A phoneme is a unit of sound or sounds. A phoneme allows a student to hear the three separate sounds of “cat” – /k//a//t/. There are some phonemes that carry more than one sound, for example the “q” and “x”. The “q” has the sounds /k//w/ and the “x” has the /k//s/. Some may argue that it is two phonemes, but it is really 2 sounds that make up that one phoneme. Likewise there are some sounds such as /sh/ that have a 2 letter grapheme, “sh”.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear all the sounds in a word. For a word as easy as “cat”, there is three /k//a//t/. The struggles come in with the blends. “Mold” is often hard for some dyslexic student to hear the separate /l/ and /d/ at the end. The word “wild” is similar. Beginning blends can be difficult for dyslexic students to hear the /r/ or /l/, such as “blind” or “grand”. The purpose of phonemic awareness is to teach a student to break down what they hear, to ensure they are recognizing all the sounds present for a word. When a student is unable to master phonemic awareness, letters are often omitted, especially “r” and “l” at the beginning or “l” or “n” neat the end. When this skill is not mastered, they will struggle with reading, and even more so with spelling.