At the syllable level, phonological awareness is an awareness that words can be divided into syllables. A syllable is a unit of speech that has a vowel phoneme. Syllable awareness is identifying that, for example, the word run has one syllable, paper has two syllables (paper) and remember has three syllables (re-mem-ber).
The onset in a syllable is the consonant or consonants before the vowel, and the rime contains the vowel that follows the onset, plus any consonants. For example, in the word cat, c- is the onset and -at is the rime. The rime usually contains one or more vowels and consonants. Onset–rime awareness is “inside” the syllable and is usually shown through rhyming tasks because, in order to have an awareness of rhyme, there must be an awareness that words share a rime unit (for example, the -ed sound in bed, fed and thread).
Phonemic awareness is the most finegrained level of phonological awareness.17 A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can change the meaning of a word, but a phoneme has no meaning itself. There are approximately 41 phonemes in spoken English, represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet singly or in combinations. One letter may have more than one phoneme; for example, the letter c has two phonemes: /k/ (as in cat) and /s/ (as in city).18
Learners with phonemic awareness can hear that bad and boy begin with the same sound, /b/. They know from listening that mad and bad end with the same sound, /d/. They can substitute phonemes, for example, by changing the vowel in a word: bed, bid, bod, bud, bead, bide. They can rearrange phonemes; for example, they know that if you take the /b/ away from bread (or bred) you would be left with red.
Phonological awareness, particularly at the phoneme level, is a gradual attainment that continues to develop as decoding skills develop: it is not an all-or-nothing concept.19 It is therefore important to find out just what a learner knows and can do, through careful assessment.