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What’s the difference? Understanding phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics

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What’s the difference? Understanding phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics

Sound Waves Spelling 26/10/16


Updates to the Australian Curriculum are shining a spotlight on teaching phonological awareness (in particular, phonemic awareness) and phonics. So whether you’re a novice or have been teaching spelling and reading this way for many years, there’s never been a better time to brush up on the terminology and pick up some teaching tips for developing these skills in your classroom.

Whilst they are closely related, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics do not mean the same thing. Because they all begin with the Greek root phon meaning sound, it is often thought that they are synonymous.

To understand exactly what students need to learn and how best to teach it, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of these terms.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is a broad concept that relates to the structure of spoken language. It requires understanding of sounds, words, rhyme, syllables, and onset and rime.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. It relates specifically to the individual phonemes (sounds) for the words of Australian English. It incorporates the ability to segment words into their component sounds.

Phonemic awareness is the most complex phonological awareness skill and requires the most teaching.

As all phonological awareness skills (including phonemic awareness) are sound based, students participating in purely phonological awareness activities would not be expected to write anything down.


Phonics is the understanding that there is a systematic connection between the phonemes heard in oral language and the graphemes (letters and letter combinations) used in writing.

Phonics is also used to describe the teaching of reading and spelling by focusing on sound–letter correspondences.

Unlike phonological awareness, phonics activities integrate sound and print. Students participating in phonics activities are required to write!

How do I apply these concepts to my teaching?

Phonics proficiency relies on phonological awareness skills (in particular, phonemic awareness). Once your students have developed a basic awareness of phonemes, it’s time to integrate explicit instruction of phonemic awareness and phonics into your teaching.

For phonological awareness (including phonemic awareness), play:
Rhyming Clue

Aim: Students answer the clue with an appropriate rhyming word.


  1. Give students a clue that begins, ‘I rhyme with …’
  2. Students give a word that rhymes and matches the clue.

For example:

‘I rhyme with ten and you can write with me.’ (pen)
‘I rhyme with red and you can sleep in me.’ (bed)
‘I rhyme with get and I mean not dry.’ (wet)

Whose Name?

Aim: Students explore the sounds in one another’s names.


  1. Quiz students about the sounds in their first names.
  2. Students answer with the first name of a student in the class but may not say their own name.

For example:

‘Whose name starts with /b/?’
‘Whose name has three sounds?’
‘Whose name ends with /t/?’

For phonics proficiency, play:
Build a Word

Aim: Students start with a given grapheme and build upon it to create words.


  1. Nominate a grapheme, e.g. ee.
  2. Students write the grapheme several times in a vertical list.
  3. Ask students to create words from the grapheme, e.g. ‘Turn the grapheme into green.’
  4. Students write letters before and after the grapheme to make the word.
  5. Repeat this for other words, e.g. sleep, street, cheese, sheep.

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