What is Phonology? Phonemic Awareness Explained

A foreign language or indistinct sounds? Image by Big Richard C

Foreign speech often resembles continuous streams of unfamiliar sounds to those who are not fluent in the language. Phonology is the study of the system, and patterns of these speech sounds: how they are pronounced, how they combine together, which sounds can be neighbors or not, how words consist of syllables and discrete sound units, and how words rhyme.   Once you develop an appreciation for the phonological properties of words, you have acquired “phonological awareness.”

Phonological Perception and Awareness

In order to understand language processing,  it is important to differentiate between phonological perception and phonological awareness.

  • Phonological perception is the unconscious cognitive processing of language sounds within specific areas of the brain.
  • Phonological awareness concerns the conscious ability to notice that unique differences exist between spoken words; that not all the sounds are the same.

What are Phonemes?

The distinctive sounds in words are called phonemes. Take ‘text’ and ‘test’ as an example. These words are identical except for their third letters: ‘x’ and ‘s.’ The sounds these letters represent enable us to differentiate between the two words. These particular words have four phonemes:  three identical and one unique. By changing just one letter in a word, and thus inserting a new phoneme, a different word is formed.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic or phoneme awareness is a more specific language-sound consciousness inside the larger skill of phonological awareness. Phoneme awareness encompasses the ability to perceive the smaller sound segments of spoken words, and to be aware of the differences between these phonemes, which can be manipulated and substituted to form different words.

It is an acute language awareness that enables you to perceive that words such as “text” and “test“ consist of four discrete language sounds : /t/, /e/, /ks/ or /s/, and /t/, and identify that the third phoneme is the differentiating sound.

Letter sounds play a large role in language development. Image by JR3

Knowing that the letter ‘t’ stands for the sound /t/ does not equate to having phonemic awareness. You must also be able to identify that “test” starts with a /t/ sound, that this /t/ is identical to that sound found at the beginning of ‘text,’ and that this particular sound or phoneme also appears at the end of both of these words.

Phonemic Awareness is Vital

Phonemic awareness is essential for reading acquisition: Image by hvaldez1

Decades of research highlight the importance of phonemic awareness in reading acquisition, and reading failure has been associated with poor phonemic awareness. Schools tend to teach phonemic awareness explicitly, since children have to develop and understand phonemic awareness in order to acquire reading and writing skills.

Understanding Phonology

Spoken language may seem like streams of uninterrupted speech, yet it can be broken down into individual language sounds or phonemes. If a person’s phonological perception and awareness are functioning normally, and they have mastered phonemic awareness, they will be able to accurately perceive the component sounds of a language and distinguish each sound’s unique phonological differences. Subsequently, proficient  reading skills should be acquired with the proper instruction and a reasonable amount of effort.

Additional Reading

Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. An Introduction to Language. (1993). Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.

University of Oregon. Phonemic Awareness. (2011). Accessed December 7, 2011.

Kuhle, J. Word Boxes to Increase Phonemic Awareness: A Case Study. (2011). Accessed December 7, 2011.

© Copyright 2011 Lesley Lanir, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science