Phonemes are the minor units of sound within a language. They are represented in writing by symbols known as graphemes, which help us distinguish one word from another.

Children will learn about phonemes during phonics, the study of sounds. For instance, they might know how the word ‘dog’ is made up of three phonemes: /d/, /o/, and /g/. Throughout phonics, children will explore how words can be broken into their phonemes in a process known as segments.

How many phonemes are in English?

We now know what phonemes are, but how many are in English?

You might assume the letters have alphabet phonemes to complement them, but this isn’t the case. There are more sounds than letters in the English alphabet; this is why, despite there being only 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are 44 phonemes.

Moreover, many phonemes have more than one way of spelling them. For instance, the /f/ sound can be spelled out using the grapheme’ ph,’ and the/oo’ sound can be spelled as ‘ue.’ So, in short, there are more phonemes than letters in the alphabet, and many more graphemes to represent these phonemes!

Because there are so many phonemes and graphemes, and there’s no direct connection between the alphabet and phonemes, It’s only natural for some young learners to feel quite confused. As they begin reading words, they might not always know which phoneme is represented by a specific graphene.

Fortunately, phonics teaches children all of the 44 phonemes and their graphemes methodically. As they learn these phonemes, kids will also learn how they act as the building blocks of language through which we can form words. Learning to spell words properly using the correct graphemes is also a skill children will develop through key stage 1 and into key stage 2.

What are the 44 phonemes?

Now that we know how many phonemes there are in English, let’s look at all the 44 phonemes that children will learn in phonics.

The 44 phonemes can be divided into two groups: 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds. Let’s start by looking at the different vowel phonemes in the English language, some of their graphemes, and a few examples of where these 44 phonemes might appear:

Short and long vowel sounds:

Short vowel sounds Long vowel sounds
a – cat, bat, and ai – paid, way, stay
e – bed, red ee – bee, heat, feet
i – big, sit ie – sky, high
o – dog, log oe – bpw, roe
u – put, book ue – cue, moon

Other vowel sounds:

Vowel phonemes Examples
ar car, far, star
er/ir/ur fern, bird, turn
or born, core
ow/ou now, cow
oy/oi toy, joy
eer/ear hear, fear, deer
air, ere stair, chair, there
our four, your
schwa (ə) balloon, bottom, family

Consonant phonemes:

Consonant phonemes Examples
b box, black
c cup, cake
ch chop, change
d day, dog
f fast, feet
g get, gap
h hit, horse
j jar, June
l long, left
m met, mat
n not, next
p part, post
r rat, rest
s seat, soft
sh ship, shift
t tip, test
th thin
th these, those
v vest, vote
w we, wore
y yet, your
z zoo, zip
ng ring, sing
ge collage

In some cases, letters of the alphabet and phonemes are closely linked. For instance, the grapheme ‘f’ shows the pure /f/ sound, while the grapheme ‘a’ represents the short ‘a’ sound. However, you might have also noticed that some of the graphemes we use to describe the 44 phonemes are made up of more than one letter!

When two letters represent a single sound, we call it a digraph. There are also some trigraphs where three letters form one sound. A grapheme can consist of up to four letters.

What is phoneme segmentation?

We know how many phonemes are; we looked at all 44 phonemes and saw some combinations of letters of the alphabet that phonemes are represented by.

So in this next bit, let’s find out about phoneme segmentation or segments. We touched on this earlier, but what is it, and why is it an essential part of phonics?

Phoneme segmentation, or segmenting, is more straightforward than its scary-looking name suggests. It essentially means breaking a word down into its phoneme sounds.

Phoneme segmentation is a skill that helps children learn how to read and spell words. By segmenting words into phonemes, kids can see the different sounds and how they come together in the complete word. It’s like taking a machine apart to see how it works!

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