What is a phoneme?

Now that everyone is talking ‘Synthetic Phonics speak’ and it seems like Michael Gove will continue to do so – it may be a good time to clarify some of the terms  that are being used. So here goes:

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech.  When we teach reading we teach children which letters represent those sounds.  For example – the word ‘hat’ has 3 phonemes – ‘h’ ‘a’ and ‘t’.

What is a grapheme?

A grapheme is a letter or a number of letters that represent the sounds in our speech. So a grapheme will be the letter/ letters that represent a phoneme (see above). English has a complex written code and in our code a grapheme can be 1, 2,3 or 4 letters.   For example:

1 letter grapheme – m  a  t     (m)

2 letter grapheme – sh  i  p    (sh)

3 letter grapheme – n  igh  t     (igh)

4 letter grapheme – eigh  t     (eigh)

What is a digraph and a trigraph?

A digraph is a 2 letter grapheme (the clue is in ‘di’) e.g. ‘ch’ in  ‘chip’

A trigraph is a 3 letter grapheme (the clue is in ‘tri’) e.g. ‘igh’ in ‘high’

What are adjacent consonants?

Adjacent consonants are 2 or more consonants that are next to each other in a word. For example in the word ‘lost’ the ‘s’ and ‘t’ are adjacent consonants.  Or in the word ‘clip’ the ‘c’ and  ‘l’ are adjacent consonants.  It important to remember that each consonant is a separate sound so ‘cl’ for example is 2 sounds ‘c’ and ‘l’.

Why is it important to teach adjacent consonants?

Many children find it difficulty to blend 2 or 3 consonants when they appear next to each other in a word. This is a skill that can be mastered and  children may need lots of practice to achieve this.

What are consonant and vowel digraphs?

Consonant digraphs are 2 letters that are consonants that spell 1 sound e.g.: ‘s’ and ‘h’ together spell ‘sh’. As this is 1 sound, it  cannot be called  2 adjacent consonants.

Vowel digraphs or trigraphs are vowel sounds spelled by more than 1 letter e.g: ‘oo’ or ‘ai’ or ‘igh’

What is ‘blending’?

Blending is the process of pushing sounds together in a word. Children are taught to sound out words and then push the sounds together into a recognisable word.

What is segmenting?

Segmenting is the process of separating sounds in words. Children a taught to listen and isolate sounds in words.  Then they are taught to represent those sounds in letters.  This is the process of spelling.

We no longer use the noun ‘a blend’ but instead use the verb ‘to blend’, why?

In the past teachers have taught ‘blends’ such as bl, gr, st, etc.  This was part of  an ‘onset and rhyme’ method of teaching reading and spelling.   It is now considered redundant and an unnecessary burden on the memory bank.  If children are taught to blend and segment all the sounds throughout the word they do not need to be taught ‘blends’ separately.

What are high-frequency words?

High frequency words are common words the beginner reader will come across very early in his/her reading experience as they appear in even the simplest of  texts.  The list of the first 100 high-frequency words includes words which are decodable e.g. ‘dad’ and words which are not initially decodable such as ‘the’ and ‘where’.

I hope these definitions are helpful and have not muddied the water further!


P.s. Other free tutorials from Phonic Books:

‘What is a phoneme?’  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwFvD5Cv9n8

‘What is a grapheme?’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsWtyKqpHko

‘Synthetic Phonics tutorial’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG24BoekBGY

To see the range of decodable books that we publish with step-by-step phonic progression visit: https://www.phonicbooks.co.uk/completerange.php

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