All about Phonics

Phonological awareness, phonemic awareness vs phonics

The terms phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics are distinct. In this post, I will explain their differences. First, I will break each own down in a way that is easy to understand. Then, I will explain how each plays a part in developing early literacy.

Remember, the Greek root word phon means “sound” (as in microphone, phone, and saxophone) so all of these terms refer to ways we hear, identify, and make sense of sounds. Yet, they each refer to a very specific part of this process.

What’s the difference between them?

To start, let’s break down the definition of each term. Here is the meaning of each.

a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between phonemic awareness, phonics, and phonological awareness.
  1. Phonological awareness: the Broader awareness of sounds
  2. Phonemic awareness: a more specific skill, the awareness of the smallest unit of sound, phonemes 
  3. Phonics: the awareness of sound and text 

The Basics

Next, it is important to remember the foundations of the English language. Only then, will we be able to understand the differences between the terms. So, here is a quick refresher.

  • The English language has 26 letters.
  • Also, it has 44 sounds.
  • But, the letters don’t map directly to the sounds. In fact, the same letters can make different sounds (like “ch” can be a chair, choir).

Remember that English does not have a “one letter one sound” relationship. Letters can make many different kinds of sounds. This basic fact explains the need for different terms that accurately describe various sound skills.

a young kindergarten age boy laying on his stomach reading a book while resting his head in his hands

Now, let’s go into more detail

What is a Phoneme?

First, let’s go deeper into understanding phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in language.

It can be represented by a letter or a cluster of letters. For example, /sh/ makes shhh soud.

Phonemes are very important for early readers. Often, we segment the words into their phonemes and we blend the sounds back together to help students read.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the broader awareness of sound. Hearing a sound is phonological awareness, so hearing a bird making a sound and recognizing the sound, is phonological awareness. 

Phone- SOUND

Example of Phonological Awareness Tasks 

Rhyming skills develop phonological awareness

Alliteration- tongue twisters build phonological awareness

 5 skill sets related to Phonological Awareness

  • rhyming
  • alliteration
  • sentence segmenting
  • syllable blending
  • segmenting

What is Phonemic Awareness

A smaller category within phonological awareness, in which we are only working with the smallest units of sound.


To isolate sounds

Ch . AIR

First sound: ch, second sound AIR

Isolating the first sound CH

C- A- T three sounds, this is segmenting the words into its phonemes and its phonemic Awareness, being aware of the PHONEMES, smallest units of sound

If you tell sounds to take off a first phoneme and add another, like


Take off CH

Put no F


This is sound manipulation and it’s a PHONEMIC awareness skill


a young girl  in glasses reading a book and mouthing the sounds as she reads

What does phonics mean?

Phonics refers to the relationship of sounds and letters.

Example of Phonics Tasks 

  • Mapping speech onto the text
  • Learning the alphabetic Principle

Phonics are the building blocks of reading. This might be something you take for granted as a teacher; but, actually, teaching phonics is a content subject in early education. Some teachers rely heavily on teaching phonics and others don’t. Other teachers prefer ‘whole reading’ approaches.

Ultimately, remember this: though the three terms, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics, all have to do with sound, they are distinct and refer to different skill sets. An early reader can strengthen each skill set through unique tasks.

“Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”

Andy Rooney


Finally, here are some related posts that might be helpful.

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.