Phonology vs. Phoneme vs. Phonics

While phonology, phoneme and phonics all stem back the Greek combining form <phon> or <phono> meaning sound, it is important for educators understand the difference between them and when instruction in each is appropriate.



Phonological awareness is a broad topic covering multiple skills relating to the sounds found in spoken language. These skills include:

  • Knowing how many words are in a sentence
  • Knowing if words rhyme
  • Knowing if words start or end with the same sound
  • Counting the syllables in a word
  • Breaking a word up into its individual speech sounds (phonemic awareness)
  • Changing parts of words when asked


I like to think of Phonological Awareness like climbing the Eifel Tower. At the bottom it is easy to get to but the higher you go the harder it is.


Phonological awareness starts to develop from a very young age and improves through exposure to language.


Even though phonological awareness starts to develop naturally, different individuals struggle with different levels of phonological awareness. These individuals need help with the specific tasks related to phonological awareness.


Phonological awareness is a key factor in learning how to read in any language, even if its writing system is based on characters representing morphemes instead of an alphabet representing sounds (eg. Goswami, 2002).


Several studies have found that struggling with phonological awareness is the most common reason for word-level reading difficulties (eg. Stanovich, 1996).


Activities designed to strengthen phonological awareness can be started in preschool and it is a great way early childhood educators can help prepare their students for success once they start attending formal schooling.


It has been shown that direct teaching of phonological awareness in preschool and kindergarten can help counteract the affects commonly found in those from a impoverished background (Kaplan & Walpole, 2005).




Phonemes are the individual speech sounds in a language. Phonemic awareness allows us to make distinctions between similarly sounding words like ‘look’ and ‘book’, ‘star’ and ‘stir’, or ‘cat’ and ‘can’.

If you look at the Phonological Tower, you can see that phonemic awareness is the highest level of phonological awareness. It is the hardest level to get to, and there many individuals who struggle with some of the higher levels of phonemic awareness.


The easiest level of phonemic awareness involves breaking a word into its speech sounds.  The number of speech sounds a word has is often different than the number of letters found in the word.


For example, count how many speech sounds are in the following 5 words (scroll past the references for the answers).

  1. and
  2. eight
  3. rabbit
  4. box
  5. hat


The next level of phonemic awareness requires the individual to add or remove phonemes from a word.


For example, say the word ‘and’ without the ‘d’. The answer would be ‘an’. Another example would be to say the word ‘and’ with a ‘b’ at the beginning. The answer would be ‘band’.


The final level of phonemic awareness requires the individual to manipulate the sounds in the word.


For example, say the word ‘band’ with a ‘h’ instead of a ‘b’. The answer would be ‘hand’.


Phonemic awareness is a skill that typically does not develop on its own. Unless it is explicitly taught, it doesn’t usually start developing until the individual starts to learn how to read (Mann, 1986).


Even though it doesn’t seem to develop on its own before kids begin to learn how to read, there are several activities that can be done at home, preschool, kindergarten and beyond to help an individual develop phonemic awareness (Moats, 2004; NICHD, 2000).




Finally, we come to phonics. Phonics differs from phonology and phonemes in that it is the only one of the three where the marriage between letters and sounds comes into play.  


Phonics instruction is an essential part of reading instruction because it is when beginner readers learn the relationship between letters and the sounds they make.


Instruction typically goes along the lines of teaching a letter, the sound that relates to the letter and providing a key word that has the letter making the target sound.


All students learning to read should be taught using a phonics program based on the science of reading. These programs ensure that students learn the different sounds a letter(s) make and when to use them.


In summary:

  1. The concepts of phonology, phonemes and phonics are all related and play an important role in learning how to read.
  2. Phonology and phonemes involve the sounds of spoken language and are suitable for teaching before formal reading instruction has begun.
  3. Phonics had to do with both sounds and letters and should be taught to all students at the beginning of their reading instruction.
  4. These three skills can be explicitly taught to help individuals become proficient readers.



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Goswami, U. (2002). Phonology, reading development, and dyslexia: A cross-linguistic perspectiveAnnals of Dyslexia52(1), 139-163.

Mann, V. A. (1993). Phoneme awareness and future reading abilityJournal of learning Disabilities26(4), 259-269.

Moats, L. C. (2004) The professional development of reading teachers. In P. McCardle and V. Chhabra (Eds.). The voice of evidence in reading research. Baltimore, MD, US: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). (2000).Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidenced-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Stanovich, K. E. (1996). Toward a more inclusive definition of dyslexia. Dyslexia2(3), 154-166.



  1. and -> 3 speech sounds /a/ /n/ /d/
  2. eight -> 2 speech sounds /A/ /t/
  3. rabbit -> 5 speech sounds /r/ /a/ /b/ /i/ /t/
  4. box -> 4 speech sounds /b/ /o/ /k/ /s/
  5. hat -> 3 speech sounds /h/ /a/ /t/