In today’s post, I will answer the question what is phonemic awareness? To do so, I ‘ve read several seminal research papers on the subject and synthesized these definitions into a coherent post providing my commentary on each definition. This isn’t just academic navel-gazing; the aim is to provide teachers, parents, and educators with a clearer, research-backed understanding of what exactly phonemic awareness is and why it’s so crucial in the journey towards literacy.

The terms and definitions may vary, but as you’ll see, several core principles emerge, helping to shape a nuanced understanding of this foundational skill. By drawing from authoritative research, this article aims to offer a comprehensive perspective on phonemic awareness, equipping you with the knowledge you need to better guide students in their educational journey.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a cornerstone of early literacy development and language acquisition. This foundational skill acts as the bedrock upon which the towering structures of reading, writing, and effective communication are built. But what, precisely, is phonemic awareness? The term itself seems to invoke a blend of psychology, linguistics, and educational theory—because, well, it does.

Scholars and educators alike have grappled with pinning down a comprehensive definition. After scouring research articles and relying on years of classroom observation, I’ve curated a selection of definitions that offer a panoramic view of this crucial concept. Each definition carves out its own niche in explaining what phonemic awareness is, and collectively, they shed light on its multifaceted importance in literacy development. So, let’s dig into these scholarly perspectives and unpack what they reveal about this cornerstone of early learning.

According to Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. (2000), phonemic awareness is “the awareness that the speech stream consists of a sequence of sounds–specifically phonemes, the smallest unit of sound that makes a difference in communication. It is a phoneme that determines the difference between the words dog and hog, for instance, and between look and lick.” (p. 130)

The authors further added :

“These differences influence meaning. Place these words in sentences (“You dog!” vs. “You hog!” and “Take a look” vs. “Take a lick”), and the power of the phoneme becomes obvious. Individuals who are phonemically aware recognize that the speech stream is a sequence of these small sounds. They can identify the three sounds in the spoken word fish (/f/-/i/-/sh/), for example, and can blend phonemes together to form words (/h/-/o/-/p/ is hop). They have the ability to notice, mentally grab ahold of, and manipulate these smallest chunks of speech.” ( p. 130)

As you have seen, Yopp and Yopp definition focuses on the role phonemes play in distinguishing meaning in spoken language. What stands out here is the emphasis on the ability to “mentally grab ahold of, and manipulate” phonemes. This means it’s not just about recognizing sounds but actively interacting with them. This mirrors what I’ve observed in the classroom: kids who can break down and manipulate sounds in words have a much easier time transitioning to reading, a fact that is (as you will see later on) backed with research.

Phonemic awareness is “the ability to examine language independently of meaning and to manipulate its component sound” (Griffith & Olson, 1992; p. 516).

What’s unique about this definition is the focus on language “independently of meaning.” It’s stressing that the skill involves isolating sounds from their semantic context, which is essential for reading, as kids initially learn to decode words before attaching meaning to them.

Phonemic awareness is the ability of being aware that “words are composed of sequences of meaningless and somewhat distinct sounds (phonemes)” (Juel, 1994, cited in Krashen, 1999; p. 412 )

What Juel highlights here is the “meaninglessness” of individual phonemes. It’s a good reminder that these sounds gain their meaning through the words they form, reinforcing the idea that phonemic awareness is a stepping stone to higher-level language skills.

Phonemic awareness is “the ability to divide a word into its component phonemes. Note that “phonemic awareness” refers to sounds, not letters. Thus, the word “ox” has three phonemes, even though it only has two letters: /a/, /k/, and /s/. One who knows this has phonemic awareness” (Krashen, 1999; p. 412)

Krashen’s definition of phonemic awareness as “the ability to divide a word into its component phonemes” nails the active and analytical skills involved. Even more crucial is his emphasis that phonemic awareness is about sounds, not letters. Take his example of the word “ox,” which has three phonemes but just two letters. This distinction is golden; it gets to the heart of why some kids initially struggle with spelling and reading. They may see a limited number of letters but need to articulate a greater number of distinct sounds. In my view, this makes Krashen’s take an invaluable resource for educators, as it clarifies the foundational skills students need before they can become proficient readers and writers.

Phonological awareness is “the metalinguistic ability to reflect on and manipulate the
phonemic segments of speech.” (Kozminsky & Kozminsky, 1995, p. 187)

Kozminsky’s definition delves into the metalinguistic aspects of phonological awareness, emphasizing not just recognition but the “ability to reflect on and manipulate” phonemic elements. This speaks volumes about the cognitive complexity involved in developing these skills.

The term “metalinguistic” captures that higher-order thinking about language, which is a nuance sometimes missed when we discuss this in educational settings. Kids who can mentally play around with the sounds in words—essentially treating them like building blocks—tend to make smoother transitions into reading. Kozminsky’s viewpoint offers an academic layer to our understanding, but it also has real-world applications for how we approach literacy education.

Phonemic awareness “can be defined as the conscious awareness that spoken words comprise individual sounds.”(Snider, 1997, p. 203)

Snider’s definition zeroes in on the idea of “conscious awareness,” which I find to be both straightforward and insightful. It implies that phonemic awareness is more than just a passive skill; it requires a certain level of cognitive engagement. This “consciousness” aspect resonates with my own experiences in both teaching and research. Kids don’t just stumble into phonemic awareness; it’s often the result of explicit instruction or, at the very least, guided interaction with language. The emphasis on awareness also links neatly with the ability to subsequently map these sounds to written symbols, a crucial step in becoming a proficient reader. Snider’s definition is beneficial in that it distills the essence of phonemic awareness into an easily digestible form while still capturing the cognitive investment involved.

Phonemic awareness refers to “our understanding of different English sound units within the speech flow. Of these sound units, phonemes can be the most difficult for children to learn to detect and manipulate; however, phonemic awareness, along with letter knowledge, is needed for beginners to move on to reading and spelling” (McCarthy, 2008, p. 346)

McCarthy’s definition really resonates with me for its holistic take on phonemic awareness, emphasizing not only its importance but also its challenges. The phrase “most difficult for children to learn to detect and manipulate” acknowledges the often under-recognized complexity of the skill. From my own classroom experiences, I can vouch that some kids do struggle mightily in this area, and it’s not a simple hurdle to overcome. What I particularly appreciate here is the explicit link McCarthy makes to “reading and spelling,” painting a fuller picture of literacy development. It’s not just about preparing for reading; it’s also about laying the groundwork for effective written communication. This definition aligns well with the comprehensive literacy approach I often advocate for, in that it acknowledges both the challenges and the broader educational context in which phonemic awareness operates.

“Phonemic awareness is often referred to as the ability to recognize and manipulate phonemes, the individual sounds in words in oral language.” (Manyak, 2008, p. 659)

Manyak’s definition gives us a succinct yet impactful look at what phonemic awareness entails, focusing on the “ability to recognize and manipulate phonemes.” The verb ‘manipulate’ is especially compelling because it goes beyond simple recognition. It implies that students aren’t just passive recipients of sounds; they are active manipulators, breaking down and building up words.

This hands-on aspect of phonemic awareness has been a recurring theme throughout the previous definitions. The definition also emphasizes the realm of “oral language,” underscoring that this is a skill rooted in auditory and spoken experiences. Manyak’s take serves as a useful anchor for educators, capturing the active, hands-on nature of the skill, while still remaining clear and to the point.

My take

Pulling all these scholarly threads together, it’s apparent that while the definitions of phonemic awareness vary in focus and complexity, they converge on several core ideas. First, phonemic awareness is an active skill involving both recognition and manipulation of sounds. Whether termed “conscious awareness” or “metalinguistic ability,” there’s a cognitive engagement that goes beyond simple auditory perception.

Secondly, many definitions emphasize the distinction between sounds and letters. This is a crucial point, as it helps to clarify why some students face challenges in the early stages of reading and spelling.

Thirdly, the role of phonemic awareness in broader literacy skills, such as reading and spelling, is consistently acknowledged. It’s not an isolated skill but part of a larger literacy ecosystem. McCarthy’s definition particularly brings this to light, emphasizing the necessity of phonemic awareness “along with letter knowledge” for reading and spelling. This broader context resonates with my own goals in educational research, emphasizing that phonemic awareness is foundational but not standalone; it’s part of a complex interplay of skills needed for literacy.

In sum, while these scholarly perspectives offer different angles on phonemic awareness, they collectively build a comprehensive understanding that reflects both the challenges and the importance of this skill in literacy education. And for those of us deeply involved in the education sphere—whether as teachers, researchers, or ed-tech enthusiasts—this multi-faceted understanding is indispensable for developing effective instructional strategies and tools.


Griffith, P. L., & Olson, M. W. (1992). Phonemic Awareness Helps Beginning Readers Break the Code. The Reading Teacher, 45(7), 516–523.

Juel. C. (1994). Learning to read and write in one elementary school. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Kozminsky, L., & Kozminsky, E.(1995). The effects of early phonological awareness training on reading success. Learning and Instruction, 5(3), 187-201.

Krashen, S. (1999). Training in Phonemic Awareness: Greater on Tests of Phonemic Awareness. Perceptzral and Motor Skills, 89, 412-416.

Krashen, S. (2002). Phonemic Awareness Training Necessary? Reading Research Quarterly, 37(2), 128–128.

Manyak, P. C. (2008). Phonemes in Use: Multiple Activities for a Critical Process. The Reading Teacher, 61(8), 659–662.

McCarthy, P. A. (2008). Using Sound Boxes Systematically to Develop Phonemic Awareness. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 346–349.

Snider, V. E. (1997). The Relationship between Phonemic Awareness and Later Reading Achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 90(4), 203–211.

Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. H. (2000). Supporting Phonemic Awareness Development in the Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 54(2), 130–143.

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