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Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Phonemes, Phonological Processes, Oh My!

Updated: Apr 9

Do you know the difference between phonological awareness vs phonemic awareness? Let’s get these terms straight!


Look at these terms - Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Phonemes, Phonological Processes, and Phonological Processing - it’s pretty easy to understand why so many educators and other professionals mix them up, use them either incorrectly, or - gasp - interchangeably. But these are all distinct terms with very different meanings.


I've created this infographic to illustrate how all these terms relate to each other. Below the infographic, you will find detailed definitions for each term.


Let’s get on the same page with these terms, and please share this post and infographic with your colleagues. Spread the word!


Get a free, downloadable pdf of this chart here.

A chart that outlines how phonological processing, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics, phonemes, and phonological processes relate to one another

PHONOLOGICAL PROCESSING:

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, phonological processing is “the use of the sounds of one's language (i.e., phonemes) to process spoken and written language (Wagner & Torgesen, 1987). The broad category of phonological processing includes phonological awareness, phonological working memory, and phonological retrieval.


I also like this concise definition from the National Center on Improving Literacy:

“The ability to quickly and correctly hear, store, recall, and make different speech sounds.”


PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS:

Phonological awareness is one of the three categories of phonological processing (see the definition for phonological processing above).


Phonological awareness is a set of auditory skills, meaning it does not require looking at, or even thinking about, actual letters or text. Phonological awareness is about awareness of the sounds in words and sentences. According to the Reading Rockets website, phonological awareness is “the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words. Examples include being able to identify words that rhyme, recognizing alliteration, segmenting a sentence into words, identifying the syllables in a word, and blending and segmenting onset-rimes. The most sophisticated — and last to develop — is called phonemic awareness.”


PHONEME:

Let’s make sure we’re clear on what a phoneme is before we dive in to phonemic awareness. Phonemes are sounds, not letters. Phonemes are represented by letters in written language but it’s not always a 1:1 correspondence.


I like this explanation from Reading Rockets: “Phonemes are the smallest units comprising spoken language. Phonemes combine to form syllables and words. For example, the word 'mat' has three phonemes: /m/ /a/ /t/. There are 44 phonemes in the English language, including sounds represented by letter combinations such as /th/.”


PHONEMIC AWARENESS:

Phonemic awareness is literally the awareness of phonemes. It is still an auditory skill; while phonemic awareness requires us to perceive the smallest units of sound in words, it is not actually necessary to know the letters that represent these sounds.


According to Heggerty.org, “phonemic awareness falls underneath the umbrella as a sub-category of phonological awareness. Rather than working with larger units of spoken language, we ask students to listen for the individual sounds, or phonemes, in a spoken word. When we ask students to blend or segment words into the smallest unit of sound they hear, we are working at the phonemic awareness level. For example, the four sounds /p//l//a//n/ can be blended to make the whole word plan.”


Students on our caseloads who over-rely on their memory of written representations of words can find the skill of phonemic awareness tough. You know, those students whose parents report that they were "reading" in preschool, but when they encounter a nonsense word (e.g., floash), they have no idea how to decode it? Some kiddos have a remarkable capacity to memorize a large number of words by sight, resulting in the appearance that they're reading; however, these memorizers often have a tough time identifying the individual sounds (and spelling rules as a result) that make up these words. For example, when you ask them how many sounds (phonemes) are in the word “ship”, kids who over-rely on text might say there are four, when there are actually only three, because the individual phoneme "sh" is represented by two letters. The spelling of words can trip these students up, and if you see your students having a difficult time with this, it can be an indicator of weaker phonemic awareness skills.


PHONICS:

I like Heggerty.org’s explanation of phonics. Note that phonics instruction has both auditory and visual components (and can be supported additionally by motor and tactile cues while learning to write letters): “While phonemic awareness is oral and auditory, phonics instruction is both visual and auditory. The focus of phonics instruction is letter-sound relationships. During explicit phonics instruction students are taught the letter or letter combinations that represent the 44 sounds, or phonemes, in the English language.”


PHONOLOGICAL PROCESSES:

This is a term speech-language pathologists will be more familiar with, but I had to include it here, just because it sounds so similar to these other terms! Phonological processes are speech sound error patterns that young children make. According to Caroline Bowen, “all children make predictable pronunciation errors (not really 'errors' at all, when you stop to think about it) when they are learning to talk like adults. These 'errors' are called phonological processes, or phonological deviations.


An example of a common phonological process is when young children substitute /w/ for /r/, e.g., “wabbit” for rabbit.


Sometimes, when children have atypical kinds or quantities of speech sound errors, or if they persist for too long, it can be referred to as a phonological disorder, or even a phonological processing disorder. Regardless of what it is called, it is a problem with phonological processing (described above) that is manifesting as a speech sound disorder (SSD).


Are we having PHON yet??


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Reference:

Wagner, R. K., & Torgesen, J. K. (1987). The nature of phonological processing and its causal role in the acquisition of reading skills. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 192-212.

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