, ea, ai and aw. R-controlled vowels, such as ar and er, are also introduced. Children also learn to decode words with multiple syllables and prefixes and suffixes.

Teaching phonics skills along with other reading strategies like using context clues and learning high frequency, irregular words will help children become strong readers.

Phonics Activities

Here are a few examples of effective teaching strategies for phonics instruction.

Word Sorting

Provide children with words to sort based on whatever phonics skills you are studying. Word sorting encourages children to pay attention to the different features of words and find relationships between the letters and sounds. Students can sort words by beginning sounds, final sounds, rimes, endings and more.

Making Words

In Making Words activities children are given a set of about 7 or 8 letters and asked to arrange them to make words that the teacher calls out, usually starting with two letter words and progressing to bigger words until they form a “mystery word” with all of the letters. A beginning Making Words lesson might look like this:

a, d, n, r, s, t

an, at

sat, rat, ran, tan, Dan, and

rats, tans, sand



Interactive Games

Phonics games are another fun way to reinforce phonics skills. Adapt Bingo, Go Fish and Memory Matching games to your phonics lessons to help children practice and review phonics concepts. They can work on letter recognition, beginning sounds, word families and more with these games.

These are just a few of the ways you can help young children develop strong skills in phonics and phonemic awareness. This crucial information should help you to effectively plan your instruction. If you have any additional teaching ideas, please leave them in the comments.


  • University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning: Big Ideas in Beginning Reading,
  • Photo courtesy of
  • Cunningham, Patricia, M. Phonics They Use, Words for Reading and Writing. Pearson Education, Inc, 2005.