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 group of letters that represents the sounds in speech. So a grapheme will be the letter or letters that represent a phoneme (see above). English has a complex written code and, in our code, a grapheme can be one, two, three or four 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 are digraphs and trigraphs?

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

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

What are adjacent consonants?

Adjacent consonants are two 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; in the word ‘clip’, the ‘c’ and ‘l’ are adjacent consonants. It’s important to remember that each consonant is a separate sound – so ‘cl’, for example, is two sounds: ‘c’ and ‘l’.

Why is it important to teach adjacent consonants?

Many children find it difficult to blend two or three consonants when they appear next to each other in a word. This is a skill that can be mastered, but children may need lots of practice to achieve it.

What are consonant and vowel digraphs and trigraphs?

Consonant digraphs or trigraphs are groups of two or three consonants that spell one sound. For example, ‘s’ and ‘h’ together spell the single sound ‘sh’; ‘t’, ‘c’ and ‘h’ together spell the single sound ‘tch’. As each group is one sound, the letters cannot be called adjacent consonants.

Vowel digraphs or trigraphs are vowel sounds spelled by more than one letter, such as ‘oo’, ‘ai’ or ‘igh’.

What is blending?

Blending is the process of pushing sounds together in a word. Children are taught to sound out the letters in a word and then push the sounds together to form that word recognisably.

What is segmenting?

Segmenting is the process of separating sounds in a word. Children are taught to listen and isolate the sounds in a word and then represent those sounds with letters. This is the process of spelling.

Why do we no longer use ‘blend’ as a noun?

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 a word, they do not need to be taught ‘blends’ separately.

What are high-frequency words?

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

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

Tami Reis-Frankfort

P.S. Other free tutorials from Phonic Books include:

‘What is a phoneme?’

‘What is a grapheme?’

‘Synthetic Phonics tutorial’

To see the range of decodable books that we publish, with step-by-step phonic progression, click here.


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