What is Phonemic Awareness?

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Beginning the learning process of reading can be quite a difficult undertaking. When we think of new readers and how they learn, we usually picture children’s stories and the alphabet, but whether the beginner is a child or an adult that never acquired the necessary skills, the first step towards success is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992).


Phonemic versus Phonological Awareness

Many people have the incorrect understanding that phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are the same thing, or synonyms of one another. It is important to be clear that although they are similar, they are indeed unique, and this differentiation is key to understanding the development process.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is more specific and deals with the ability to identify individual sounds within words, called phonemes (“cat…/c/ /a/ /t/”), as well as manipulate them within a given word (“Change the /c/ to a /b/… now the word is bat”). Phonetic awareness is a broader term referring to the more developed ability of being able to hear, identify, and manipulate larger units of sounds such as onsets and syllables and recognition of rhyming words.

For beginning learners, and for the purpose of this blog, we will be focusing on phonemic awareness (the more specific term), as it will be the first skill that needs to be developed.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Phonemic awareness is critical for identifying reading development in new learners, and it is the most important pre-reading skill that can be developed being central to the role in learning to read and to spell. According to the National Reading Panel, “Teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness.”

It is well accepted that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of reading and writing success in young children. It helps learners to master sound-spelling relationships, thus improving this skill through structured education is critical for a higher chance of being able to read and write when literacy instruction begins.

Without phonemic awareness, learners will be unable to group words with similar and dissimilar sounds, blend and split syllables, blend sounds into words, break a word down into its sequence of sounds, nor detect and manipulate sounds within words. It is the foundation, so to speak, of a future reader and writer and without it fluency can never be achieved.

How Learners Develop Phonemic Awareness

The development of phonemic awareness is unique for every learner. Some are able to begin growing phonemic awareness naturally through rhyming stories (like Dr. Seuss), through singing and learning nursery rhymes, or even by listening and reading along with a parent or teacher. This can be a very fortunate start to the learning process for some students, but others may need systematic and specific phonemic awareness teaching to grow in their abilities in preparation for writing and reading. There are many online resources as well as professional institutions available for this type of instruction.

Levels of Phonemic Awareness

Marilyn Jager Adams, a specialist in cognition and education at Brown University, created a widely used definition of phonemic awareness in 1990, and developed a basic understanding of the skills leading to phonemic awareness in five distinct levels.

1)       Ability to hear rhymes (“dog, fog”) and alliteration (repeated initial sounds in words, i.e “purple poster”).

2)       Ability to identify similarities and differences in rhyme and alliteration across and between words.

3)       Ability to blend and segment syllables (“rain-bow…rainbow”).

4)       Ability to split a spoken word into phonemes (“bag…b-a-g”).

5)       Ability to identify and manipulate the sounds in words (“Say ‘dog’. Now change the last sound to a /t/. What word do you have now?”)

Help Developing Phonemic Awareness

Developing the skill of phonemic awareness is incredibly important for the successful progress in reading and writing for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in phonemic awareness, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Dyslexia?

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects a person’s phonological processing, making reading and writing challenging for the individual. People with dyslexia experience difficulty in identifying speech sounds and/or learning how they relate to letters and words.  While not every person with dyslexia experiences the same symptoms and difficulties with reading, dyslexia is a deficit in phonological processing.

For example, people who are dyslexic may also struggle with reading comprehension, writing, spelling, and even math. Young dyslexics also tend to struggle with other things unrelated to reading, like attention span, sequencing (remembering things in order), motor control, and left and right confusion leading to wider issues affecting social interaction, memory, and dealing with stress. Dyslexics can end up struggling with everyday activities that most people take for granted because of the far-reaching issues stemming from dyslexia.

In order to understand how dyslexia affects our students and young readers, we need to take a look at phonological processing. Phonological processing is using all of the sounds of a language in order to process both spoken and written language. Phonological processing is a broad category that includes phonological awareness, working memory, and information retrieval. People who are diagnosed with dyslexia may struggle with one or all of these pieces of phonological processing.


Brain in the center of the image with descriptors of dyslexia surrounding the central image. Some of the descriptors of dyslexia include; difficulties with telling the time, losing place in a text, handwriting difficulties, times tables or the alphabet, sequencing, problems with note taking, organizational problems, and difficulty getting ideas on paper.


Recent Research

While science is constantly evolving and creating new insight into dyslexia and its effects, researchers have not yet determined what exactly causes dyslexia. What they do know, however, is that dyslexia is genetic; in other words, a child is more likely to develop dyslexia if one of their parents is dyslexic. Furthermore, if that child has any siblings, there is a 40% chance that the sibling could also have problems reading.

Researchers are getting closer to understanding exactly which parts of the brain are affected. When a person is reading, both hemispheres of the human brain are active, but the left hemisphere does most of the work. Pathways are created during the reading process, and each has a specific function. For instance, there is a pathway that facilitates ‘sight recognition’ (recognizing a word just by looking at it rather than breaking it down by individual sounds), which leads to another developed pathway that allows the reader to remember the meaning of that recognized word. This results in a series of connections leading to speech, articulation, and pronunciation. All of these processes happen simultaneously throughout the brain for a fluent reader.

For someone with dyslexia, these internal pathways and connections form differently. There is little understanding as to why these differences occur, but researchers have found that the left hemisphere of the brain in a dyslexic person lacks the necessary connection to facilitate the pathways which allow a reader to become fluent. Instead, the right hemisphere begins to overcompensate and work harder to create those connections that are needed to read and comprehend. Below is a graphic that shows the activity in a brain of a non-dyslexic reader versus that of a dyslexic reader.


Side by side comparison of brain scans. Normal reader brain scans show strong activity pattern in the left hemisphere and then dyslexic brain scan shows a weak activity pattern in the left hemisphere.



If you struggle with dyslexia, know that you are not alone! Dyslexia is much more common than one might initially believe. Research has found that nearly 18% of the population is dyslexic. That is almost 1 out of every 5 people! Our resources at the Colorado Reading Center can help relieve some of the struggle and stress that may be caused by dyslexia. We provide resources to help readers, young and old, develop the essential skills for reading success.

People of all ages can suffer from dyslexia. However early interventions with young students, typically between Kindergarten and fifth grade, have been shown to be most effective. There are plenty of resources including books and videos to help understand the possibilities of overcoming Dyslexia, and there are numerous organizations such as the Colorado Reading Center that offer professional services for dyslexia remediation.