What is a phoneme?

Literacy Free Lingo Series 

Phonics, phonemes, phonemic, phonetic, phonological.... phwew!!

The lingo that lies around literacy is one thing that really bugs me as a parent…. I understand it’s important in linguistic circles but in Prep? Really?

I, for one, found it very overwhelming when I was trying to help my struggling reader. And if I’m confused and overwhelmed, surely my son is too?

This series of short posts has been created for parents to try and shed some light on the somewhat daunting lingo that lies around literacy. It doesn't include big, technical words, nor does it include any fancy linguistic notation.

It’s Lingo-Free Literacy 😂 

Today we're going to start with phoneme.

#1: What is a phoneme? 



To be more specific, the term 'phoneme' is used to describe the smallest speech sound in a word

Let's use the word train as an example.


If you say the word 'train' out loud and really focus in on the individual sounds in that word we can identify four distinct sounds: 't', 'rrr', 'ay' and 'nnn'

That means the word train has 4 phonemes.

As you can see in this example, it is very common for there to be more letters than sounds in a word.

One cracker example is the word strength.


If we break down the individual sounds in the word 'strength' we have:
'ssss', 't', 'rrrr', 'e', 'ng', 'th'.

In literacy land we'd represent these sounds (phonemes) like this: 

/s/ /t/ /r/ /e/ /ng/ /th/

So in strength there are 8 letters but only 6 phonemes.

Being able to accurately HEAR the individual sounds in words is called 'phonemic awareness' and it is a key element when it comes to learning to spell.

The hope is, that if a child can say the word in their head and 'hear' all the sounds then they'll be able to work out what letters to put down on the page to form the written word.

Of course, it's not quite that simple in English :)

If you need a handy way to remember what a phoneme is, try this.

Phoneme includes the word 'phone'.
Talking and listening on a phone is all about sounds.
A phoneme is a single sound.

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