Reading Academy

Phonemic Awareness: The Foundation of Reading Mastery

Phonemic awareness is defined as the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. It is the strongest predictor of reading success and the first component a reader must master before moving on to higher levels of reading.

Foundational First Step

Phonemic awareness comes naturally to many children as they interact with their surroundings. As a young child mumbles and plays around with different sounds, that is the beginning of the development of phonemic awareness. The child first starts to make a sound he's heard before — let’s say it is /d/ — and later he realizes that a vowel sound usually follows that sound. He begins adding the vowel a to the /d/ sound to form the sound combination /da/. Almost there, he can now notice, think about, and work with two of the three sounds in his first word and even begin to attach the sounds to a meaning! It won’t take long before he realizes the first sound is the same as the last, and he finishes pronouncing the first word he’ll learn. The child doesn’t know the letters that form the word “Dad” (that will come later), but he does know that the spoken word "Dad" is made up of individual sounds. This sound recognition is phonemic awareness — the first step, or foundational skill, to reading mastery.

For some children, developing phonemic awareness can take a little longer. Those who have hearing problems, phonological processing disorders (issues recognizing patterns of sound), or articulation disorders (issues making sounds) commonly lack phonological awareness. When these learners struggle to gain a sense of phonological awareness, they are struggling with all aspects of language. It is possible for those with processing disorders to gain phonemic awareness, even if a noticeable deficit is recognized later in life. Thankfully, there are assessments that help parents and teachers determine these issues early on in a child’s development so effective intervention can begin as soon as possible.

 Mastering Phonemic Awareness

Many times, the right type of instruction is all that is needed for struggling learners to move forward. For those who struggle with phonemic awareness, an explicit, systematic instructional approach is needed.

The approach that has received the greatest results for those with phonemic awareness issues has been the Orton-Gillingham approach. It uses several key principles (explicit instruction, sequential presentation of concepts, multi-sensory learning, etc.) that together help ensure learners receive a strong foundation in the fundamental components of reading.

Learn more about the principles of the Orton-Gillingham approach 


If you are a parent who recognizes a phonemic awareness deficit in your child, the first step you should take is to assess your child and the second is to get him the right type of instruction — Orton-Gillingham-based instruction — to address his needs.

Assessments: Simple assessments can be administered to help parents determine where their child struggles. Some assessments are administered by a professional who may be able to diagnose your child with a specific processing disorder. Other assessments you can administer yourself to get a general idea of where your child struggles.

Orton-Gillingham-based instruction: When it comes to finding effective reading instruction for your child, there are a few approaches you can take: 1) find a trained professional who knows how to teach using an explicit, systematic process; 2) get professionally trained in an explicit, systematic process yourself; or 3) use scripted and guided teaching materials or self-directed software that is based on an explicit, systematic process.

Using Reading Horizons At-Home solutions will allow you to stay involved in your child's learning, become more informed yourself about what makes reading instruction effective, and use research-based materials that are proven to work. Reading Horizons provides well-designed, scripted and guided teaching materials and self-directed software along with a free, online workshop training tool called Parent Phonics Training. These resources have helped countless parents and their children overcome reading struggles, proving that effective reading instruction can be affordably implemented in every home.

Take a look at Reading Horizons Orton-Gillingham-based instructional products or get started on the free Parent Phonics Training Online Workshop.

Taking the Next Step

Phonemic awareness is only the first step to reading mastery. The second step is recognizing that the individual sounds of a word (phonemes) are connected to individual symbols or letters. We call this sound/letter correspondence phonics. Phonics must be mastered before moving on to higher levels of reading.