Phonics vs Phonological Awareness: A Guide Informed by the Science of Reading

by Andy Minshew


School and Classroom Strategies Informed by the Science of Reading

Find upcoming and on-demand video series led by early education experts through the Webinar Library, featuring topics chosen with administrators in mind, like:

  • Impactful Family Engagement Made Easy
  • Understanding the Six Instructional Strands for Literacy
  • Professional Learning: Teaching the Science of Reading

Among the six key skills needed for literacy development, two are commonly used interchangeably: phonics and phonological awareness. While their names sound similar, they are distinct, and knowing the difference between the two is essential for teachers and administrators who seek to teach using the science of reading.

Read on to discover the difference between phonics and phonological awareness, as well as how they’re connected. Plus, find school and classroom resources for teaching both skills to early elementary learners.

Phonological Awareness and Phonics: Key Differences

a teacher helping a student with homeworkUnderstanding how sounds and letters work together is important when it comes to literacy development. Knowing the difference between phonological awareness vs phonics can help you guide your students with the science of reading as they gain these skills.

Phonological awareness is a big picture view of how sounds fit together in words. It’s about recognizing and working with different parts of sounds, like syllables, or the beginnings and endings of words.

Phonics involves connecting those same sounds students have been playing with while developing phonological awareness skills to the corresponding letters on a page. Phonics helps students learn how to read and write by showing which letters make which sounds, and how to put those sounds together to form words.

While phonological awareness helps young learners grasp these basic sounds, phonics takes it to the next level by showing how sounds match up with letters. Both of these skills are key to becoming strong readers and spellers, and they work together to give students the tools they need to succeed.

Strategies for Teaching Phonological Awareness Skills

Listening activities are a key resource when it comes to teaching phonological awareness skills in class. Start with listening activities that focus on environmental sounds, music, or oral storytelling. Engage students in discussions about what they hear, fostering an awareness of different sounds in their surroundings.

Rhyming activities can be another fun and effective way to practice phonological awareness. Introduce words that rhyme like “cat” and “mat” or sing nursery rhymes together. This helps children recognize and manipulate the phonological structure of words, emphasizing common sound patterns.

As you sing or recite rhyming poems, teach syllable segmentation by clapping or tapping out syllables in words. Activities like breaking down compound words or identifying syllable count in spoken words enhance syllabic awareness.

Strategies for Teaching Phonics Skills in School

a teacher reading a book to her students

Unlike phonological awareness, phonics skills can be a bit less intuitive for young learners. This is because while verbal communication skills tend to develop naturally, written language skills must be taught. Provide explicit instruction on phonics concepts, clearly explaining the relationship between letters and sounds.

Pattern recognition is a core part of phonics development. Emphasize word families and patterns to help students recognize spelling and sound structures. A few good ways to do this include teaching rhyming words, sight words, and common suffixes and prefixes.

When teaching phonics, it’s important to have students read texts that match what they’ve been learning in class. This will help them to put those skills to use and develop reading comprehension skills later on. For example, when teaching a science lesson on weather, you could read a rhyming picture book about different types of clouds to build subject knowledge as well.

Phonics & Phonological Awareness Resources for Teachers

Now that you’re familiar with the difference between phonics and phonological awareness, use these classroom resources to deepen your understanding and find guided activities. Administrators, these make for a great resource to share with your educators.

Plus, you can send out family fact sheets in English and Spanish to help caregivers establish strong home learning routines and learn how to practice skills their children are learning in class.

Teacher Fact Sheet: Phonological Awareness

Teacher Fact Sheet: Phonics

Family Fact Sheet: Phonological Awareness

Family Fact Sheet: Phonics

Interested in exploring the science of reading for elementary educators in greater depth? Read more:


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