Differences Between Phonological Awareness & Phonics

By Joe Ashton
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Educators focus students, starting at a young age, to learn to read and recognize sounds, letters and words. To effectively teach language, teachers and parents need to be aware of the differences of phonological awareness and phonics. While some similarities exist between the two concepts, since they both deal with the learning of a language, the differences do matter when applying them in the classroom.


Phonological awareness focuses on the series of sounds and the ability to manipulate the phonemes orally. Phonics focuses on the oral representation of a written letter or symbol.

Spoken and Visuals

Phonics is centered on the teaching of letters, or symbols, and their associated sounds. This is often done by a teacher holding up a flash card with a letter of the alphabet on it and asking the student to repeat the sound the letter makes. In phonological awareness, students never focus on the print or letters of a word. Instead it is taught through speaking and recognizing sounds used in speech. A teacher may ask students to orally break down the different sounds in a word, but not focus on what the word means.

Applied in Classroom

Since phonics is centered around sound-spelling relationships that are written, then teachers will first use visuals in the classroom to learn the sounds. Students begin by learning consonants and vowels, and then through learning letter combinations and word parts. It can be as simple as the teacher writing CAT on the board and asking the students to repeat each letter individually, C-A-T. Then the teacher will instruct what sound those letters represent orally when they are put together.

When practicing phonological awareness, the teacher will not write anything down or use flashcards. The teacher will say the word CAT and then ask the students to say the distinct sounds that make up the word, not concentrating on the spelling.


While phonological awareness and phonics are two different concepts, it's important to incorporate both when teaching students a language. It would be difficult for a student to decode written words if they did not first understand words are made up of distinct sounds. Through using both concepts a student will learn to read and spell using phonics, and manipulate and dissect the language sounds using phonological awareness.

About the Author

Joe Ashton started writing professionally in 2006. He has more than five years of experience writing and editing in broadcast, print and online journalism for a variety of companies including several television stations. Ashton holds a Bachelor of Arts in mass communication from Idaho State University.