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What is a phoneme?

What is a phoneme?
The smallest unit of sound is called a phoneme and your child will be taught about these as part of their phonics learning journey. We explain how the teacher will explain phonemes and how you can help your child when they are starting to put sounds together at home.

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another word in a language. This chart shows all the phonemes used when speaking English.

Phoneme learning in Reception and KS1

Children will be taught the individual sounds of each letter of the alphabet in Reception. They will then start to put these sounds together, to make short words, such as: cat, nap, pin, tap, etc. This is called blending sounds.

They will learn that each of these words have three distinct sounds (phonemes). For example, cat has the three sounds: /c/ /a/ and /t/.

In phonics we learn to read the "pure sound" of a phoneme, rather than letter names. For example, the sound /s/ is pronounced 'ssssss' and not 'suh' or 'es'. Learning to read pure sounds makes it much easier for children to blend sounds together as they progress with their reading.

They will also move onto words containing consonant clusters (two consonants placed together) such as trap (tr is a consonant cluster) or bump (mp is a consonant cluster). Both of these words each contain four phonemes as although consonant clusters involve letters being 'clustered' together, you can still hear the two separate sounds.

They will then start to learn that a word could have a sound in it that is made up of two letters, for example:


is made up of three phonemes: /b/ at the start, /oa/ in the middle and /t/ at the end.

The middle sound /oa/ is made up of two letters, so this is called a digraph. A digraph is a phoneme (single sound) that is made up of two letters. The digraph above, /oa/, is a vowel digraph, because it is made up of two vowels. 

A digraph could be made up of consonants, for example:


The /ch/ in chip is a consonant digraph, where the two letters make up one single phoneme.

A single sound can also be made up of three letters, and this is called a trigraph. For example:


The /igh/ in this word is one sound that is made up of three letters, so this is a trigraph.

Practical phonemes practice

Children will often be asked to split words up into sounds (they may not need to use the word phoneme). For example, if they can't read the following word:


they may be asked to sound it out, possibly underlining the sounds /t/ /r/ /ai/ /n/ so they are made aware of how to split a word up to be able to say the sounds out loud.

They may also be given word cards or interlinking cubes that have individual phonemes on them and then be asked to make them into words.
For example: they may be given the following cards:


With these cards they can make a variety of words, such as fair, brain, rain, train, stain, boot, foot, root, soot, fear, bear, tear. Children gradually learn that letters and pairs or groups of letters (graphemes) do not always make the same sound. For example: 'ea' makes one sound in 'fear' and another 'bear'.

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