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Handout: Phonemic awareness

Considered the cornerstone of early reading skills, phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. Before children learn to read print, they need to understand that words are made up of phonemes—the smallest parts of sound in a spoken word that make a difference in the word’s meaning.

After an extensive review of reading research, the National Reading Panel found that teachers use several strategies to develop phonemic awareness in children (CIERA 2003). These strategies include:

  • Helping students recognize which words in a set of words begin with the same sound (“Bell, bike, and boy all have /b/ at the beginning.”).
  • Having students isolate and say the first or last sound in a word (“The beginning sound of dog is /d/. The ending sound of sit is /t/.”).
  • Having students combine, or blend, the separate sounds in a word to say the word (“/m/, /a/, /p/— map.”).
  • Teaching students to segment, or break, a word into its separate sounds (“up—/u/, /p/.”).

Children who have phonemic awareness skills are likely to have an easier time learning to read and spell than children who have few or none of these skills.

Recommendations for effective instruction

CIERA (2003) notes that small-group instruction (rather than individual or whole-group instruction) is more effective in helping students acquire phonemic awareness and learn to read. Children in small-group settings often benefit from listening to their classmates respond and receive feedback from the teacher.


This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: October 17, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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