Do You Make These 3 Mistakes Teaching Phonemic Awareness?

You know that nagging voice inside your head? The one that says that you’re missing something BIG?

“What’s wrong with my teaching?” it says. “Why can’t my students do something as simple as blending together three sounds?”

The little worries keep piling up. Most of your students are doing fine. But that little voice reminds you that things are not working for all of your students.

“Well, those students aren’t trying as hard. They’re just distracted,” you say.

“What if it has nothing to do with your students?” the voice replies.

What if it really is you? What if that little voice is telling the truth?

We’ve all been there, and THAT’S the truth.

I know I have.

Maybe the voice is right sometimes. Sure, that’s an uncomfortable feeling. But it’s the reason you’re a great teacher. Best of all, that uncomfortable feeling is the reason you’ll be an even better teacher tomorrow.

I have to confess something:

I didn’t even know what phonemic awareness was when I first started teaching kids how to read. And I teach kids with learning disabilities! It makes me cringe.

If this is you, don’t panic. I’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick primer about the basics of phonemic awareness, and it will take you fewer than 3 minutes to watch. If you don’t know why phonemic awareness is the most crucial building block of reading instruction, this video is for you:

Back to cringe-inducing teaching. Rewind 7 years. I’m fresh out of undergrad, all my jeans are boot-cut, and I have no idea what phonemic awareness is.

I do, however, have the sense that there are some big, fat holes in my instructional model.

This hunch leads me to download recommendations from the National Reading Panel and eventually go on to graduate school and an educational therapy program.

Phonemic awareness was the linchpin. Once I understood and applied the basics of phonemic awareness instruction, all of my students’ literacy skills improved tenfold.

The Basics of Phonemic Awareness Every Teacher Should Know

Phonemic awareness is critical. As literacy torchbearer, Dr. Louisa Moats, writes:

Phonological processing ability, the ability to identify, manipulate, and remember strings of speech sounds, accounts for much of the difference between older good readers and poor readers, and between novices who will learn to read easily and those that will struggle.

In order to read new words, a child must pair the letters on the page with the sounds they represent. This is called phonics. Then students must string these individual sounds together into a single word. Enter phonemic awareness. To spell, a child must be able to take a whole word and unpack the individual sounds within the word.

We also know that deficits in phonemic awareness have long-term consequences. For example, first graders with weak phonological awareness read (on average) three grade levels below their peers by the time they reach 5th grade (Torgesen, Wagner, and Rashotte, 1994).

Some college-level programs don’t cover phonemic awareness, or they breeze past this crucial subject. Phonemic awareness is key. And yet, without good teacher training and materials, mistakes happen.

Here a few of the embarrassing mistakes I’ve made. Please be sure you’re not doing any of these things:

MISTAKE #1: Teach phonics by itself.

Don’t get me wrong. Kids need phonics. But phonics instruction by itself isn’t enough.
Phonics teaches the relationship between sounds and letters. In contrast, phonemic awareness helps students understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds. Using phonemic awareness, you can identify that the beginning sound of the words “new” and “knee” is the same.

SOLUTION: Teach phonemic awareness and phonics together.

Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are like vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce in a hot fudge sundae.

Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are like vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce in a hot fudge sundae. You need both.

Kids need strong phonemic awareness instruction first and then phonics. That’s why experts agree: Phonemic awareness needs to be a focus in every kindergarten and first grade class (NICHD, 2000).

Still confused about the difference? Try this simple exercise. Spell the word “fish.” I know, I know, you can spell that word with your eyes closed and toes crossed. Slow down for a moment and think about the complexity of the task.

  • FIRST you tap into phonemic awareness. You stretch out the sounds you hear in the word. (The fancy-pants word for stretching out sounds is segmenting.) You hear three sounds: /f/ /i/ /sh/.
  • THEN you use phonics. You can easily record the sound /f/ with the letter “f,” /i/ with the letter “i” and /sh/ with the letters “sh.”

MISTAKE #2: Exhaust working memory.

The kids who benefit most from phonemic awareness instruction are usually the kids with limited working memories. You know, the students that make “careless” errors, poop out, and distract themselves. News flash! You can’t do much to increase working memory capacity. You can, however, decrease the cognitive load so that working memory isn’t so taxed.

SOLUTION: Decrease the cognitive load.

Consider using vocabulary from the students’ everyday life. Unless you grew up in Tibet, dog is a more familiar word than yak. I find that students tend to do better with nouns and verbs than adjectives.

You can also try providing visual supports and manipulatives. I’ve had great success using blending boards with my students. If you’re not sure what a blending board board is, this video may help:

I created these blending boards to help students keep track of phonemes in CVC activities. For some impacted students, it’s nearly impossible to remember three sounds at once. The blending board helps them remember that the individual sounds they heard.


If the student is still struggling, you can also use letter tiles or write directly onto the blending boards.

MISTAKE #3: Mispronounce the sounds.

Students are perceptive. If we mispronounce phonemes, our students will too.

It’s tough to teach these sounds if you learned to read during “whole language era.” I’m a founding member of the “I Didn’t Learn Vowel Sounds Until My Twenties Club.” Someone want to start a Facebook group?

So how do you learn to say your phonemes correctly?

SOLUTION: Clear vowels and crisp consonants.

  • Clear vowel sounds. Check out a few YouTube articulation videos. The most common mistake I hear is mispronouncing the short “e” sound.

  • Crisp consonant sounds. Consonant sounds should happen as quicky as possible. For example, try to say say /p/ instead of /pu/. Otherwise students will read a word like “pat” as /p/ /u/ /a/ /t/.

So, are YOU teaching your best?

There’s that niggling voice again.

I once had a business coach who told me, “If you’re worried about being pushy, you probably aren’t.”

So I’ll say this, “If you’re worried about teaching badly, you’re probably not.”

BUT, when that voice pops up, don’t forget to take action. That’s the voice that keeps us hungry for new knowledge. It’s motivating us to be better teachers.

Can you think of a time when you had an “Ah-ha!” moment with your teaching? Maybe you realized you were teaching something incorrectly or maybe you discovered new pedagogy that changed how you teach?

Let us know in the comments.




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: Government Printing Office.

Moats, Louisa Cook. (2010). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers, Second Edition. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Torgesen, J., Wagner, R., & Rashotte, C. (1994). Longitudinal studies of phonological processing and reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 276–286.

7 Replies to “Do You Make These 3 Mistakes Teaching Phonemic Awareness?”

  1. Love it Anne-Marie! I am with you–totally unaware of how I was adding that schwa sound until I started teaching my own boys to read. It really does get in the way of blending!

    Also–love the boot cut reference…pretty sure I am still attached to that cut!

    1. Adrianne, thanks so much for sharing your own experience. We were both making the same mistake. True confession — I still prefer boot cut 🙂

  2. In terms of working memory, which most of my students have deficits in, what is your opinion on the Lindamood Bell phoneme sequencing program and the task of “tracking” sounds?


    1. That’s a great question. Working memory and phonemic awareness challenges so often go hand-in-hand. There’s a lot I like about the LIPS program, but it’s also not a program I use a lot. I think the blocks and felts can be a very helpful manipulative for students. I know I have to be careful to not spend too much time on identifying and classifying speech sounds. I think tracking is one of the more valuable exercises in LIPS and great for kids who really need help with segmenting. That being said, I also don’t spend too much time having kids manipulate sounds within words, since the research shows that segmenting/blending are priority skills to focus on.

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