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Phonics: Defining Our Terms

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Phonemes, Graphemes, Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, and Phonics

Phonics have always been near and dear to my heart. In teachers’ college, I actually wrote a song that mirrored the experience of a close family member’s plea for effective phonics instruction for their child.

Unfortunately, even I lacked a lot of instruction on how to best teach phonics. After becoming a teacher, I spent an entire summer deep diving into the world of literacy. Let me tell you, there is SO much incredible research out there. Having done this, I can see how even myself, as a child, would have benefited so much from sequential and systematic phonics instruction.

For this week’s ‘Phonics Friday’ post, I wanted to take a little time to define five key vocabulary words that I will be using going forward.


Phoneme is the term used to describe the smallest unit of sound. It is a little more precise than sound which can have a wide range of applications. When writing in my blog about phonemes, I show the sound with a slash on either side: /ch/ or /b/. When you are reading that, I am highlighting the phoneme or sound that those letter(s) make.


Graphemes is a term used that describes the letter or letters that represent a single phoneme. I like using the term grapheme because it addresses the fact that b says /b/ and ch says /ch/. It gives space for those multi-letter graphemes that we see in words.

Phonological Awareness

This is considered an umbrella term that describes one’s ability to hear and then manipulate spoken words and sentences. This includes one’s awareness of words, rhymes, syllables and onset-rime, body-coda and phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic Awareness is under the umbrella term phonological awareness. It describes phoneme blending, substituting, manipulating and segmenting. Whereas phonological awareness works with larger chunks of sound, phonemic awareness targets individual phonemes (recall: the smallest unit of sound).


Phonics is a more well-known term. Simply put, it is matching phonemes to their graphemes. Phonics instruction can start quite simple. As we progress, there are many rules and patterns that can be explored. English is a deep language.

Final Thought: Phonics is a Critical Part of the Reading Rope

If you read Wednesday’s blog, you would have heard me talk about Scarborough’s Reading Rope. While phonics instruction is critical, especially in early literacy instruction, to become a skilled reader it is imperative that multiple skills are woven together.

At Latch Onto Learning, we are tuned into that. We do diagnostic assessments to determine what specific areas of instruction we need to target for your child to be a skilled reader.

I hope to use this space to share more about Latch Onto Learning’s approach to phonics instruction and how it can contribute to becoming a skilled reader!

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