The difference between phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics

Author: Hayley van der Haar

It is crucial for teachers of language and literacy to understand the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes which are the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to split up and rearrange individual sounds within words. Phonological awareness is the ability to divide spoken language into units, such as words and syllables.

Before dividing individual sounds within words, teachers should use methods that would encourage children to pay attention to more obvious sounds such as environmental noises, then move into sentences, whole words, and then syllables. It is only after a child can divide words into syllables do we start teaching the phonemic awareness part of our curriculum. A child with good phonemic awareness, who is ready to start learning phonics, will have mastered the skills of blendingsplitting, and substituting the sounds in words or phonemes.

As a response to the importance for teachers to differentiate the three crucial skills in teaching language, UJ has responded by developing 3 informative and instructional videos which are all aimed at highlighting possible methods and strategies that student teachers and teachers could use to teach essential pre-reading skills.

In the first of the 3-part video series, the terms phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics are defined, and explain the importance of developing these three important skills in the teaching of language to young children.

The second part of the video series is focused on the ways in which we can enhance phonological awareness for pre-grade 1 children. This video also provides viewers with a deeper understanding of phonological awareness as a reference to the sounds of a language and to the smallest units of sounds in words, namely the phonemes. In the video you will see how to effectively use strategies that would develop children’s ability to hear individual sounds and understand how sounds are combined to make words and sentences. The video also aims at demonstrating to student teachers and teachers how they can develop children’s phonological awareness by teaching children how to listen well, and how to speak. Such listening and speaking activities help children identify single sounds and are important for developing pre-reading skills. The methods shown in the video thus showcase how children are able to remember sounds by training children’s auditory memory. In addition, the second video clip also  provide examples of actual teaching episodes that might guide class teachers in helping learners successfully achieve this skill.

The third video focusses on more detailed and specific methods teachers could practice to teach phonics in the foundation phase classroom. You will thus see children of various ages in the demonstration exercises. The focus is not on a specific grade or curriculum but rather on the teaching of each phoneme or sound and its corresponding grapheme or letter group as we see it in print. In order to teach phonics, it is important that teachers, approach each of the phoneme-grapheme correspondences in a very systematic and sequential way. We know from classroom experience that letters and sounds are taught first followed by combining letters to make words, and finally using words to read and construct sentences. We will see how learners are encouraged to focus on the skills of blending and segmenting consonant blends to make words. It is important that the sound is modelled accurately, so that the learners can hear the correct pronunciation of the consonant blends.

We hope that this series of 3 videos would assist teachers in understanding the differences between phonemic and phonological awareness as well as provide teachers with methods and strategies that they could use to teach these skills effectively in their classroom.


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