What are the English Phonemes and Graphemes?

One of the first challenges faced when one sets out to design a phonics program for English or, if a parent, to pick an appropriate phonics program for your child, is to come to grips with terms like grapheme, phoneme, digraph, phonogram, sound, etc. This Perspectives article will attempt to clarify some of the terms used, and perhaps offer some guidance as to what a phonics program should contain. As you will see, there are choices to be made when designing a phonics curriculum.

Phonemes Versus Sounds

I've avoided the word "phoneme" when discussing any of the phonics information here on the OnTrack Reading website, preferring to use the more parent-friendly term "sound" instead. In the various OnTrack Reading materials, reference is made to the 43 sounds of English, but it would be more accurate to say the 43 phonemes, for there are literally hundreds of English sounds, even before you begin to consider the influence of various English dialects. For instance, a linguist will detect a difference between the /k/ sound of "cool" and the /k/ sound of "keep," a difference caused by the vowel sound that follows.

Now, it makes absolutely no sense to try to differentiate between the /k/ of "cool" or "keep" when teaching English phonics, so both sounds are considered to be representative of the /k/ phoneme, and it is that more limited set of phonemes that we use in phonics instruction. Thus, while a linguist might find several variations of the /k/ sound, we only use one.

So, the page on my site, Notation for the 43 Sounds, would be more accurately called "Notation for the 43 Phonemes." 

What about Graphemes, Phonograms, Letters, and Digraphs?

These are not so confusing. Essentially they're all describing spellings. Everyone knows what a letter is, although I would estimate based upon my experience with struggling readers, that only about 10 percent of 3rd graders know that there are exactly 26 of them. Letters are easy.  Digraphs, technically, are pairs of letters that represent a single sound or, more accurately, a single phoneme.

For example, sh, th, ow, oy, bb, tt, and nn are usually digraphs when they appear in words. However, I have always used the term digraph to describe any spelling of a phoneme that has two or more letters, so in the OnTrack Reading curricula the igh in fight, the eigh in weight, and the ough in dough are all referred to as digraphs.

As for graphemes and phonograms, they're just terms that mean "letters and digraphs that represent phonemes." Grapheme is the more technical term. Phonogram is the term used in the Spalding Method in place of grapheme, and since Ms. Spalding's program has been around for nearly 70 years, that term has come into fairly general usage. Essentially, then, any letter or digraph is also a phonogram, and a grapheme. Got it?

Choices, Choices: How Many Phonemes (Sounds)?

As you'll see on the page Notation for the 43 Sounds, the OnTrack Reading programs define, and teach, just 43 sounds. Most phoneme lists you'll run across list 44 sounds, but if you dig into them, they're rarely the same 44 sounds. (It's like a committee decided that 44 was the magic number, but couldn't agree on how to get there.) 

Here are the sound (phoneme) choices I made that might differ from other curricula.

The /hw/ Sound: This is the "blowing out a candle sound" found at the beginning of words like when, where, and what, and represented by the digraph (or phonogram, or grapheme) wh. Some reading curricula don't include it, preferring to teach the digraph wh as representing the /w/ sound in when and the /h/ sound in words like who. This is a mistake, I feel, for if you teach the /hw/ sound properly, words like who, whom and whose become decodable, and then the digraph wh has just one sound, the /hw/ sound. (Try it, you'll like it.)

The /er/ Sound: I have trouble understanding why you would ever teach a child that the /er/ sound in her differs from the /er/ sound in runner, but some reading programs try to do just that. This has something to do with the acceptance of the schwa sound. In the OnTrack Reading programs, they're all just /er/ sounds.

The Schwa Sound: This is the little /u/ sound that we say in many unaccented syllables in multisyllable words. We don't say silent, we say silunt. We don't say pronounce along as ah-long; we say u-long instead. Here, I followed Romalda Spalding's advice and never include the schwa sound as an acceptable phoneme when decoding a word. That pays large dividends when it comes to spelling words with schwas later on. So, you won't find the schwa in the OnTrack Reading list of sounds.

The Consonant "yuh" Sound for "y": This is the one that you'll find included in every other phonics program, but I never taught it. Instead, a child is taught that the letter y has three sounds, /ee/ (happy), /ie/ (shy), and /i/ (gym), and that's it. But if you just tell him to say a real quick /ee/ sound (which is fortunately the first sound he's taught to associate with y) when he sees the letter y at the start of a word, that word becomes decodable. Try it first with yard (/ee/.../ar/.../d/) to see what I mean. Then try it with a few more words, including yes (/ee/.../e/.../s/), and you'll soon realize you're efficiently decoding the letter y in each of them. So, no consonant "yuh" phoneme appears on the OnTrack Reading list of sounds. Hence, 43 sounds, not 44.

The /ar/ (car), /or/ (for), and /err/ (cherry) Sounds: Each of these three sounds is taught in the OnTrack Reading programs. The reasons are involved, but I think justify their inclusion. The reasoning for the first two are discussed here. The /err/ sound is taught only when the words marry, merry, Mary all sound the same in the regional dialect. When they are pronounced distinctly different from one another, it need not be taught and would probably even be confusing to do so.

The /th/ and /the/ Sounds: The digraph th should always be taught as representing two sounds, the /th/ sound in thin, and the /the/ sound in that. I believe that failure to do so, when combined with teaching two incorrect sounds for the digraph wh (/w/ and /h/), is one of the prime reasons so many children have difficulty confusing the common words what/that, when/then, and where/there

That sums up the main choices made in selecting the phoneme (sound) set that is covered in the OnTrack Reading programs. All three programs, the Advanced Code Workbook, the Homeschooling Program, and the Phonogram Flash Cards, use the same 43 sounds. In my experience, the 43 sounds, including those discussed above, were easily understood by virtually all of the children who went through my sessions. 

More Choices: Selecting the Phonograms and Associated Sounds

Deciding upon 43 sounds was the easy part. Deciding upon 84 phonograms (letters and digraphs) to be explicitly taught was more difficult, and it was especially difficult to decide what sounds to include for each phonogram. I won't go into detail here, other than to say that the main goal was to simplify. English spellings are diverse, so diverse that teaching them all formally to a young child is both impossible and impractical. 

Take just one example, one of the more complex ones, the /ae/ sound in words like table, chain, pay, and they. Each of these spellings of the /ae/ sound is worth teaching explicitly because a child will find them useful when decoding unfamiliar words he encounters later. On the other hand, the aigh spelling in the word straight appears only in that word, and in derivations like straighten, so it makes no sense to add it to the phonograms for the /ae/ sound that a child should learn.

Yes, aigh is a phonogram for the /ae/ phoneme, but the purpose of explicitly teaching the phonograms and associated sounds is to prepare a child to decode. Keep that purpose in mind. When the word straight is encountered, just underline the phonogram aigh and treat it as the /ae/ sound, but don't expect to see aigh on any of the 84 OnTrack Reading Phonogram Flash Cards, for a child won't need it for any other words he encounters...maybe...this is English, after all.

It might be useful here to digress into coding a bit and compare the treatment of the phonogram eigh in the words height and sleight (as in "sleight of hand") with the treatment of the phonogram aigh. The phonogram eigh is indeed a phonogram worth teaching, for it appears in several common words, but in most of those words (eight, freight, neighbor) it's the /ae/ sound. So a child is taught the phonogram eigh, but only as the /ae/ sound. It just doesn't represent the /ie/ sound in enough words to make it worth teaching as the /ie/ sound. Instead, because it's taught as only the /ae/ sound, when height is encountered, the eigh is double-underlined, and an "ie" is written beneath the lines to denote the /ie/ sound in that case. The double-underline marks it as a very unusual pronunciation for that phonogram, as it is.

The Ending Digraphs

One of the Spalding Method's worst choices was the treatment of the ending "e" found in so many English words. Ms. Spalding came up with five different reasons for placing an "e" at the end of a word (including rule #5, the "no-job-e", i.e, no reason at all), and in those cases she disregarded the concept of the phonogram as well.

In the OnTrack Reading programs, nine digraphs were added, referred to as "ending digraphs" on the phonogram flash cards, to handle words like since, lunge, cue, glove, come, done, house, sneezeand sample. To handle the most common case, the term "split vowel digraph" is used, as described next. And most of the added digraphs are simple to learn because they're endings that take the same sounds as the consonant letter in front of the "e." The phonogram se even takes the same two sounds as the phonogram s, the /s/ and /z/ sounds (house, choose).

Magic-e, Silent-e, Bossy-e, etc.

Perhaps no English spelling convention has generated more curriculum choices than the split vowel digraph found in word like note, flame, here, slide, and cute. With the exception of ae, all of the other spellings are phonograms in common words when not split (toe, heel, pie, cue). Because of that fact, instead of claiming that something "magic" is going on, or that some letters are "silent" (others aren't?), or that the letter "e" gets to be "bossy" for some unexplained reason (because it's last?), all that is required is to explain that the digraphs ee, ie, oe, and ue are often "split" and to introduce the term "split vowel digraph," and then use a few examples to train a child to see the split vowel digraph in words. This is thoroughly explained on the page Explaining Split Vowel Digraphs.

Simplicity: The Overall Consideration

While it takes a long time, and a lot of words, to describe the logic behind choices made in designing the phonogram set and associated sounds used in the OnTrack Reading programs, the goal was always to achieve the simplest result possible from the point of view of the children who would have to learn the method. Over the course of teaching the first 50 or so of the nearly 200 children I worked with in one-on-one lessons over a decade, the set was fine-tuned, some decisions were reversed, and the present phonogram set was the result. 

I'm reasonably certain that if every English-speaking child knew the contents of the 84 phonogram flash cards by age 9 or so, both the reading and the spelling abilities of the overall student population would improve significantly. That's unlikely to happen, but as a parent, you can see that your own children learn them, if you choose to do so. You could use either the Advanced Code Workbook, or the Homeschooling Program, or just the Phonogram Flash Cards themselves. All of them are built on the same set of 43 phonemes (sounds) and 84 graphemes (phonograms/letters and digraphs).