All About Phonemes

What Are Phonemes?

Phonemes are defined as the smallest units of sound that can change the meaning of words. 

For example, the word ‘bat’ is made up of 3 phonemes (individual sounds) – the initial /b/ sound followed by the /a/ sound (as in ‘ant’) and then the /t/ sound (as in ‘tiger’). 

We can change the meaning of the word ‘bat’ by swapping the initial phoneme:

/b/ /a/ /t/

/c/ /a/ /t/

Or we can change the meaning by swapping the middle phoneme:

/b/ /a/ /t/

/b/ /e/ /t/

And we can also alter the meaning of ‘bat’ by changing the final phoneme:

/b/ /a/ /t/

/b/ /a/ /d/

The common sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet are examples of phonemes…

Alphabet Letter sounds sheet landscape
Click on the image to download our free printable alphabet letter sounds sheet.

However, the relationship between letters and phonemes isn’t that simple because some letters can represent more than one phoneme.  And groups of letters are sometimes used to represent individual phonemes.  See our article on digraphs for more information about this.

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How Many Phonemes/Letter Sounds Are There in English?

Most sources say that spoken English has just over 40 identifiable phonemes, with 44 being the most commonly quoted number for British and American English.

The estimated number of phonemes can vary due to alternative accents in different regions and because linguists have different ways of classifying a group of spoken sounds called diphthongs.

Diphthongs are made by combining separate vowel sounds together and they’re disregarded by some linguists because they argue that including them would mean counting some phonemes more than once.

The number of phonemes in English is estimated to be around 36 when diphthongs are omitted according to the Eupedia site, and 35 according to an academic study published in the International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature.

There are also some differences of opinion about a sound known as the ‘schwa’, which is the most common vowel sound in English. 

The schwa sounds very like the ‘short u’ sound found in words such as ‘up’ or ‘duck’ and it can be represented by a variety of letters.  Some academics argue that schwa doesn’t need to be classified as a separate phoneme because it sounds so much like the ‘short u’ sound that many people can’t tell the difference*

*Fry, E. (2004) Phonics: A Large Phoneme-Grapheme Frequency Count Revised, Journal of Literacy Research V. 36 No.1 2004.

However, although these disputes and observations might be of interest to linguists and other academics, they are not something you need to worry about if you are teaching young children about phonemes at home or in school.

What’s important is to teach children about the relationships between the graphemes (letters or groups of letters) that make up written words and the sounds in spoken words. 

These relationships (sometimes referred to as GPCs) are the key to phonics instruction.  In phonics, it doesn’t really matter whether a letter represents one isolated sound or 2 combined sounds, as long as children learn what the main letter-sound correspondences are.

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What are the 44 phonemes (sounds) in English?

The 44 phonemes we’ve listed in the table below are the ones published in the UK Government’s ‘Letters and Sounds’ phonics guidance booklet.*  These are the recognised phonemes from British Received Pronunciation (RP), commonly called BBC English or Standard British pronunciation.

*Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics, Dept. for Education and Skills 2007.

The 44 Phonemes in English – Standard British Pronunciation (RP)

The letters between forward slashes / / are used in the UK Government’s ‘Letters and Sounds’ phonics programme.  The green symbols in round brackets are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The 44 phonemes in English
Click on the table to access a free downloadable copy.

You might notice that some familiar letters and letter patterns are missing from the chart.  The letter x actually represents 2 sounds  /k/ + /s/ and q is normally found in words next to u, where it also represents 2 sounds /k/ + /w/.  Long u can also be considered as 2 sounds – /y/ + /oo/.

Note: not all of these phonemes are present in everyone’s speech due to variations in local accents.  Click on the following link to find a good description of the differences in American and British English pronunciations.

This video by Jolly phonics gives the pronunciations of common phonemes in a British English accent first, it repeats the same phonemes in an American English accent in the second half of the video:

To listen to the phonemes represented with symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet Chart, you can download a free phonemic chart with audio app from the British Council.

You can listen to the phonemes represented by ordinary letters on Oxford Owls Phonics Audio Guide.

You might also find the following video useful:

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Why Are Phonemes Important?

Breaking words up into phonemes (individual sounds) is the foundation of our alphabetic writing system.  When we write, we represent phonemes with letters of the alphabet.  See our article on the alphabetic code for more information on this.

Most children who are learning to read are given some phonics instruction these days, which involves teaching them about phonemes and the letters representing them. 

When children read using phonics, they learn to associate letters with the sounds of individual phonemes.  Then they blend the phonemes to identify the words.

And when children spell using phonics, they learn to break words up into individual phonemes (segmenting) and then spell each phoneme with the appropriate letters.

Young children who can recognise phonemes in words are more likely to become proficient readers and spellers.  We discuss this in more detail in our article on phonemic awareness.

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Teaching About Phonemes

Children are likely to develop a better understanding of phonemes if you use the following guidelines:

    • Teach about phonemes using letters and printed words from the start rather than as a purely verbal exercise.
    • Focus on the common sounds associated with each letter rather than letter names.
    • Once children have learned the letter sounds, the main emphasis should be on blending and segmenting phonemes in words.

There are a variety of opinions on teaching about phonemes online, but many of them aren’t supported by research.  We discuss the evidence for the above guidelines in our main article on phonemic awareness

We’ve also suggested a variety of teaching activities in our ‘Phonological/Phonemic Awareness Activities for Parents and Teachers’ article.  The activities we outline there can be done at home or in a school setting and there are links to phonemes worksheets and games.

You can also find some useful tips for teaching your child about phonemes on the Reading Rockets site.

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Which Phonemes Should be Taught First?

We discuss this point in another article under the heading, ‘What Order Should Letters of the Alphabet and Phonemes Be Taught?

What Order Are Phonemes Taught in Schools?

This can vary between schools in different countries and even between schools in the same country.  However, in the UK, the majority of schools broadly follow the guidelines of the Government’s Letters and Sounds Phonics programme: 

Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics, Dept. for Education and Skills 2007.

This programme is divided into 6 phases…

Phonemes/Letter Sounds in Phase 1

Phase One falls largely within the Communication, Language and Literacy area of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) of the UK National Curriculum.  Aspects of this phase might be taught in nursery or preschool, but the main focus on phonemes normally happens in reception which is roughly equivalent to kindergarten classes in the USA.

Letter-sound correspondences are not specifically taught in phase 1, but the latter stages of the scheme are designed to increasingly draw the attention of children to the sounds (phonemes) in words.

This is initially done through alliteration to help children develop their ability to tune into speech sounds.  We’ve produced some free alliteration activities if you want to explore this aspect of literacy with your child.

In the latter part of phase one, children explore voice sounds in more detail by listening for the sounds in ‘words’ such as ‘Whee’, boing, oh, ssss, shshsh, mmmoooo, chchchchch, ticktock and ee-aw.

They move on to oral blending using single-syllable words such as cat, dog, mug, sock, coat, toes, feet, cheese, fish, cake, pie, soup leaf, sheep, soap, fish, sock, bus, peg, and zip.

Children then learn to segment these words and other simple words such as cup, duck, pig.

Teachers are advised to avoid using words with adjacent consonants (e.g. ‘sp’ as in ‘spoon) as young children find it harder to discriminate these sounds. 

Children’s curiosity in letter shapes and written words is encouraged in Phase One to help them make a smooth transition to Phase Two when grapheme-phoneme correspondences are introduced.

It’s worth noting here that research suggests it is better to introduce phonemes alongside letters rather than in the purely oral fashion recommended in phase 1 of Letters and Sounds.  

Phonemes/Letter Sounds in Phase 2 – Reception

Phase 2 starts early in reception in the UK in the academic year when children become 5 years old.  It lasts for up to 6 weeks.

Letters and their sounds are introduced in the sets outlined below.  One set of letters is taught each week:

Set 1: s, a, t, p
Set 2: i, n, m, d
Set 3: g, o, c, k
Set 4: ck, e, u, r
Set 5: h, b, f, ff, l, ll, ss

Children are taught how to blend and segment words made up of the letters introduced in Phase 2.

Phonemes/Letter Sounds in Phase 3

Phase 3 starts in the first term of reception and lasts up to 12 weeks.  The phonemes represented by the following graphemes are introduced first:

Set 6j           v          w         x

Set 7y          z          zz         qu

Time is then spent learning the sounds represented by the following digraphs and trigraphs:

ch           sh           th            ng           ai             ee           igh          oa           oo          

ar            or            ur            ow          oi            ear         air           ure         er                           

Phonemes/Letter Sounds in Phase 4

No new phonemes are introduced in phase 4 of letters and sounds.  Children’s knowledge of graphemes is consolidated by reading and spelling words containing adjacent consonants and polysyllabic words.

Phonemes/Letter Sounds in Phase 5 – Year1/Key Stage 1

Phase 5 takes place throughout year 1 (the start of Key Stage 1) in English schools and this is roughly equivalent to First grade in the USA.

Children meet a few new phonemes in phase 5 but they are mostly introduced to alternative spellings for phonemes they have met in previous phases.  These are shown in the table below.

ay

ou

Ie

ea

oy

ir

ue

aw

wh

ph

ew

oe

au

   

ey

a-e

e-e

i-e

o-e

u-e

tch

dge

mb

kn

gn

wr

sc

   

ve

eigh

ei

eo

ui

oul

al

our

ere

eer

are

aigh

ge

 

 

 

st

se

augh

ci

ti

   

Phonemes/Letter Sounds in Phase 6

No new phonemes are introduced in Phase 6.  The main focus is on reading fluency, spelling and teaching the past tense and suffixes.

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Examples of Phonemes in Common Words

As we mentioned earlier in this article, identifying the phonemes in words is called segmenting and this is a key skill for proficient spelling.

It’s important to remember that the number of phonemes in a spoken word isn’t always the same as the number of letters in the written word. 

This is because some phonemes are represented by 2 or more letters. See our articles on digraphs and trigraphs.

The red letters in the examples below are the graphemes (or spellings) that represent the individual phonemes in each word. 

The letters between forward slashes / / are used to represent phonemes in the UK Government’s Letters and Sounds phonics programme*.  The green symbols in round brackets are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

*Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics, Dept. for Education and Skills 2007.

What phonemes are in the word foot?

Foot contains 3 phonemes: 

    • Foot      /f/ (f) as in ‘fox’,
    • Foot      /oo/ (ʊ) as in ‘good’, and
    • Foot      /t/ (t) as in ‘top’.

What phonemes are in the word shell?

Shell contains 3 phonemes:

    • Shell      /sh/ (ʃ) as in ‘ship’,
    • Shell      /e/ (e) as in ‘egg’, and
    • Shell      /l/ (l) as in ‘bell’. 

What phonemes are in the word think?

Think contains 4 phonemes:

    • Think      /th/ (θ) as in ‘thick’,
    • Think      /i/ (ɪ) as in ‘insect’,
    • Think      /n/ (n) as in ‘net’, and
    • Think      /k/ (k) as in ‘kitten’.

What phonemes are in the word stones?

Stones contains 5 phonemes:

    • Stones      /s/ (s) as in ‘snake’,
    • Stones      /t/ (t) as in ‘tiger’,
    • Stones      /oa/* (əʊ or oʊ) as in ‘bone’,
    • Stones      /n/ (n) as in ‘net’, and
    • Stone     /z/# (z) as in ‘zip’.

* The ‘o-e’ letter pattern in ‘stones’ and ‘bone’ is an example of a split digraph.  It is also sometimes referred to as ‘magic e’.

#The letter ‘s’ often represents the /z/ sound at the end of words. 

What phonemes are in the word toilet?

Toilet contains 4 individual phonemes but the /t/ sound is spoken twice:

    • Toilet      /t/ (t) as in ‘tiger’,
    • Toilet     /oi/ (ɔɪ) as in ‘oink’,
    • Toilet      /l/ (l) as in ‘leg’,
    • Toilet      /Ə/ (Ə) or /i/* as in ‘comet’, and
    • Toilet      /t/ (t) as in ‘tiger’.

*The exact sound spoken in this word varies with individual accents.  /Ə/ represents the schwa sound, which is similar to ‘uh’.  

What phonemes are in the word jumped?

Jumped contains 5 phonemes:

    • Jumped      /j/ (dʒ) as in ‘jam’,
    • Jumped      /u/ (ʌ) as in ‘up’,
    • Jumped      /m/ (m) as in ‘man’,
    • Jumped      /p/ (p) as in ‘pig’, and
    • Jumped      /t/* (t) as in ‘tiger’.

*The letters ‘ed’ represent the /t/ sound in a number of other words such as chopped, hopped and walked. 

What phonemes are in the word knife?

Knife contains 3 phonemes:

    • Knife      /n/* (n) as in ‘nose’,
    • Knife      /igh/# (aɪ) as in ‘pipe’, and
    • Knife      /f/ (f) as in ‘fox’.

*’Kn’ represents /n/ in several other words such as knee, knew and know.  This digraph is often referred to as silent k.

#The ‘i-e’ letter pattern in ‘knife’ and ‘pipe’ is an example of a split digraph.  It is also sometimes referred to as ‘magic e’. 

What phonemes are in the word cupcake?

Cupcake contains 4 individual phonemes but /k/ appears three times:

    • Cupcake      /k/ (k) as in ‘cat’,
    • Cupcake      /u/ (ʌ) as in ‘up’,
    • Cupcake      /p/ (p) as in ‘pig’,
    • Cupcake      /k/ (k) as in ‘cat’,
    • Cupcake      /ai/* (eɪ) as in snake, and
    • Cupcake      /k/ (k) as in ‘cat’. 

*The ‘a-e’ letter pattern is an example of a split digraph.  It is also sometimes referred to as ‘magic e’. 

What phonemes are in the word playground?

Playground contains 8 phonemes: 

    • Playground      /p/ (p) as in ‘pan’,
    • Playground      /l/ (l) as in ‘leg’,
    • Playground      /ai/ (eɪ) as in ‘say’,
    • Playground      /g/ (g) as in ‘got’,
    • Playground      /r/ (r) as in ‘red’,
    • Playground      /ow/ (aʊ) as in ‘cloud’,
    • Playground      /n/ (n) as in ‘net’, and
    • Playground      /d/ (d) as in ‘dog’.

What phonemes are in the word quack?

Quack contains 3 individual phonemes but /k/ appears twice:

    • Quack      /k/ (k) as in ‘cat’,
    • Quack      /w/ (w) as in ‘wet’,
    • Quack      /a/ (æ) as in ‘at’, and
    • Quack      /k/ (k) as in ‘cat’.

Note that the letter u almost always follows the letter q in words and the two letters together usually represent /kw/, which contains 2 separate phonemes. 

There are exceptions such as ‘mosquito’ and ‘conquer’ where the pair of letters represent a single /k/ sound.  When ‘q’ isn’t followed by the letter u it normally represents the /k/ sound as in ‘Qatar’.

What phonemes are in the word queen?

Queen contains 4 phonemes:

    • Queen      /k/ (k) as in ‘cat’,
    • Queen      /w/ (w) as in ‘wet’,
    • Queen      /ee/ (i:) as in ‘sheep’, and
    • Queen      /n/ (n) as in ‘net’.

See the comment about the ‘qu’ letter pattern in the ‘quack’ example above.

 What phonemes are in the word ‘the’?

The has 2 phonemes:

    • The      /th/ (ð) as in ‘this’,
    • The      /Ə/ (Ə) as in ‘effect’ or /ee/ (I:) as in ‘sheep’.

/Ə/ represents the schwa sound, which is similar to ‘uh’.  This phoneme is found in ‘the’ when it comes before a word that starts with a consonant sound.  For example, ‘the dog’. 

When ‘the’ comes before a word that starts with a vowel sound, it’s pronounced as ‘thee’.  For example, ‘the eye’.

What phonemes are in the word yacht?

Yacht contains 3 phonemes:

    • Yacht      /y/ (j) as in ‘yoga’,
    • Yacht      /o/* (ɒ) as in ‘ostrich’, and
    • Yach     /t/ (t) as in ‘tiger’.

*The spelling of the /o/ phoneme is very unusual in this word.

What phonemes are in the word school?

School contains 4 phonemes:

    • School      /s/ (s) as in ‘snake’,
    • School      /k/* (k) as in ‘cat’,
    • School      /oo/ (uː) as in ‘zoo’, and
    • Schoo     /l/ (l) as in ‘log’.

*The ‘ch’ digraph more commonly represents the sound found at the start of ‘chimp’.  The /k/ phoneme is found in a few other words that contain the ‘ch’ letter pattern such as anchor and chemistry.

What phonemes are in the word shop?

Shop contains 3 phonemes:

    • Shop      /sh/ (ʃ) as in ‘ship’,
    • Shop      /o/ (ɒ) as in ‘ostrich’, and
    • Shop      /p/ (p) as in ‘pig’

What phonemes are in the word yellow?

Yellow contains 4 phonemes:

    • Yellow      /y/ (j) as in ‘yes’,
    • Yellow      /e/ (e) as in ‘egg’,
    • Yellow      /l/ (l) as in ‘leg’, and
    • Yellow      /oa/ (əʊ or oʊ) as in ‘slow’.

Tricky Examples…

What phonemes are in the word fox?

If you think of the words ‘fox’ and ‘socks’, they only differ in the initial sound when you say them.  Yet many people would say fox contains 3 phonemes and socks contains 4 phonemes.  This is because our perception of phonemes is heavily influenced by our knowledge of the spellings of words. 

We could incorrectly spell fox as ‘focks’ and it would sound exactly the same if we read it out loud.  So fox actually contains 4 phonemes even though it only contains 3 letters.  The letter x represents 2 phonemes in the word, /k/ (k) and /s/ (s).

Similarly, many people would say the word ‘exam’ contains 4 phonemes.  But the letter x represents the sounds /g/ (g) and /z/ (z) in this word, so there are 5 phonemes in exam. 

Notice that an incorrect spelling of the word, ‘egzam’, would sound exactly the same as exam if you read it out loud.

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Are Words Really Made up of Phonemes?

In short, no, spoken words don’t actually contain phonemes as they are normally described in the context of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. 

Professor Mark Seidenberg, a leading researcher of language and reading has demonstrated this by making simple recordings of words. 

If you look at the sound wave patterns from the recordings, there are no clear boundaries that separate the changing sounds that make up words.  Even if you try listening to different sections in the recordings of words, it’s difficult to identify individual phonemes.

You can see an example of this if you look at Professor Seidenberg’s sound wave recording of the word “bat” below:

bat sound wave

A sound wave recording of the word “bat”.  Click on the following link to Professor Seidenberg’s site for a more detailed explanation of this pattern: ‘The Lost Phonemes of Bat’.

work sound waveThe image to the right shows the wave pattern for the word ‘work’.  Again, it’s very difficult to determine where one phoneme ends and the next starts.

Although the sounds in spoken words do change as we speak, there’s no definite point where one sound ends, and another begins.  Instead, there’s a continuous stream of sound in each word that gradually morphs from the beginning to the end.

It’s a bit like the colour chart below.  There’s a gradual change in colour with no clear boundary between one colour and the next.

colour chart

It would be more accurate to describe phonemes as selected fragments of sound from the continuous stream of changing sounds in spoken words. 

And phonemes are only rough approximations because the actual sounds they are supposed to represent in words can vary from one word to another.

Individual phonemes are sometimes pronounced with a slightly different pitch, volume, and duration in different words.  And there are also variations in the way they are pronounced by people with different accents. 

The idea of phonemes existing as distinct, unvarying units of sound came about when people were developing writing systems that used symbols to represent spoken sounds. 

This proved to be more versatile and efficient than trying to represent hundreds of whole words with individual pictures.

So, even though the concept of phonemes existing as isolated sounds isn’t strictly accurate, it’s still a very useful idea because it’s the foundation of our alphabetic writing system. 

Why Does It Seem Like Words Are Made of Phonemes?

Many people are convinced they can hear individual phonemes in spoken words, even though it can be shown they don’t really exist as isolated sounds.

According to Professor Seidenberg, this is because learning to read dramatically changes the way we think about speech, and this has a major impact on our perception of phonemes.

We learn to treat spoken words as if they consist of discrete sounds because we spell them with letters that represent discrete sounds.

Stanislas Dehaene, another distinguished cognitive neuroscientist and reading researcher, has arrived at similar conclusions to Professor Seidenberg. 

In his book ‘Reading in the Brain*’, he cites research that shows Chinese adults who have only learned traditional Chinese writing struggle on phonemic awareness tests.  However, those who have also learned to read an alphabetic representation of Chinese have good phonemic awareness.

*Dehaene, S. (2009), Reading in the Brain:  The New Science of How We Read

This could be one of the reasons why teaching phonemic awareness using letters is more effective than doing it as a purely verbal and auditory exercise.

See, ‘What’s the best way to teach phonemic awareness?’ in our phonemic awareness article.

You can find out more about Professor Seidenberg’s research from his book or his website

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Frequently Asked Questions About Phonemes

Are phonemes letters?

Phonemes are not letters; they are speech sounds that are represented by letters.

Is a phoneme the same as a letter sound?

A phoneme is basically the same as a letter sound, although some phonics purists don’t like the term ‘letter sounds’.  They point out that letters don’t have sounds, they represent sounds. 

However, many teachers still use the term letter sounds as an alternative to phonemes because they see it as a more child-friendly phrase, even though it’s not technically accurate.

What’s the difference between phonemes and graphemes?

Phonemes are actual speech sounds whereas graphemes are the letters used to represent the sounds.

What’s the difference between phonemes and syllables?

Both phonemes and syllables are units of speech, but phonemes are considered to be the smallest units of speech.  Syllables can be whole words or parts of words.  They usually contain a vowel sound along with other speech sounds. 

For example, the word ‘dog’ has just one syllable, but it’s comprised of 3 phonemes which are represented by each of the letters.

Are Vowels and Consonants Phonemes?

Technically, vowel and consonant speech sounds are phonemes, but the letters used to represent them are not.  The actual printed letters are graphemes.

What’s the difference between phonemes and morphemes?

Morphemes are the smallest units of language that have a specific meaning.  Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language that can alter the meaning of a word, but they usually don’t have a meaning on their own.  Two or more phonemes spoken alongside each other can form morphemes.

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