Happy #phonologicalfriday everyone! This week we are focusing on the smallest units of speech, the phoneme.

I hope those of you who have recently returned to school in the last few weeks are enjoying a good start to the new school year.


Simply put, a phoneme is an individual speech sound found within a language (If you would like a more in-depth, academic discussion about phonemes, please refer to halfway down this post).  The number of phonemes in the English language varies between 40 – 44 distinct sounds depending on the sources you refer to and the dialect of the English language you speak (a chart of these phonemes can be seen here).


The different phonemes are made by changing the shape of our mouths (larynx, oral canal, tongue, and lips) as air passes through it to affect the way the sound is made.


There are two different notations that are commonly used to represent the sounds of different phonemes. The first is the International Phonetic Alphabet Chart which contains all the possible phonemes and can be difficult to use for anyone who has not taken the time to memorize it.  There is a simplified notation for phonemes that is often used by educators because it only makes use of letters from the English alphabet. 


Note: The simplified notation is the one that will be used for any examples in this post.


When phonemes are written out they are surrounded by slashes so the reader knows they are supposed to say the sound the phoneme makes and not the letter name.



In English, phonemes are represented by graphemes, which are the letters of the alphabet. Unfortunately, the representation between the letters of the alphabet and the phonemes they represent is not a simple relationship. 


There are some letters, vowels, in particular, that can represent more than one phoneme. There are also instances where more than one letter is used to represent one phoneme.


Vowel digraphs such as ‘oy’ as in toy and ‘oi’ as boil represent the phoneme /oy/.


Consonant digraphs such as ‘ng’ as in sang or thing represent the phoneme /ng/.


Consonant trigraphs such as ‘tch’ as in witch represent the phoneme /ch/.



Why is knowing what a is phoneme important?



Phonological awareness is one of the five essential components of reading instruction. The highest level of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness.  Phonemes are at the root of phonemic awareness.

When an individual is asked to segment a word into its sounds, they really are being asked to individually pronounce each phoneme in the word.


Word – cat              Phonemes: /k/ /a/ /t/


When an individual is asked to remove a sound from a word, they are really being asked to remove a phoneme from.


Prompt -> Say the word ‘stop’ without the /s/.

Answer -> top


When an individual is asked to change a sound in a word, they are really being asked to remove a phoneme form the word and replace it with another phoneme.


Prompt -> Change the /a/ in the word ‘cat’ to an /o/.

Answer -> cot


It is important for educators to understand and know what phonemes are because when they are combined with graphemes they form the basis of phonics instruction.


Did you know that unless people know that phonemes are an individual speech sound, they often will say more than one phoneme to represent an individual letter sound?


When asked what sound the letter ‘b’ makes, many people will respond to saying /b/ /u/.  This is often done when teaching children phonics because teachers are trying to accentuate the sound the letter makes. While this is understandable, it is better to teach children the single phoneme /b/.



Be sure to check out more graphics for these morphemes on our Facebook, InstagramPinterest, and Twitter pages.


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