How Teaching Advanced Phonemic Awareness Boosts Reading Fluency

by | Feb 3, 2018 | Resources, Teaching Tips | 14 comments

One of my goals for this year is to read more. Not with my kids – but for my own learning! Coincidentally, I have stacks of books around our house that have been recommended to me as a dyslexia tutor/advocate. I’m plowing through some of these now by reading a little every day. I read for 20 minutes most mornings and 20 minutes most evenings.

One book I’m reading is Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick. It isn’t the easiest of reads but it has some no-nonsense, research-based strategies for teaching reading to kids with learning differences. One thing that I was surprised to learn was that advanced phonemic awareness is critical to becoming a fluent reader.

Advanced Phonemic Awareness and Reading Fluency-Research shows that advanced phonemic awareness skills are critical to becoming a fluent reader.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Also referred to as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in words.

Why Strong Phonemic Awareness is SO Important

The importance of phonemic awareness is no surprise. It is well-known that a lack of phonemic awareness is almost always associated with reading difficulties and is one way to assess young kids for potential reading struggles. It is common to practice phonemic awareness activities with kids in their younger years. Many Orton-Gillingham-based reading programs begin with a level of phonemic awareness instruction.

What was surprising to me was that the research shows that unless kids with reading struggles attain advanced phonemic awareness skills, they will not become fluent readers. So even if your kids can segment and blend the sounds in words to read them, there are more skills they need to master. If you have older kids that aren’t reading fluently, they likely don’t have advanced phonemic awareness skills.

Levels of Phonemic Awareness

What are advanced phonemic awareness skills? Take a look at the following progression of levels of phonemic awareness skills to see what I mean:

Early phonemic awareness: These skills typically develop in preschoolers and include rhyming (e.g. cat, hat, sat, mat), alliteration (e.g. the big brown bear), being able to segment words into syllables (e.g. /car/ /pen/ /ter/), and being able to identify the first sounds in words.

Basic phonemic awareness: These skills typically develop throughout kindergarten and first grade. Basic phonemic awareness skills include phoneme blending and phoneme segmentation. These basic skills are instrumental in phonic decoding and early spelling.

  • Segmenting is breaking words into their syllables and words into their individual sounds. Segmenting can also be practiced by separating a sentence into its individual words.
  • Blending is the opposite of segmenting. Rather than separating a word into its individual sounds, it involves combining individual sounds to say a whole word.

Advanced phonemic awareness: These skills are typically developed by about third or fourth grade. Advanced phonemic awareness skills include the ability to manipulate phonemes, such as

  • Deleting phonemes (“Say ‘cat’.  Say it again without the /k/”. Correct answer ‘at’ )
  • Substituting phonemes (“Change the /m/ in mad to /s/. What is the new word? Sad.)
  • Reversing phonemes within words (Say ‘map’. Now say it backward. ‘pam.’)

Kids with dyslexia or specific language learning disabilities need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. These skills do not develop naturally as they do with traditional learners.

Why Advanced Phonemic Awareness is so Important for Reading Fluency

On the surface, you would think that the only phonemic awareness skills necessary for reading would be blending and segmentation. So why then does the research say that more advanced phonemic awareness skills are needed for fluent reading?

When reading connected text (sentences and paragraphs), the degree of phonemic awareness skill needed to instantly and effortlessly process phonemes (sounds) of unfamiliar words requires a great deal of proficiency.

When reading one word, all of the child’s working memory resources are devoted to segmenting that word. But while reading text, kids are focusing on multiple processes at the same time. First, they are identifying the letters and words and blending sounds, all while trying to remember and understand what has already been read.  The child’s attention is split between multiple processes at the same time.

A child with weak phonemic awareness is going to be using more of that limited working memory to decode resulting in less memory for comprehension and fluency. Studies have shown that becoming a fluent reader requires more advanced phonemic awareness skills. Interestingly, both the use of advanced phonemic awareness skills and those skills required for reading fluently require a great deal of working memory.

What comes first? Working memory or advanced phonemic awareness skills? We don’t know. What we do know is that phonemic awareness skills can be taught (and likely build working memory skills at the same time). Kids with dyslexia, need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. It does not develop naturally as it does with traditional learners.

How to Assess Your Child’s Level of Phonemic Awareness

Your child may have some early and basic phonemic awareness skills and be able to sound out words. If they have not reached reading fluency, defined as the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression, they may lack some of the more advanced phonemic awareness skills. Visit Literacy Resources for this free phonemic awareness assessment. This will give you an idea of which areas your child still needs practice.

How to Teach Phonemic Awareness

The good news about teaching phonemic awareness is that it can be a lot of fun! If you’re teaching the early levels of phonemic awareness read this post on teaching early phonemic awareness. You also don’t need to create your own program because there are many excellent programs already out there.

Resources for Teaching Phonemic Awareness

I dug through my reading resources and pulled out some resources to add to my daily instruction of both of my young boys who are not yet reading fluently.

Phonemic awareness resources

By far, the best resource for teaching advanced phonemic awareness skills is Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick. It is based on recent research that shows that advanced phonemic awareness skills are the most important skill struggling readers need to be working on.

It is a complete guide to everything you need to know to systematically teach phonemic awareness from early to basic to advanced.

Phonemic Awareness in Young Children is a classic phonemic awareness text that is full of a wide range of exercises for practicing phonemic awareness skills.

phonemic awareness resources

All About Reading Pre-Level 1

If you’re already familiar with the All About Reading & Spelling Programs, you’ll love their Pre-Level 1 which teaches phonemic awareness. Full of games, books, and charts, this program is easy to teach and is a good start to teaching phonemic awareness. This program is definitely designed for younger kids and is a great starting point for kids who need to learn their letter sounds as well as early and basic phonemic awareness. If you have older children who need practice with phonemic awareness, keep reading.

Phonemic Awareness resourcesLogic of English: Foundations or Essentials

Both Logic of English Foundations levels (for kids 4-7) and Essentials level (for kids 8+) incorporate a wide variety of techniques for improving both phonemic awareness as well as auditory discrimination. Note, these are  complete reading programs that include phonemic awareness exercises into their daily lessons.

phonemic awareness

Barton Reading and Spelling: Level 1

Level 1 of the Barton Reading & Spelling program is an excellent phonemic awareness program. It is perfect for older kids who still need practice with phonemic awareness because there are no illustrations. Unlike other programs, Barton Reading and Spelling level 1 includes advanced phonemic awareness practice. This is a pricey program. If the cost is prohibitive, try to find used copies on eBay, etc.

The Phonological Awareness Bundle from The Literacy Nest (via Teachers Pay Teachers) is an excellent phonemic awareness program with tons of creative, hands-on activities for teaching. It includes phoneme manipulation as well as early and basic phonemic awareness activities. For $36 you get a LOT of games and activities to practice.

phonemic awareness teach

Phonemic Awareness by Literacy Resources  An excellent open and go curriculum.nbsp;

Best Apps for Teaching Phonemic Awareness

Click on the image below to find a list of the best apps for teaching phonemic awareness.

Best Apps For Teaching Phonological Awareness

If your kids are still working towards fluency, try adding in 10-15 minutes of phonemic awareness exercises every day. According to research, this may be the missing piece of the puzzle.

How about you? Do you teach phonemic awareness to your kids?


  1. Sheryl

    I use a program called Stevenson Learning Skills with my 2 dyslexic kids. It uses visual stories and mnemonics to teach sounds which takes the work out of memorizing. It has been miraculously easy for my kids to grasp since dyslexics are visual learners anyway. It also includes grammar and other vital language skills (answering questions in complete sentences) from the same visual/mnemonic approach. The only down side is that it does require some teacher prep. It is however very informative along the way, giving you instructions for different challenges that may arise. I have been using it for 5 years and am finishing it up with a 7th grader who is now reading fluently since last year and am starting it with my 2nd grader. It normally would not take as long as we have to go through it, I have had some health issues that have slowed us down.

  2. Nancy

    Excellent article and suggested resources. I have all of them!

  3. Clare Corcoran

    I tutor dyslexic children, and I can recommend two technological solutions. One is the Simplex Spelling series of IPhone apps, which uses a speech-to-spelling approach. The other is an online curriculum called Lexercise. It builds phonemic awareness through automated games and human-guided practice. I’ve found it to be very helpful for dyslexic children and even adults. It allows for any level of parental involvement, from the “self guided” plan, in which parents or guardians do the teaching, to the teletherapy plan, in which a trained, certified clinician conducts weekly sessions, and students and parents choose how much to practice each day.

  4. Clare Corcoran

    I also love all the resources on this blog. Thank you!! One more idea—this one is low-tech. It’s a picture dictionary with words sorted by spelling pattern. It also has pages of rhyming words and words that differ by only one phoneme. I use it for adult ESL Literacy, but it is designed for children and has cute drawings. It also has three accompanying workbooks. Unfortunately, it’s out of print, but you can still find used copies online. I bought 20 copies to use in my class. Best to search for it by ISBN number.
    Word by Word: Primary Phonics Picture Dictionary
    1st Edition
    ISBN-13: 978-0130221711, ISBN-10:0130221716

    • Marianne

      Thanks so much for the recommendation Clare!

  5. Cathie

    Thank you for including the Barton Reading & Spelling System in your recommendations. It is an excellent resource for laying a solid foundation in advanced phonemic awareness.

  6. Jessica

    Thank you so much for this post.

    I am a dyslexia teacher currently participating in a summer book study with some of my department. We are reading Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. I’m not finished yet, but I’ve read through Chapters 1-5 and (like you) the biggest take-away I’ve gotten so far was how critical it is to teach advanced phonemic awareness to children that struggle with reading.

    I am looking for resources to use with my own students, as well as information to pass on to my staff once school is back in session come August. I am thinking of putting together a newsletter of sorts. You’ve done an excellent job condensing what Kilpatrick says in his book and I appreciate you spreading the word.

  7. Greg McDonald

    If you’re working on phonemic awareness with older learners, my new app FUNNY PHONEMES which trains on clean slang and pop-culture jargon with funny icons on the tiles is free to try on the App Store and Google Play. Thanks for an excellent overview of advanced phonemic awareness and the examples of activities.

  8. Heather

    Nice article! Check out Michael Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness Curriculum through Literacy Resources, Inc (Chicago area). This 35-week curriculum builds fluency within the Phonological Awareness continuum through the advanced phonemic awareness level using a 10 minute a day direct, systematic, and sequential lesson. Then, Equipped for Reading Success is a great intervention resource to slow it down and look at the parts more concretely as needed. The mix of these is closing the gap for schools using the combination in Pennsylvania. We are lucky to have David Kilpatrick in a neighboring state. He is becoming a good friend to the state of PA, and we are fortunate to have his support and expertise! Also – you won’t find Heggerty’s program referenced in David’s book (yet) since they were both published in 2015.

    • Marianne

      Thanks for the recommendation Heather!

  9. donna paladino

    Great job explaining the need for ADvanced PA, so many regular ed and even special ed teachers do not get this! I also want to share with you my friend Eileen Catizone’s newly developed curriculum called Just Right PA. I am also an OG tutor and former science teacher at the Carroll School in the Boston area. She is also from the area. She has already sold to the district of Andover Ma and Arlington Ma, selling to schools in Bedford, and a school in Cambridge. We are very frustrated with the state of MA for using Guided Reading and Fountas and Pinell to teach all of their developing readers, and only using Fundations for remediation which does not address P.A. Thank you for this resource you have shared. I am sharing it on my FB page.
    donna paladino .

    • Marianne

      Thank you Donna. And thank you for sharing Eileen’s resource. I’ll check it out!

  10. Marjorie Lang

    We hit a hard stop in the early lessons of Logic of English Foundations A with my severely dyslexic 7 year old.

    We worked on basic phonemic awareness for a year, then moved into Barton Level 1.

    She couldn’t do it. It was just too advanced for her.

    We’re now using Heggerty and it’s even more baby-stepped than Barton Level 1.

    For a free basic phonemic awareness curriculum, look at

    It teaches rhyming, syllables, segmenting and blending, but not advanced skills. But it’s free and free.

    At 9 years old, we are using a combination of Heggerty, Barton Level 1, the PA curriculum at, and inching into sounding out words with Dianne Craft’s Right Brain Phonics program.

    Why did we jump into Dianne Craft? Because my daughter was so upset that she couldn’t read, and had begun to internalize it. “I can’t read.” She needed some confidence while also working daily on phonemic awareness.

  11. Elizabeth DeLoach

    FYI: Barton Level 1 uses advanced phonemic awareness activities. However, the tutor assists the student in the activities. Therefore, the student is actually only practicing segmenting and blending. Barton never removes this scaffolding. Foundations in Sounds does advanced phonemic awareness activities without the scaffolding. My child that had only done Foundations in Sounds and could not read scored SIGNIFICANTLY better than my older 2 children that were in Barton Level 4. We stopped Barton and spent about 6 weeks using Equipped for Reading Success activities. I switched my oldest to EBLI tutoring. She gained more than 1 grade level in 1 month on Woodstock- Johnson test and began reading on grade level. This was the elusive issue, once advanced phonemic awareness was in place, she could remember words and began making huge gains.


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