What is Phonemic Awareness (PA)?
The benefits and advantages of teaching phonemic awareness for early reading skills development is well documented. Developing phonemic awareness has been found to be highly predictive of a child’s success in learning to read.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and work with the smallest sound units in language (phonemes). It is not phonics, and it is not the same thing as phonological awareness, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.
Where phonemic awareness is very specific, dealing with only the smallest units of sound, phonological awareness is much broader and deals with larger units of sound such as syllables and onsets and rimes.
With the students I have taught, I have found that the learning to read process becomes much smoother when I first help my students to develop a strong foundation in phonemic awareness.
I think the National Reading Panel (NRP) said it best when it stated: “the findings showed that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to PA.” 
Phonemic Awareness Can Be Taught Without Print
Phonemic awareness is an oral language and auditory skill, and it could actually be taught without ever using any print or text.
This is not to suggest that phonemic awareness has no relation to print. Phonemic awareness enhances reading skills acquisition, and learning to read can also enhance phonemic awareness development.
The big advantage, however, is that children with developed phonemic awareness prior to any phonics instructions will enjoy a smoother learning experience once they begin with a phonics learning component.
Children can develop strong foundational phonemic awareness skills at very young ages. This is possible because phonemic awareness is an oral language and auditory skill. Simply through repeated daily exposure to blending and segmenting exercises, children will develop phonemic awareness.
This process is very similar to learning a new language – the more you hear it, the faster you learn it.
How to Teach Phonemic Awareness?
The key to developing phonemic awareness is ear training, and that is what we focus on.
Just as musicians train their ears to hear and identify pitches, intervals, rhythms, we can teach children to hear the smallest units of sounds in our speech.
There are various aspects of phonemic awareness that we can focus on such as phoneme isolation, phoneme substitution, phoneme addition/deletion, and segmenting and blending.
Putting everything else aside, I have found that teaching PA with blending and segmenting is the most efficient and effective, and the method I use the most is doing “stretchy blends”.
Sounds & Actions PA Game
One simple activity I always play with my younger students is called “Sounds and Actions”, where one action is paired with one sound.
The students must perform certain actions based on the sounds they hear. For example, let’s pair the /a/ sound with a spin and the /b/ sound with a clap. So if the teacher says the /a/ sound, the students should spin, and if the /b/ sound is heard, the students should clap. Pretty simple.
Start simple and simply say the /a/ or /b/ sounds by themselves. After a few times, you can then increase the difficulty by saying words containing the designated sounds. For example, if you say MAP, the child should spin, because MAP contains the /a/ sound.
At first, many younger children may not catch on to that fact, so you will need to emphasize the /a/ sound in MAP, and this can be done by simply stretching the word out:
/mmmaaaaaaaaaaap/ (With an emphasis on the /a/ sound.)
It may take several tries before most students catch on. You can pick a variety of different words to play this game, but at the beginning, it is best to pick simple 3 letter, CVC words that contain the chosen sounds.
By far the most effective method for teaching children to read is through the combination of teaching phonemic awareness along with synthetic phonics.
1. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S.