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What is a phoneme?

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. A phoneme is the sound associated with a letter or group of letters. Each different sound in a word is a phoneme. For example, the letter t makes the sound /t/ as in tap. Phonemes are often represented by more than one letter or combination of letters. For example, in ship, sh makes a single sound that corresponds to two letters (one grapheme).

English consists of about 45 phonemes (sounds), but more than 250 graphemes (different written representations for these sounds, i.e. letters or combinations of letters). This means that English does not have a strict one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. However, English is also not entirely irregular. It involves numerous patterns and regularities. Phonics is the method that helps children become aware of these regularities in a systematic way by teaching them the most common phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

For example, in the word fly, the /f/ sound is represented by the letter f. In the word bluff, the /f/ sound is represented by ff. These two different graphemes represent the same phoneme, or sound.

We have an activity for each phoneme - for example, the phoneme /f/, here - find them all in our resource library!

Deep Dive

Read our report on the Science of Reading. Research-based reading instruction must incorporate the 5 pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This report provides an easy to understand overview of each of these pillars and explains the important connection between how the brain learns to read (the Neuroscience of Reading) and how we teach children to read (The Science of Reading Instruction). It also explains why helping children build connections between letters and sounds, through phonics and phonemic awareness, is so crucial for the developing reading mind. This report is perfect for sharing with colleagues and friends!