Introduction | Rhyme & Alliteration | Words & Syllables | Onset-rime and Phoneme

Reading First: Phonemic Awareness Assessment

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What is phonemic awareness and why is it important?
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words. In order for children to learn to read in an alphabetic written language system, they must be aware of how the sounds in words work. They must understand that words are made up of individual speech sounds (i.e., phonemes). Phonemic awareness involves segmenting (dividing spoken words into individual sounds), blending (putting sounds together to form a word), and manipulating (adding, deleting, or substituting sounds in words).

photoAchieving phonemic awareness is not easy for many children. It has been reported that without direct instructional support, roughly 25% of middle-class children--and substantially more children from less economically advantaged homes - fail to develop this crucial understanding. However, research clearly shows that phonemic awareness can be developed through instruction, and that doing so significantly accelerates students' reading and spelling development.

Although "phonemic awareness" is a widely used term, it is often misunderstood. Many people confuse phonemic awareness with phonics. Phonemic awareness is the understanding of how the individual sounds in spoken words work together. Phonics, on the other hand, is the understanding of the relationship between sounds and written symbols. While phonemic awareness may be purely oral, phonics is always associated with print. For children to benefit from phonics instruction, they must be able to pay attention to speech sounds. Children who cannot attend to the phonemes in spoken words will have a difficult time learning how they relate to the letters in written words.

Another common misunderstanding about phonemic awareness is that it is synonymous with phonological awareness. These two terms are not interchangeable. Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness, which refers to the more general understanding of the sound structure of language. Phonological awareness encompasses more general aspects of sound, such as rhyming and alliteration. It also includes identifying and manipulating larger parts of spoken language: words, syllables, onsets, and rimes. The onset is the initial consonant, consonant blend, or digraph in a one-syllable word (e.g., the b- in bat, the sw- in swim, or the ch- in chop). The rime is the vowel and what follows it in a one-syllable word (e.g., the -at in bat, the -im in swim, or the -op in chop).

pyramid While achieving phonemic awareness is the ultimate goal of phonological awareness instruction, the starting point for instruction will begin with the needs of your children. Specific needs may fall anywhere along the phonological continuum: developing rhyming and alliteration abilities, word and syllable awareness, onset-rime awareness, or phonemic awareness. For this reason, regular assessment in phonological awareness, together with instruction based on these assessment results, are critical elements of effective early literacy instruction.

How do I assess phonological awareness? How do I monitor progress?
At the beginning, middle, and end of the year, you measure several levels of students' phonological awareness through various tasks on PALS. On PALS-K, these include the rhyming subtest and the beginning sound picture sort. The concept of word task assesses a child's level of word awareness using print, and the spelling task requires children to segment words orally and match the sounds to their written symbols. Both of these tasks, therefore, measure sound awareness as well as print awareness.

PALS 1-3, like PALS- K, also includes a spelling inventory that provides specific information about your students' phonemic awareness and phonics skills. There are also two additional phonemic awareness tasks - blending and sound-to-letter matching--for first graders who do not meet the Entry Level and Level B (Alphabetics) benchmarks, and for second or third graders who read fewer than 15 preprimer words and do not meet the Level B benchmark. The blending task requires students to orally blend two, three, and four phoneme words. The sound-to-letter subtest requires students to isolate the beginning, ending, or middle sound of a word while providing the corresponding letter, sound, or another word with the same sound.

In addition to beginning, middle, and end of year testing, it is important to monitor students' progress by assessing phonological awareness on a regular but informal basis. Such assessments are especially crucial for students who are having difficulty learning to read. Which areas of phonological awareness are the most important to assess? The answer depends on the child's stage of literacy development. The chart below provides an overview of the three basic stages of reading development and lists the areas of phonological awareness that are most pertinent for assessment and instruction in each stage. Informal assessments in these focus areas will help you determine if your students are making progress and will allow you to plan effective, assessment-based instruction at an appropriate level of difficulty.

Stage of Literacy Development

Characteristics of This Stage

Phonological Focus Areas


  • Has incomplete alphabet knowledge
  • Lacks voice to print match (concept of word)
  • Spellings bear no sound-symbol correspondence (late in this stage, may represent salient or beginning sounds)
  • Instructed in Readiness-PP1 text, nursery rhymes
  • Rhyme
  • Beginning
  • Word
  • Syllable


  • Accurately tracks print
  • Uses letter-sound knowledge to decode words
  • Is developing a sight vocabulary
  • Consistently uses beginning and ending sounds when spelling words; learning medial vowels, digraphs, and/or digraphs
  • Instructed in PP-Primer text
Blending, segmenting and manipulating:
  • Onset-rimes
  • Individual

Early Instructional

  • Has large sight vocabulary
  • Is learning to read more fluently and expressively
  • Focus of instruction shifts from decoding to comprehension
  • Spells words with short vowels, blends, and digraphs correctly; learning long vowel and - r control vowel patterns
  • Instructed in First to Second Grade text
  • No need to assess

photoFor emergent readers - those children learning the alphabet and developing a concept of word - you want to assess the broad areas of phonological awareness: rhyme, beginning sounds, word awareness, and syllable awareness. Categorization tasks like those on PALS (e.g., "odd man out" or sorting) can be used to assess a child’s ability to detect rhyme and to identify similar beginning sounds in words. When observing children doing these tasks, it is helpful to note the automaticity and ease of the child’s response in addition to the answer s/he provides. Notes like these can help you determine whether a child is solid in a particular area of phonological awareness or if additional practice is needed.

photoOne of the best ways to assess word awareness is by examining a child's concept of word in print. Because concept of word is such an important milestone in learning to read, you will want to closely monitor the progress of your emergent readers in this area. You can do this informally during your regular small group instruction by observing your students' attempts to track a familiar rhyme. Darrell Morris, in his seminal article about concept of word, describes an easy way for teachers to prepare for and conduct this assessment. First select a four-line rhyme that the students know orally but have not practiced tracking, matching words, or reconstructing. Next choose 6-8 sample words from the rhyme for the students to identify. Be sure to include the first and last words as well as some words within the lines, and a mixture of one- and two-syllable words. While the other students in the group are engaged in a task, ask one child at a time to track the rhyme you've selected. After s/he has tracked all four lines, point to one of the words you've selected and ask the child, "What's this word?" For a sample chart that you can use to plan a group assessment, record information, and document student progress, please click here.

Remember that qualitative notes about your students' tracking can be extremely helpful in determining the progress they are making. For example, did the student point left to right but run his finger quickly underneath the words, or did the student point to individual words but get off track when s/he came to a multi-syllable word? Although both students may not yet have a concept of word, one is much closer to it than the other. Similarly, observing your students' attempts at identifying words within the line can yield valuable information. Did s/he know the word automatically? If not, what strategies (e.g., using the initial sound; rereading the line) did s/he use to try to identify it? For a list of guiding questions that you can use in analyzing your assessment results for concept of word, please click here.

Word awareness and syllable awareness develop together in emergent readers. In order for a child to have a firm concept of word (i.e., track accurately and automatically identify several words within the rhyme), s/he must understand that some words have more than one syllable in them. Careful examination of a child's tracking behavior can provide information about his or her syllable awareness as well as word awareness. A child who accurately tracks texts with one-syllable words but gets off track when faced with a multi-syllable word, needs additional practice working with syllables orally. Another way to quickly assess a student's syllable awareness is to ask the child to clap the syllables in sample picture cards that have one-, two-, and three-syllables.

photoOnce children have a firm concept of word, they are considered beginning readers. Beginning readers are learning to use their letter-sound knowledge to decode and spell words and to build a sight vocabulary. With these students, you want to assess the narrower areas of phonological awareness - onset-rime and phoneme awareness. In particular, you want to examine your students’ abilities to blend and segment the sounds in words, since these are the most relevant for reading and writing. Although you can assess onset-rime and phonemic awareness orally, at this level, the true test is whether or not students apply these skills when faced with print. Because phonemic awareness and phonics should be integrated during instruction for beginning readers, it makes sense to use assessments that require students to blend and segment using print.

You can assess a child's decoding progress by taking a running record and analyzing errors. The procedure for this is described in the assessment section of our Phonics Guide. It is also important to observe your beginning readers as they read decodable words, such as the ones they are practicing spelling. Do they recognize these words automatically? If not, are they able to blend the sounds together to read the word correctly? Do they quickly associate letters and sounds, or are there long pauses? Which sounds in particular give them trouble?

Spelling tasks are an ideal way to assess a student's ability to segment the sounds in words. While giving a spelling test at the end of the week, you might include a couple of new words that have the same sound or pattern as the spelling words but were not on the students' assigned lists. Children's spellings of these "transfer" words can be especially helpful in determining whether they can apply the sounds and patterns they are learning to new words, or whether they have simply memorized the spellings of their assigned words. Looking at your students' misspellings, and not just their scores on the test, will reveal which features they have mastered and which ones need additional practice. Guiding questions such as those found in the assessment section of our phonics guide can be used to analyze the results of these informal spell checks as well as longer spelling inventories such as PALS. Please click here to see these questions.

For instructional readers - those children who already possess a large sight vocabulary, and are focusing on fluency and comprehension - there is no need to assess phonological awareness. We know that they are able to blend and segment at the phoneme level, or they would not have gotten here!

Pictorial Case Study: Phonemic Awareness

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

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