Six Layers of Phonemic Awareness - Really Great Reading Blog



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What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic Awareness is the awareness of and ability to manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words (Kilpatrick, 2015). Phonemic awareness is a subset of the broader category of phonological awareness, which is one’s conscious awareness of and ability to “play with” the sound structures in oral language (Paulson & Moats, 2010). 

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Six Layers of Phonemic Awareness: Improve Students’ Reading Using Their Ears

Reading With Your Ears? What if we told you that you could improve your students’ ability to read unfamiliar words without showing them a single printed letter? As crazy as it sounds, it’s true! This is because one of the major skills underlying the successful decoding of printed words, phonemic awareness, is a purely auditory and oral skill. It may not be “reading with your ears” in the literal sense, but the sounds we hear and play with words are what allow us to ultimately pull the print off the page with our eyes when we decode.

Read our Blog What Is the Difference Between Phonological Awareness & Phonemic Awareness? 

What Is the Importance of Phonemic Awareness in Decoding?

Kilpatrick (2015) tells us that phonemic awareness is an essential part of the process of storing words in one’s sight word vocabulary; that is, the body of words (high-frequency or not) that an individual can decode quickly and effortlessly. “Phonemic awareness is what allows us to anchor the sounds in a word to the written sequence of letters that represent those sounds” (Kilpatrick, 2015). This process is called orthographic mapping. Studies have shown that students with better phonological awareness skills can handle this mapping process more proficiently than those with weaker phonological awareness skills (Kilpatrick, 2015). The goal of decoding is to build words into our sight word memory, and phonemic awareness allows this to happen!

Phonemic Awareness Skill - In Order of Difficulty

Why Are the Six Layers of Phonemic Awareness Essential to Learning to Read?

Adams (1994) emphasizes that while phonemic awareness is essential for learning to read, it is not easily established, and children need explicit instruction to gain the necessary skills. This makes it extremely important for teachers to understand that there are various layers of phonemic awareness and that each of these layers represents a skill that can be developed through targeted instruction and practice. These layers build from the simplest phonemic awareness skills at the bottom of the pyramid to the most complex at the top. These are skills that can be modeled, practiced, and established through oral wordplay.

The Six Layers of Phonemic Awareness: Definitions & Examples of Instruction at Each Layer

Phoneme Isolation: Hearing and isolating the individual phonemes (sounds) in spoken words represents the first layer of skilled phonemic awareness. Isolating phonemes entails knowing that a word is made up of a sequence of sounds and that the individual sounds in words can be differentiated from one another. Beginning sound isolation activities are a great way to help students develop their phoneme isolation skills. Beginning sound isolation is simply pulling the first sound off of a spoken word. Students can isolate the first sounds in words, as in /b/, bear, or /s/, soap.

Blending: Moving up the pyramid, we come to a slightly more complex phonemic awareness skill, phoneme blending. Phoneme blending, which is basically combining sounds, involves listening to and pulling together isolated phonemes to create words. This process requires a student to hold the individual elements in his/her mind as the word is created, thus challenging a student’s active working memory. When beginning readers sound out a word, they use letter-sound knowledge to say each sound in a word (/b/ /ă/ /t/), and then blend the sounds quickly together to read the word (bat).

Segmenting: The third layer in the pyramid is phoneme segmentation. This is the ability to divide a spoken word into its component sounds (phonemes). In a segmentation activity, students are given a word like mad, and then they segment it, or “stretch” the phonemes, /m/ /ă/ /d/. As they are saying the sounds, they can extend a single finger for every phoneme that they hear, starting with the thumb: /m/ (extend thumb), /ă/ (extend index finger), /d/ (extend middle finger). Lastly, they blend the phonemes together as they bring their hands back to their chests and say the word, mad.

Phonemic Awareness Skill - Six Skills - Steps
Manipulation: Truly refined phonemic awareness includes even more advanced skills, like phoneme addition, deletion, and substitution, all three of which are considered phoneme manipulation. These are the top three layers of the pyramid. Phoneme manipulation is generally more challenging than segmenting and blending phonemes. Manipulation requires students to hold phonemes in their working memories long enough to isolate specific phonemes, add, delete, or substitute (delete and then add) specific phonemes, and then blend the phonemes back together to form a new word. These types of activities are an excellent way to build refined phonemic awareness, particularly for students who may have already mastered phoneme segmentation and blending.

Phoneme Addition: Phoneme addition involves adding phonemes to a given word to produce a new word. For instance, starting with the word we and adding the phoneme /k/ to the end turns it into week. Phoneme addition can be done with more complex words as well; starting with the word bell and adding the phoneme /t/ at the end turns it into belt.

Phoneme Deletion: Conversely, starting with the word guide and deleting the final phoneme, /d/, creates the new word, guy. A more complex example of phoneme deletion might include removing one phoneme from a two-sound blend. Starting with the word blast and deleting the initial phoneme, /b/, results in the new word, last.

Phoneme Substitution: Phoneme substitution, the most advanced of all the manipulation skills on our pyramid, requires that a student knows how to both delete and add phonemes. In a phoneme substitution exercise, a student might be asked to drop the short i sound in kit and replace it with the long i sound. When they do, kit becomes kite. This is done through a few intricate steps that are performed automatically and without conscious thought for strong, fluent readers. These steps include recognizing the component parts of the known word (segmenting the word into its phonemes), isolating a specific phoneme, deleting that phoneme, adding the new phoneme, and blending the phonemes together to say the new word. Did you notice that these steps include every one of the lower five layers of the pyramid? That’s right —phoneme substitution, our top layer, encompasses every single layer of the phonemic awareness pyramid. If even one of these lower skills is weak, students will struggle to substitute phonemes.

The Importance of Phoneme Substitution

Phonemic Awareness Skill - Substitution      Phonemic Awareness Skill - Substitution

Teachers are often comfortable with and therefore put the instructional focus on the phonemic awareness skills toward the bottom of the pyramid, particularly phoneme blending and phoneme segmentation. Although these skills are undoubtedly important in helping students as they are learning to decode, it is actually the top of the pyramid, with the more complex phonemic skills, that is often left out of classroom instruction and, where we need to pay the most attention, particularly as students move beyond the primary classroom. Kilpatrick (2015) tells us that research suggests that “phonological manipulation tasks are the best measures of the phonological awareness, skills needed for reading because they are the best predictors of word-level reading proficiency” (page 155) because phoneme manipulation (adding, deleting, and substituting) is actually the layer of phonemic awareness that is the most closely related to reading connected text (Kilpatrick, 2015).

Phoneme substitution is the critical breakthrough skill a child needs to teach themselves how to read new words. As illustrated in the images above, if a student encounters a new unfamiliar word, like moth, they can use their knowledge of a word that they already know (like math) to teach themselves how to read this novel word. Remember that manipulation activities require students to hold phonemes in their working memory long enough to isolate specific phonemes, add, delete, or change specific phonemes, and then blend the phonemes back together to form a new word. Kilpatrick (2015) states that “training in phonemic manipulation has a substantial long-term impact on reading.”

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Fun Strategies to Use
Sneak some advanced phoneme manipulation practice into the school day!

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From Literacy Experts 

“Reading problems can be prevented if all students are trained in letter-sound skills and phonological awareness, starting in kindergarten.”

- Kilpatrick (2016)

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Student Success Stories
When I first learned about phoneme manipulation, I thought there is no way that my kindergarten students will be able to do that this year. I was AMAZED at how quickly my students caught on and they had so much fun doing it. They're more prepared for 1st grade than any other class I've ever promoted, and I have DIBELS data to prove it!
-Jenna K, Teacher, New York

Word of the Week - Really Great Reading Blog

Teacher Resources
Download our complimentary Phonological Awareness Survey. 

This survey enables one-on-one assessment of phonological and phonemic awareness skills that are essential underpinnings of accurate and automatic decoding. 


Word of the Week - Really Great Reading Blog

Discover Reading at the Word Level

Click here to link to a word chaining activity we call Word Math>> Add word chaining activities to your day and help students practice their advanced phonemic awareness skills. Use deletion, addition and substitution to chain these words: 

strap → trap → rap → rash → ash → lash → latch → batch → botch → blotch 

This activity can be done as a pure phonemic awareness exercise without showing students any letters. However, in our word chaining activity we illustrate that these advanced phoneme manipulation skills can also be used with letter tiles to help students encode and decode complex single-syllable words with digraphs, 2-sound blends, and 3-sound blends.

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Contact us anytime. Our mission is to provide educators with the most efficient and effective tools for teaching phonemic awareness, phonics concepts, word attack skills, accurate reading and fluency. Student outcomes are our number one goal. No one knows their students better than educators. Therefore your thoughts, strategies, student successes and feedback are held in high esteem! 


Adams, Marilyn J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fletcher, J., Lyon, G. R., Fuchs, L., & Barnes, M. A. (2007). Learning disabilities: From identification to intervention. New York: Guilford Press.

Henry, Marcia K. (2010). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding & spelling instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step-by-step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Syracuse: Casey & Kirsch.

Paulson, L. H., & Moats, L. C. (2010). LETRS for early childhood educators. Longmont, CO: Cambrium Learning Sopris West.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can't, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

Tolman, C. (2018, July 27). The Tolman hourglass figure: Phonological awareness [Video file]. Retrieved from

Trehearne, M. (2003). Comprehensive literacy resource for Kindergarten teachers. ERA Cuisenaire.

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