Phonemes (a.k.a. phonogram): Everything You Need to Know

It’s the smallest sound in a word. In other words, it’s the smallest sound unit in a language that can convey a distinct meaning. Phonemes are language-specific. This means different languages have different phonemes. Thus, phonemes in English that are functionally distinct (such as /p/ and /b/) may not be so in another language. Phonemes are usually written between slashes like /b/. Thus, the three distinct sounds (phonemes) that make up the word cat will be written as /k/, /a/, and /t/.

A child learns to read a phoneme’s “pure sound” instead of letter names with phonics instructions. For instance, the sound /s/ is pronounced ‘ssssss’ and not ‘es’ or ‘suh.’ When students learn to read pure sounds, it becomes easier to combine sounds as they progress with their reading.

Phonics instructions also help the children with:

·         Phoneme isolation: This refers to the ability to isolate a particular sound in a word. Say, an adult asks a child, “What sound do you hear at the start of the word mop?” This will need the child to separate one sound /m/ from the word and pull it out.

·         Phoneme manipulation: This stands for the ability to play with sounds in a word by combining, isolating, and/or segmenting them. For example: “If the /m/ of man is replaced by a /p/, it will create a new word “pan” with a different sound. To do this, the child would require to isolate the /m/ sound, separate it from the word, add the /p/, and then merge the word back together. Using the initial or first sound of the word is the easiest stage of phoneme manipulation, as in the example shared here. As a harder exercise, the child could be asked to change man into mat, which would involve taking off the last sound and adding a different sound.

·         Phoneme segmentation: It’s the ability to take the whole word and divide it into its component phonemes (or small sounds). For instance, a child who wants to spell sand will need to separate the word’s constituent sounds, namely /sss/, /aaa/, /nnn/, and /d/. Then, they will have to choose the letters that represent these sounds. Typically, beginners will hear and spell the first and/or last sounds before moving to the middle sounds, which is a standard step in spelling development.

Developing strong phonemic awareness skills in children is crucial for their better literacy growth.

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