Both phonics and phonemic awareness are incredibly important reading components to teach kindergarten students. They do have some similarities. Both are incredibly important to a child’s early reading success and included at some point during your reading block. However, there are also some key differences to note. These differences are necessary for teachers to understand so that they can effectively teach both.
The Focus on Print
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between phonics and phonemic awareness activities is the focus on print. When it comes to phonics, there is a huge emphasis on letter sounds and their connection to print. For example, students are taught letter sounds while making the connection to which letter of the alphabet makes that sound.
Phonemic awareness, on the other hand, involves activities that do not include print. Instead, students focus solely on the sounds in words, without tying the sounds to a written word. For example, in phonemic awareness, a teacher might say the word “cat,” and then ask the student to isolate the beginning sound. The student simply responds “/c/.”
However, if a teacher asks the student to identify the first letter in each word, it becomes a phonics activity. A phonics activity might be a worksheet, where a student looks at a picture and writes down the first letter of the word. Another example of a phonics activity involves the student completing a first sound sort by letter categories.
Students are definitely still using phonemic awareness skills during the second example, but because there is an emphasis on print and the written word, it becomes a phonics activity.
When They Should be Taught
Kindergarten classrooms include phonemic awareness and phonics activities nearly every day. Many teachers and phonics programs bundle them together because they are so intertwined, especially as students develop reading skills. It is important to note that students DO need to have a grasp on some phonemic awareness skills before mastering phonics skills. They need to have an understanding of the sounds in words BEFORE they begin connecting them to print. This means that phonemic awareness skills need to be taught first, if not alongside, phonics skills.
Without tying sounds to letters, consider how hard it would be for students to segment words in order to write them. Likewise, not tying sounds to letters makes it difficult to blend words together in order to read them. If a child doesn't practice identifying first sounds tied to a letter, it becomes difficult to write the letter that makes the first sound in a word. Clearly, students who are struggling to learn phonics skills may need more experience manipulating sounds first.
We know that both phonemic awareness and phonics are key components of early reading. Teaching them to young students is critical! Understanding the difference between the two ensures that we include plenty of classroom experiences to address each area. Students need opportunities to practice phonics skills connected to written words and letters. They also need opportunities to practice phonemic awareness skills that are not. This enables them to become strong, fluent readers.