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Phonology vs. Phonics: The Many "Ph" Terms of Literacy Instruction

Phonology is one of the key areas of instruction within all Structured Literacy programs. But what is phonology, and how is it different from phonological awareness, phonetics, phonemic awareness, and phonics? There are so many “ph” terms when it comes to literacy instruction, so let’s break down the meanings and relationships between these terms.


Phonology is an umbrella term for the study of sounds in spoken language. Phonology is considered separate from phonics, which connects speech sounds to letters and graphemes (letter-sound associations). The other terms mentioned above (phonological awareness, phonetics, and phonemic awareness) however, all fall under the umbrella of phonology. Take a look at the graphic below to see how they fit together.

A blue, green, and yellow diagram entitled "Phonology." Under "Phonology," there are the categories "Phonological Awareness" and "Phonetics."  Under "Phonological Awareness," there are four categories: "Words" (distinguishing words in a sentence), "Syllables" (counting syllables in a word), "Onset-Rime" (recognizing and producing rhymes and alliteration), and “Phonemes" (phonemic awareness).  The “Phonemes" category is broken down into two categories: “blending and segmenting sounds” and “substituting and omitting words”. Under the second main category "phonetics," there is "how sounds are produced" (articulation, air flow, vocal cords).

Phonetics is the study of speech sounds and “how they are produced and perceived” (Moats, p.301, 2020). It has more to do with the physical processes and movements associated with producing sounds. Instructing students about vowels and consonants and the way they are articulated falls into this group. Students may learn about voiced and unvoiced sounds, the place of articulation, and the difference between blocked or open sounds.

Phonological awareness is one’s ability to distinguish between speech units at different levels. This includes identifying word barriers within sentences, and being able to break words into syllables, or into onset-rime (e.g. c-at, b-oat). Teaching students how to count syllables, rhyme, or make alliterative sentences builds phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness skills progress from larger units of language all the way down to the smallest: individual speech sounds, or phonemes. Being able to distinguish and manipulate these individual sounds is called phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness activities include blending phonemes together to make words (c-a-t = cat) or segmenting a whole word into phonemes (cat = c-a-t). More advanced phonemic awareness skills include substituting, adding, or deleting individual phonemes.


In 2000, The National Reading Panel concluded that phonemic awareness instruction improves students’ reading and spelling skills, both immediately and in the long term. However, in order to reach proficiency at the phoneme level, students need to develop phonological awareness with the larger units of language first.

Does this mean that phonemic awareness and phonics should always be taught separately? No, not necessarily. In fact, the National Reading Panel also found that phonemic awareness instruction contributed more significantly to reading and spelling skills when students manipulated phonemes with letters, rather than just in speech. One such activity that integrates the two skills is word chains or word ladders, where students spell a list of words, manipulating one sound each time. For example cat →bat →bats → bits→sits→ spits.

Two hands hold snap cubes together. Letters ch are on a green cube connected to letters ai on an orange cube. There is a blue cube with the letter n, and someone looks like they are connecting it to the ch and ai to form the word chain. In the background, a clear bin divided into three sections holds more orange, yellow, and green cubes with letters. On the desk, other cubes are sitting, and a blue, orange, and yellow cube are connected to build the word teeth.

Phonological awareness activities with just speech sounds are still important, however, because many struggling readers can have strong phonics knowledge, but lack the phonemic awareness skills that allow them to successfully blend or segment words for reading and spelling. As always, it is important to get to know each students’ individual needs!


Phonology: the study of sounds in spoken language.

Phonetics: The study of the physical production and perception of speech sounds, such as place of articulation or use of vocal cords.

Phonological awareness: An ability to distinguish between units of language at all levels, including words, syllables, onset-rimes, and phonemes.

Phonemes: individual speech sounds; the smallest units or building blocks of language.

Phonemic awareness: An ability to distinguish between and manipulate phonemes in words.

Phonics: The study of sound-symbol correspondences, or letter-sound associations.


Written by: Rachel Draper & Taryn Quaytman

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC



Check out these resources for more information about phonological and phonemic awareness!



Moats, Louisa C. (2020) Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers: Third Edition. MD: Paul Brooks Publishing Co.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000) Report of the National Reading Panel:Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Reading Rockets (n.d.) Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: Introduction. Reading 101 Course.

Phonetics and the 44 Speech Sounds: “Phun” Terms. (2021) Neuhaus Education Center, OCPDS.


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