Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Programme

We look forward to introducing the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Programme from infants to second class next year. This is an evidence-based, research driven programme which has seen huge success worldwide in recent years.


The Heggerty Programme

When we talk about foundations of literacy, three “PH” words often come to mind: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics. Both phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are oral and auditory, and the focus is on the sounds in words. Phonics, on the other hand, focuses on the letters that the sounds represent. Phonics involves print, phonological, and phonemic awareness do not. While phonological and phonemic awareness are both oral and auditory, there are differences between these two terms.


What is Phonological Awareness?

“Phonological awareness is the understanding of different ways that oral language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated.” (Chard and Dickson, 1999) Phonological awareness refers to the bigger “chunks” or “parts” of language.  When we ask students to rhyme, blend small words to make a compound word, break words apart into syllables or onset-rime, we are working at the phonological awareness level.  Phonological awareness can be thought of as a big umbrella with the bigger “chunks” of language being the top of the umbrella.


What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made of individual sounds called phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound we hear in a word. Phonemic awareness falls underneath the umbrella as a sub-category of phonological awareness. Rather than working with larger units of spoken language, we ask students to listen for the individual sounds or phonemes in a spoken word. When we ask students to blend or segment words into the smallest unit of sound they hear, we are working at the phonemic awareness level. For example, the four sounds /p//l//a//n/ can be blended to make the whole word plan.


How Does Phonemic Awareness Help Reading and Literacy Development?

In their book, “Know Better, Do Better”, David and Meredith Liben state “It is not an option to skip or short change phonemic awareness! Children without mastery of it will inevitably struggle.” While decades of research support this statement, phonemic awareness is still the most common reason students struggle with word reading. When educators consider phonemic awareness and phonics to be interchangeable terms, phonemic awareness is often left out of instruction and the focus shifts to print with phonics.

Failing to provide explicit phonemic awareness instruction leads to many students lacking the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds. Instead, they get the message that words are whole units that need to be visually memorized. While students learn language naturally by listening to speech and words, hearing individual sounds in words is not natural. We don’t speak in individual sounds, instead, our speech is co-articulated and we hear whole words in oral language. If we begin our literacy instruction by teaching letters and sounds, without phonemic awareness instruction, phonics does not make sense to students.

Phonemic awareness and phonics do work together when students learn to read and spell. Words are made up of sounds (phonemic awareness) and letters represent these sounds in print (phonics). Without the ability to hear sounds in words, phonemic awareness and phonics cannot engage in this reciprocal relationship.

It is essential for students to understand that words are made up of individual sounds, and they can blend, segment, and manipulate those sounds. If students can do this work through the air, we can transfer these skills to print, so they can read and spell more words.


How Does Phonological Awareness Develop?

It is important to support and scaffold students through the continuum of phonological awareness to allow them to eventually hear and manipulate those individual sounds in words- the phonemic awareness level. When providing instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness, we begin at the phonological level. It is much easier to hear the bigger units of language versus the individual sounds in a word. For example, asking children to segment pencil into two-syllables, /pen/ /cil/, is an easier task when compared to segmenting the word pen into three individual sounds, /p/ /e/ /n/.

The largest unit of language is a word. Instruction in phonological awareness begins at the word level when children learn that compound words can be blended, segmented, and manipulated. For example, we can blend the small words class – room together to the compound word classroom. Or the opposite, we can segment compound words into two separate words. We can say the whole word and take it apart into two smaller words:  raincoat, rain – coat.  We can also substitute one small word in a compound word. Say sunshine, change shine to glasses and the word is sunglasses.

Once students can blend, segment, and manipulate compound words, we narrow the unit of language they hear and do the same work with syllables. For example, we blend the three syllables /cal – en – dar/, to say the whole word calendar.  Students can segment a word into syllables: elbow can be segmented into /el/ – /bow/.  We can substitute a syllable in a word to make a new word: reading; change /read/ to /talk/ and the word is talking.

We can narrow the unit of language again when we focus on the onset and rime. Onset-rime is breaking apart a syllable. The onset of a word is all the sounds that come before the vowel and the rime is the vowel and all the sounds after. Students blend the onset and rime into a whole word or segment a spoken word into the onset and rime.

For example, students can blend the onset /b/ and the rime /ig/ into the word /b-ig/, big.  And if we were to segment the word flip, the onset would be /fl/ and the rime would be /ip/. Onset-rime is the last level of phonological awareness and teaches students to blend and segment two parts into a word. Developing a foundation of understanding in phonological awareness prepares students to hear individual sounds and develop phoneme awareness.


How Does Phonemic Awareness Develop?

While instruction begins with phonological awareness, our end goal is phonemic awareness. Students who are phonemically aware are not only able to hear the sounds in words, they are able to isolate the sounds, blend, segment and manipulate sounds in spoken words.

For example, segmenting the word pen into the sounds /p/ /e/ /n/ is an example of a phonemic awareness task. If students can segment the word, they can then spell the word. If they can blend those sounds, they can read the word. Additionally, if students can substitute the /p/ to a /h/, they can make a new word – hen. Phonemic awareness training provides students with the skills necessary to read and spell words when they see these sounds in print.

There are several skills included in phonemic awareness instruction and the chart below shares examples of skills and tasks at the phonemic awareness level.

Phonemic awareness instruction is powerful, but it does not need to take long. Dr. Heggerty created quick, 10-12 minutes lessons to provide students with the practice and repetition they needed to reach phoneme proficiency. Teaching these skills each day will allow our children the repetition and practice they need to hear, blend, segment and manipulate sounds in words.


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