Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, and Word Study

December 20, 2018

Defining Terms

  • Phonemic Awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes (smallest unit of sound) in spoken words. For instance, there are three phonemes in the word tree (/t/ /r/ /e/).
  • Phonics is a method of instruction that requires the ability to connect sounds to letters and letter combinations in order to accurately read and comprehend words.
  • Word Study involves routines that require students to examine, discriminate, and make critical judgments about speech sounds, spelling patterns, and meanings (Bear, 4).

According to research, phonemic awareness and phonics are two foundational prerequisite skills for reading development. Current research suggests that as older students are working to develop mastery of these skills, word study may be a more appropriate approach.

How Do These Skills Develop?
According to Jeanne Chall’s Stages of Reading Development, reading skills develop in a hierarchy with each stage building on previous skills. Ehri and McCormick have developed a similar hierarchical model, which addresses the phases of word learning. According to their model, reading skills can be classified as follows:

  • In the Pre-Alphabetic Phase, students do not use alphabetic knowledge to read words but rather rely on memory or guesswork. In this phase, readers depend heavily on environmental cues to determine words (the golden arches of McDonald’s rather than the word itself).
    • This phase could be compared to Chall’s Stage 0, or the pre-reading stage.
  • In the Partial-Alphabetic Phase, students begin to use recognizable letter and sound patterns but still rely on context clues. They have begun to recognize some patterns but do not have a full understanding of the phoneme-grapheme connection. Therefore, it is essential that spelling patterns be taught in this phase to support the knowledge and use of the letter-sound connection.
    • In terms of age development, this phase may be demonstrated during Chall’s Stage 1, the initial reading stage.
  • In the Full-Alphabetic Phase students increase their decoding fluency through practice and instruction of word families, onset and rime, and analogy based on known word patterns. Often in this phase, struggling readers continue to rely on context rather than graphophonic cues.
    • This phase could be compared to Chall’s Stage 2, where students use materials that they can read and understand with at least 75% accuracy in order to build decoding and fluency abilities.
  • In the Consolidated-Alphabetic Phase students recognize and use spelling patterns and morphological cues (affixes, roots, word endings) to syllabicate and read unfamiliar words by analogy. Struggling readers are typically stymied at this phase as multi-syllabic words are introduced.
    • This phase could continue to be compared to Chall’s Stage 3 because students are developing their decoding through recognizable patterns and analogy.
  • Lastly, in the Automatic-Alphabetic Phase students have become proficient in decoding and can now devote cognitive energy to comprehension.
    • This phase could be compared to the shift in Chall’s stages from learning to read to reading to learn. According to Chall, this happens at Stage 3.


Bear, Donald R., et al. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction. Pearson: Boston.

Ehri, Linnea C. and Sandra McCormick. (1998). Phases of Word Learning: Implications for Instruction With Delayed and Disabled Readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. 14(2), 135-163.

How Does This Connect to Landmark’s Teaching Principles™?
When considering both sets of theories together, it is important to ensure that students have developed the necessary word learning phases and have learned to successfully decode prior to shifting to reading to learn (which typically occurs around 4th grade). Providing opportunities for practice and review through multiple modalities is one way to increase exposure and, subsequently, mastery of these reading skills. Using multiple modalities is Landmark’s second Teaching Principle. For the full text of the Landmark Teaching Principles™, including “Use Multiple Modalities,” click here.

Strategies to Download

Explore sample multimodal activities for supporting the development of phonemic awareness, phonics, and word study. 


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