The Difference Between Phonological Awareness and Phonics


Kristen (parent) asks:

What is the difference between phonological awareness and phonics?

Dr. Marion Blank (Founder of answers:

This is an excellent question because the two terms are commonly used—often without any explanation as to their meaning. Phonics generally refers to the “sounding out” process that children are taught to use for decoding words (e.g., seeing cat, they apply a sound to each letter, thereby ending up with kuh, aaa, tuh.), Given the complexities of English, sounding out does not prove to be a smooth, easy path to reading. The vast majority of words, even simple words such as “bread, house, boat, made” cannot be figured out by applying a sound to each letter. To handle this, children are taught hundreds of rules. For example, one of the most common rules is the “silent e rule” for words that end in “e.” The “e” is silent and the vowel earlier in the word become “long” (e.g., the difference between mad and made). But even the rules have many exceptions (e.g., common words like “love, give, done” do not follow the silent e rule –despite their ending in “e.”) These problems have plagued phonics instruction since its inception, resulting in phonics being difficult and confusing for many children.

That’s where phonological awareness enters the scene.

The thinking was that phonics requires a special understanding of the sounds of words (e.g., recognizing that the single word cat is composed of three different sounds). Further, it was assumed that if children understood these key sound properties of (spoken) words, phonics would then be far simpler for them. So teaching was begun in the analysis of the sounds of spoken words. Instead of showing written words which require decoding, children are exposed to spoken words and asked to analyze them for their sound properties. This leads to activities, often begun in preschool and kindergarten, such as rhyming (e.g., “give me a word that rhymes with man,”) syllable analysis (e.g., “clap for each syllable in words like umbrella, rainbow, garden, etc.) and sound deletions (e.g., if you took away the K sound in cake, what word would you hear?”) Phonological awareness activities are now widespread. The evidence, however, does not conclusively show that these activities facilitate the later phonics skills that the children are taught to use in decoding written language.

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