The Combination of Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Instruction

  • 29 October, 2008

Blast from the Past: This entry posted on October 29, 2008 and was revisited on August 20, 2022. When originally issued, educators were concerned about properly adhering to the intent of various federal and state documents – which raised questions about whether phonemic awareness and phonics were to be separated. By 2022, these concerns were being raised by researchers and theorists about the proper role that letters should play in phonemic awareness instruction. This blog explains the value of combining PA and phonics instruction. The point of phonemic awareness teaching is to help students to perceive the individual language sounds within words; without which developing a proper grasp of decoding would be impossible. However, PA does not simply precede decoding as that description seems to imply. Efforts to connect letters and sounds helps many children to understand and gain facility with phonemic awareness. It can help at times to keep letters out of the process so that students can fully focus on phonemes (without visual cues), and at others it is beneficial to use letters in PA teaching. PA and phonics instruction should concur, overlap, and synchronize.

Recently, I received a note from a teacher agitated about her state school board. It seems the board wanted to reject the purchase of an instructional program because it didn’t teach phonemic awareness separately from phonics. The committee of teachers who had selected the program were upset; the vendor was upset. Because of my work on the National Reading Panel, I was being asked to weigh in on the criterion the state was using.

I wanted to know what had led the state board to conclude that phonics and phonemic awareness should be taught separately. I found out that it was because these skills had been listed separately in the state standards.

This reminded me of the Congressional aide who very patiently explained to me that, “Of course, the National Reading Panel was saying that you had to teach phonemic awareness before you could teach phonics, and you had to teach phonics before you could teach fluency, and you had to teach fluency before you could get to reading comprehension.” I wondered where this insight into the National Reading Panel work had come from. He explained that was the order that the topics had been presented. He inferred that ordering of topics was meant to imply a sequence of instruction; something that dumbfounded me since the panelists had never discussed such a sequence and the research reviews never contemplated it.

To respond specifically to the question about the specific sequencing of phonemic awareness and phonics:

The National Reading Panel conducted two separate research reviews on the teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics for the U.S. government. To ensure that both components received adequate instructional attention, we reviewed studies in which phonemic awareness OR phonics were taught – ignoring studies that combined their instruction. If a study evaluated their combined teaching, we didn’t include it in our review.

We found that instruction in each provided a learning benefit to children. Phonemic awareness instruction was beneficial and phonics instruction was also beneficial. We did not conclude that such instruction should necessarily be separated… in fact, Dr. Linnea Ehri who led these particular reviews strongly believes the benefits of these two areas of teaching to be reciprocal… the teaching of PA enhances the decoding skills taught in phonics, and the phonics instruction helps students to develop the phonemic sensitivity children need to gain.

It would be erroneous to conclude that these skills need be taught separately.

In fact, the Panel noted that phonemic awareness programs that included letters (the connection of sounds and letters being the beginnings of phonics) did better than those programs that did not include letters.

A new report to be released soon from the National Early Literacy Panel has examined the research on teaching literacy to preschoolers and kindergartners, has not separated the effects. It has examined studies of combined phonological awareness and phonics and found them to be good things to teach, either separately or combined (much as did the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth in its review).

State or district learning standards usually specify the skills that are to be accomplished, without any regard to how they should be taught. There is nothing in the California state learning standards that would argue for separating phonemic awareness from phonics – just that both phonemic awareness and decoding ability were to be achieved. An instructional program aimed at both sets of skills fits the bill.

Awhile back I received a similar concern. This one concerned that a combined phonemic awareness/phonics program was teaching those skills appropriately. This program developed phonemic awareness for each phoneme, following up that instruction immediately with letter recognition, letter naming, letter sounding, and letter writing instruction. The teacher who contacted me thought that students should receive several months of PA instruction, followed by 2-3 years of decoding. Her plan might be acceptable, but like Linnea Ehri, I suspect it would be better to move back and forth between PA and phonics. Personally, I kind of liked the idea of focusing so thoroughly on each phonemic element rather than trying to accomplish all PA and then all decoding (especially if there is some ongoing review – so that phonemes and letter-sound relations are revisited frequently).

Federal research reviews and state learning standards have been valuable. I’m just concerned about the inferences some educators and policymakers have drawn from them. Good readers not only draw inferences, they are aware of their inferences and recognized where they came from.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Paula Ford Aug 20, 2022 05:05 PM

What is your opinion on Heggerty - one of the most popular and widely used Phonemic Awareness programs that is often used in conjunction with a phonics program? Would using both programs be like you say going back and forth between phonics and phonemic awareness? Or, do you think programs, such as Heggerty, should be including letters in their phonemic awareness lessons?

Maura Kennedy Aug 20, 2022 05:50 PM

In our district, the decision had been made to only look at LNF and PA for tier 2 and 3 intervention at the K level. Wouldn’t it make more sense to look at CLS and PA?

Kelly Aug 20, 2022 05:54 PM

I am also interested in Paula’s question. I have the same question.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 20, 2022 06:04 PM

Sorry Paula (and Kelly)... I don't comment on specific commercial programs. '


Timothy Shanahan Aug 20, 2022 06:17 PM


No, your district has made a good choice. Adding Letter Name knowledge to Phonemic Awareness at kindergarten tends to pick up more variation in learning that Letter Sound Knowledge and PA. That means that your district's approach will be likely to identify more kids who are actually struggling. The other approach would probably identify a larger number of kids as being in need -- but many more of those would be false positives (kids who are doing okay and who won't need Tier 2 support).

With development that pattern changes... later on, it would be better to do what you suggest.

Great question.


Paul Howard Aug 20, 2022 06:37 PM

The fundamental problem in teaching approach is that both teachers and school districts have this idea of "scope and sequence" (which is valuable) as well as teaching to "mastery" baked into their pedagogy. In consulting, I have heard pre-K through early elementary educators concerned even more broadly that their students have not mastered phonological tasks such as rhyme awareness or onset/rime awareness. They have stalled out before even addressing phonemic awareness because they view the overarching phonological skills as sequential rather than intertwined (i.e. "How can I teach phonemes if my students cannot master rhyme?"). Language acquisition and the development of phonemic awareness and word recognition (decoding) and spelling ability is not neat and clean. While awareness of the challenges and scope of difficulty in developing phonemic awareness and decoding/spelling skills should inform the progression of skills, phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and the other language comprehension areas in the other strand of the reading rope should be intertwined just as the Scarborough rope illustrates. Moreover, the interconnectivity corresponds to the processing centers in the Reading Brain which work in a web of supportive functions that strengthen each other and build deep word knowledge. If you look at the Seidenberg-McClelland model, Phonological, Orthographic, and Semantic regions in the brain interact. Phonics occurs at the intersection of speech and sound. Teaching Phonemic Awareness absent Orthographic Awareness treats the regions of the brain like islands without established trade routes. The developing reader needs to build those neural pathways and redundancies of support in order to achieve the automaticity with word recognition necessary to approach reading comprehension. Phonemes are, as Seidenberg says, a useful abstraction. They are more difficult to conceptualize absent connection to alphabetic letters and the graphemes that are taught through phonics and spelling instruction. Phonemes can be heard, felt, and described through linguistic (oral-motor) training, but spelling instruction grounds them in the concrete realm of the written word. Phoneme manipulation is a vital skill that assists word recognition, but pure phonemes do not exist in spoken words (just as a musical note within a chord is influenced by the notes around it and sounds different from an isolated note). Skilled readers can usually work backwards and conceptualize phonemes to teach them to unskilled readers. However, the spelling convention of a word like "can" helps to ground the notion of the phonemes within the word. Allophonic variations in words like "can" would be hard to abstract as phonemes without the "c - a - n" (CVC) spelling convention. There is a certain reciprocal value in the connection between sound awareness and print awareness, just as there is in oral/written receptive and expressive language. What is the conclusion? A "logical" sequence of instruction on paper (or legislation) does not always match the developmental and NEURO-logical progression of the reading brain. Reading instruction is more of a complex flowchart than a neat bulleted checklist.

credit to:
and others -- doing their best to connect the Science of Reading to the Institutions of Learning.

Sheila Keller Aug 20, 2022 07:02 PM

I have seen value in teaching some isolated PA to all kindergarteners, but not to the exclusion at other times of the day of teaching PA and phonics in a coordinated instructional sequence. I was curious, is it fruitful to continue teaching isolated PA, completely unrelated to our phonics work to some or all older students?

Timothy Shanahan Aug 20, 2022 07:20 PM


I don't think I would focus on "unrelated" PA... that is just trying to teach phonemic awareness as a general ability. However, I have no problem with lessons on PA that only focus on PA without letters or sound-letter connections. One of the benefits of that approach is that it does not allow students to use what they know about sound-letter relations as a help to perceiving the phonemes. Thus, you very well might focus on students' ability to perceive particular sounds... and then, sometime after, focus on matching those sounds with letters.


Carolyn McFeely Aug 20, 2022 07:33 PM

2 follow-on questions if I may?

1) how soon after entry to primary education would you recommend beginning a PA/phonics programme?

2) more of a clarification really…no matter the phonics skill that is being taught, the PA element should be included (even if the children are already ‘expert’ in rhyme awareness for example) & feature the phonics skill being targeted?

Thank you in advance, Carolyn

Tim Daugherty Aug 20, 2022 08:47 PM

Our elementary school is in the process of developing a k-2 quality reading instruction. Our school data shows that only about 41% of our k-5 students are proficient and on grade level in reading. The majority of on level students are the same from we feel our current tier 1 instruction/interventions is not helping below level or struggling readers get the skills they need. Any suggestions to help us ensure each child is given what they need to become successful readers.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 20, 2022 10:21 PM


I recently published an article on that in Reading Research Quarterly. I'll send you a copy.


Phyllis M. Hakeem Aug 20, 2022 11:17 PM

Let's not mix the terms here. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear a spoken word and to isolate, identify, add, delete, substitute, and even transpose the individual speech sounds. Phonics is the ability to map speech sounds to signifiers of those speech sounds which we term graphemes. Those graphemes may be a letter or letter combination in an alphabetic orthography. Let's make sure that we are not encouraging going back to the days of a "The letter for this week "says"! Letter's do not "say" - people do! For some students secure phonemic awareness is the challenge and in reality teaching it with fun integrated activities for 12 to 15 minutes a day in PreK and K along with phonics would be great! Let's not forget the phonological hierarchy so that we don't jump to the most difficult skill first. Let's have those toddlers repeat a sentence that has been dictated, note word boundaries heard in a sentence, note incorrect syntax heard "I go will" - no - "I will go." The phonological sensitivity moves to sense of syllables heard in spoken words and the level of onset-rime. Finally we have arrived at the top of the phonological mountain with phonemes and phonemic awareness. Proficiency here secures the mapping of speech to print in phonics that has to be taught with phonemes. However, if the students do not know the place and manner of articulation of those speech sounds (phonetics) they will have grave consequences later on in reading to automaticity and encoding (spelling). I have seen many fifth graders spell tree - chree which could have been remediated back in K with an informed teacher giving a child a mirror, a quick look at the sound wall, and feeling the teeth behind the alveolar ridge differently. Twelve to 15 minutes of focused study alongside of phonics, yes!

Mav Aug 21, 2022 06:59 AM

I really feel that this shift back to phonics is wonderful, but we need an expert to give recommendations. School systems are picking programs that seem to have a phonetic component but they are very cumbersome and hard to implement. Help

A different Kelly Aug 21, 2022 05:19 PM

How do I reconcile these two statements? They seem to contradict?

On the one hand you state: "We reviewed studies in which phonemic awareness OR phonics were taught – ignoring studies that combined their instruction. If a study evaluated their combined teaching, we didn’t include it in our review."

and then...

"...the Panel noted that phonemic awareness programs that included letters (the connection of sounds and letters being the beginnings of phonics) did better than those programs that did not include letters."

How pure were the phonemic awareness programs studied vs those that introduced letters either simultaneously or eventually? What am I missing? Thanks.

Dianne Aug 21, 2022 07:44 PM

While I have been out of the elementary setting for several years now, when I taught first grade our commercially purchased program was set up perfectly. In every lesson, phonemic awareness was taught and then segued into a phonics lesson on the same letter/sound. The students made meaningful gains in reading each year. Of course, there were many times throughout the day when we played with sounds without teaching phonics such as rhyming words or using the 'Name Game' song, etc.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 21, 2022 07:47 PM


It is not contradictory at all.

There are phonemic awareness studies which do not include letters in their instruction and there are some that do include them at some point as a visual representation of what the children are hearing. A third set of studies (ones not included in NRP) include a full program of PA instruction, along with a program teaching decoding.

It is worth noting that PA instruction that includes letters obtains higher effect sizes than those that do not. Whether this superiority is due to the visual representations aiding in the perception of the sounds or whether it simply takes students closer to decoding is unknown.


Jennifer Aug 21, 2022 08:24 PM

I have been creating PA activities for the homeschooling families I work with and I didn't include letters. Then, I read the IDA report on this topic several weeks ago and paused my project. I'm wondering if I should edit the materials to include letters and not just working with the sounds of our language. Thoughts? Thx!

Timothy Shanahan Aug 21, 2022 08:41 PM


In a word, yes.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 21, 2022 08:45 PM


You are correct that you would benefit from recommendations on specific programs. However, those should not come from me. I help design some commercial programs and therefore am ethically precluded from making such recommendations. I would suggest that you look at the evaluations provided by the What Works Clearinghouse. Those analyses are based on research data.

good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 21, 2022 08:54 PM


I'll stay with research proven approaches. Of course, attention to articulation can be helpful in phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, at least with particular children or particular sounds. Nevertheless, there is no research showing that 15 minutes a day of such teaching improves students' spelling or decoding.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 21, 2022 09:26 PM


1. Research has found PA and phonics instruction to be beneficial as early as age 3 in preschool -- though most of the studies are with 5 year olds and 4 year olds. I would start that instruction the first day I was responsible for the children.
2. There is no research that I'm aware of that sorts out the relative benefits of teaching PA generally (like trying to get students to segment any and all sounds) versus developing it for each phoneme as the phoneme-grapheme relations are taught). I think you can make it work either way, though personally, even if a student had the desired PA skills, I would still check each phoneme as I was teaching phonics (just to be certain that the students could perceive the particular phoneme of interest).

Oh, and by the way, the least important phonemic awareness skill is rhyming. If your kids can't rhyme very well, it may indicate a more general problem with PA, but it is not one that I would work particularly hard on.


Dora Edith Aug 21, 2022 10:16 PM

Dear Tim,
talking about grafemes and letters Is there any research on the benefit of teaching cursive all through. Starting in KG up to primary school without change? In Argentina there's a tendency to change from small print or capital letters to cursive for writing.
what are your thoughts about using only cursive?.Thank you in advance.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 21, 2022 10:39 PM


I would initially teach manuscript hand and would start cursive later -- teaching students both to write cursive and to read it. Initially, stay with the kind of text that students are going to be trying to learn to read, and delay cursive until that has satisfactorily been accomplished.


Denise Kalscheur Aug 21, 2022 11:13 PM

What are your thoughts on phonics instruction for older students, grades 9-11 specifically? We are in the process of developing a new program to better meet the needs of these students. We will have small groups of students, 3-5, every other day for 42 minutes. What do you feel should be included in such a program?

Thank you for your time.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 22, 2022 12:20 AM


High school phonics can be essential for students who lack those skills. The teaching of phonics is no different than it is early on... it is essential that the teaching explicit and ongoing. I would suggest that you type "high school phonics" into the search box on my website and you will find some blogs that talk about this issue.


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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The Combination of Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Instruction


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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