Phonemic awareness is when a child sees the word cat and immediately begins to break the word down into individual phonemes or sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches students to break words down into letter sounds (decode) and then put those sounds back together to pronounce or read the word (encode) (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003).
Phonological awareness is when the child sees the word cat, breaks the word down into letter sounds, can pronounce the word, and can then take that knowledge and work with it. This may mean that the student can manipulate the word cat by adding or subtracting letters to make new words: can, cattle, calf. The student can break words into syllables. This also means that the student knows what the word means and can use that word in a sentence (for a complete description of phonemic and phonological awareness see Kilpatrick, 2016).
So, phonemic awareness is the identification or decoding and encoding of letter sounds. It is part of phonological awareness, which is the ability to work with letter sounds, to build new words from a common letter sound (particularly vowel sounds), and to break words into syllables.
Now, what is phonics? Phonics methods emphasize the letter rather than the sound. Phonics education starts with the letter. With phonemic and phonological awareness, you start with the oral sound and build toward the letter and the word. Phonemic and phonological awareness give us a totally different teaching method that evidence shows to be superior to teaching the old-style phonics approach.
Phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics are not the same, nor do they use the same teaching methods. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness, but phonics education is an entirely different approach to teaching letter sounds.
Phonics is a means of teaching the relationship between letters and sounds. The emphasis is on letters or groupings of letters. There are between 4 to 6 different approaches used for teaching phonics. Of these 6 different phonics teaching techniques, systematic phonics is the only phonics method that has shown any success in teaching children to read. Unfortunately, research also shows that systematic phonics leaves many students confused (Hempenstall, 2016; click on the .pdf link).
Systematic phonics instruction entails the direct teaching of letter-sound relationships and uses a specific sequence or learning pattern. Research shows systematic phonics instruction to be the most effective phonics method, but be careful. There are many different approaches for teaching systematic phonics. To be effective, systematic phonics must teach decoding and encoding instead of memorization or a list of rules.
Personally, I have completely stopped using the word “phonics” because the word is being used so many different ways—many of which represent ineffective teaching methods. Instead, I use only phonemic and phonological awareness and vowel clustering.
Phonemic awareness describes when students are taught to hear and recognize letter sounds, identify letter-sound relationships, and decode and encode phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can be identified.
The word cat is a common example for teaching phonemic awareness. Neuroimaging research shows that it is much better to teach students to sound out the word cat (one letter sound at a time) than to teach students to memorize or simply recognize the word cat. The word cat has three distinct phonemes or sounds. Students need to break words into letter sounds, even a simple one syllable word like cat. It is better to teach students to sound out each letter sound, one letter at a time, even for multisyllabic or compound words. There are no rules to learn when learning phonemic awareness, and students are never asked to guess at a word or to memorize a word list. Students are taught to break all words down into individual letter sounds (decode) and then put those letter sounds back together and read or pronounce the word (encode).
Phonological awareness incorporates many skills, including phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness also teaches letter sounds and includes breaking words into syllables. This is very important when the student is ready to learn multisyllable words or compound words. Phonological awareness teaches students to work with words. Students can be taught to add or take letters away to make new words: the word at can be changed to the word am by taking the letter t away and adding the letter m. This is a simple example, but the same is true with more complex words: back, black, sack, stack, act, actor, acrobat. Building new words with a common vowel sound helps students visualize how words are formed. Some people will tell you that phonological awareness is just about sound and does not involve alphabet letters or words—wrong. Phonological awareness teaches the relationship between letters and spoken sounds. Yes, phonological awareness involves working with the actual written word, breaking the word down into letter sounds, and then understanding how to use that word to express ideas.
Vowel clustering incorporates phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching students to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering does not stop at simply decoding and encoding. Vowel clustering also teaches spelling, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and writing. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students (Clanton Harpine & Reid, 2009; click on the .pdf link).
Vowel clustering teaches both phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching children to decode and encode letter sounds in order to read words (Clanton Harpine, 2011).