The Difference Between Phonemic Awareness and Phonics: Why It Matters


The science of reading has shown us that it’s extremely important to give students a solid foundation in phonemic awareness as well as phonics. Is there really a difference between those two skills?  In this post, we’re going to chat about the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics. Plus, I’ll share why that distinction is so important in kindergarten!

The difference between phonemic awareness and phonics

What is the Difference Between Phonemic Awareness and Phonics?

It’s very important for kindergarten teachers to understand the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics.  Confusion between these two terms is common and understandable since they use the same word root (phon-). However, these two skills need their own time to shine in kindergarten literacy instruction.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is an understanding that the words we speak are made up of individual sounds (phonemes). Skills that require strong phonemic awareness include:

  • Identifying words that have the same sound in the same word position.  For example, a student can tell that “man” and “mop” have the same beginning sound or “can” and “fin” have the same ending sound.
  • Hearing individual phonemes and then blending them into a single word. A student says the word “cup” after hearing the phonemes /c/, /u/, and /p/.
  • Verbally segmenting words into individual phonemes.  A student hears the word “bus” and can split it into its three phonemes: /b/, /u/, and /s/.
  • Deleting or substituting phonemes. A student with strong phonemic awareness skills could say “at” after being asked to say “mat” without the /m/ sound.

None of the skills above require students to have any knowledge of the alphabet.  These skills are all demonstrated verbally. In fact, some people remember that phonemic awareness is a pre-reading skill by saying that it can be learned with your eyes closed.


On the other hand, phonics is the process of matching sounds to print. Phonics is more than just teaching students the sounds made by the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Instead, it is the explicit instruction of how all 44 phonemes in the English language are represented in print. Phonics helps students see patterns in words so that they can become more fluent readers.

The Importance of Phonemic Awareness in Kindergarten

As you can tell, phonemic awareness is a prerequisite to phonics instruction. It is especially important in kindergarten since most students start the year with partial or minimal knowledge of the alphabet. 

In kindergarten especially, the difficulty arises when we dive into teaching students about the alphabet as we teach phonemic awareness at the same time. They aren’t ready to match sounds to print when they don’t have an understanding of the sounds in spoken language!

I always thought I was doing enough phonemic awareness practice through my phonics instruction.  I thought they would just “pick up” rhyming or phoneme isolation as we worked on other literacy skills.  As it turns out, it’s incredibly important to teach them these skills and provide meaningful ways for them to practice phonemic awareness.

Teaching Phonemic Awareness in Kindergarten

How do you provide meaningful phonemic awareness practice in kindergarten?  Here are four tips that can help:

1. Make It a Priority

Once you are clear on the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics, it’s easier to prioritize important skill-building activities in your classroom. You won’t feel pressure to move into phonics because you have a large percentage of students who already know the printed alphabet. You will be confident in making phonemic awareness a priority because you know that most students who learn the alphabet at a young age will still have some gaps in their phonemic awareness skills. You can even send families an informative handout to help them prioritize phonemic awareness practice at home.

Two parent handouts to practice phonics and phonemic awareness

2. Use Visuals

Remember when I said that phonemic awareness can be done with your eyes closed?  That doesn’t mean you can’t bring the benefits of visuals to your instruction! When you say a word that you want students to segment, some students will likely spend some of their processing time picturing the object that you said.  That’s just how language works!  By providing the image for the students as you say the word, students can then focus their attention on whatever phonemic awareness skill you’re practicing.  

Visuals are also helpful for students who might have trouble with working memory.  For example, if you are asking students if two words rhyme or not, it’s helpful for some students to have a visual to help them remember the two words as they process a response.

Middle Sound Sort in a blue pocket chart

3. Provide Hands-On Activities

Add some phonemic awareness practice to your literacy centers for some hands-on practice!  You can use picture sorts, clip cards, and flashcards to keep your students engaged in phonemic awareness practice.  In fact, phonemic awareness activities are a great option for centers because they don’t require alphabet knowledge.  Students can work independently at their stations since they aren’t overwhelmed by a bunch of letters they haven’t mastered yet!

4. Practice, Practice, Practice!

Just like any other literacy skill, phonemic awareness isn’t something you learn once and then never think about again.  Kindergarten students need to keep these skills sharp in order to have a strong foundation for future literacy instruction. 

A printable practice book is a great way to ensure that you’re revisiting phonemic awareness in your classroom. These quick activities could be used for small group instruction, morning work, or even sent home for extra practice.

Phonemic awareness practice book worksheet and covers

Printable Phonemic Awareness Activities for Kindergarten

To save you some time, I have put together a bundle of printable activities and resources that you can use for phonemic awareness in your classroom.  This bundle has a variety of engaging activities that you can use to help your students build a solid foundation in phonemic awareness. 

Phonemic Awareness Activities and Printables Bundle

If you’d like to take a closer look at everything in this bundle, you can find it in the Teaching Exceptional Kinders shop or on TPT.

Save This Post About Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonics

Now that you know the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics, be sure to save this post!  Add this pin to your favorite teaching board so you can quickly find these resources whenever you need them!

The difference between phonemic awareness and phonics (and why it matters)


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