What are Graphemes in Phonics?
Graphemes are defined as letters, or groups of letters, that represent individual spoken sounds in words (phonemes). More simply, graphemes can be thought of as the spellings of speech sounds.
The number of graphemes in a word is usually considered to be the same as the number of phonemes in the word.
Grapheme is derived from the Greek word ‘graphos’, which means ‘writing or writer’ and the root ‘graph’ is found in various English words such as, autograph, biography, calligraphy and paragraph.
Are Graphemes Letters?
Graphemes are letters, but they’re not always individual letters…
Some sounds (phonemes) can be represented by graphemes that are combinations of letters. For example, ‘ck’ in the word duck is a 2-letter grapheme, and so is ‘sh’ in ship.
There are also 3-letter graphemes such as ‘igh’ in light and 4-letter graphemes such as ‘ough’ in dough. See our articles on digraphs and trigraphs and quadgraphs for more examples of multiple letter graphemes.
Another complication is that some letters might not be considered to be true graphemes in some words because they can represent more than one sound.
For instance, the letter x represents 2 sounds (/k/ + /s/) in words such as fox and mix. This can be illustrated by incorrectly spelling the words as ‘foks’ and ‘miks’. If you read the misspelled words out loud, you will notice they sound the same as the words with the correct spellings.
The letter x can also represent two different sounds (/g/ + /z/) in words such as exam and exist.
X isn’t the only grapheme that can represent more than one sound. Linguists consider diphthong graphemes such as ‘oy’ and ‘ow’ to be combinations of vowel sounds.
Because of these complications, we think it’s better to ignore terms like graphemes and phonemes when introducing phonics to young children. It’s much simpler to just teach kids that letters in written words stand for the sounds in spoken words. So, we ‘spell sounds’ using letters.
Is ‘Qu’ a Grapheme?
In words such as ‘quack’ or ‘queen’, the letters ‘q’ and ‘u’ are acting as 2 separate graphemes because they represent 2 distinct sounds.
The letter q is a grapheme representing the /k/ sound and the letter u is a grapheme representing the /w/ sound.
This can be illustrated by spelling quack or queen incorrectly as ‘kwack’ and ‘kween’. Notice that the words would sound exactly the same if you were to read them out loud.
However, these two letters are paired up in a lot of English words, so they are often taught as if they are a single grapheme.
There are a few words where ‘qu’ does act as a true digraph grapheme. For example, in conquer, quiche and mosquito it only represents one sound – /k/.
What is a GPC in Phonics?
GPC stands for grapheme-phoneme correspondence. It’s a term used to describe the relationship between the individual sounds in spoken words (which are called phonemes) and the letters which represent those sounds (which are called graphemes).
GPCs are often described using the simpler term, letter-sound correspondences. Click on the following link to access our article on letter-sound correspondences.
The article includes a table of the letter-sound correspondences in English which could also be described as a grapheme-phoneme correspondence chart.
How Many Graphemes Are There in the English Language?
We’ve included approximately 130 graphemes in our letter-sound correspondence table, but there are a number of others that only appear in a few words.
Alison Clarke has listed around 220 different grapheme spellings in her ‘sorted by spelling’ page on her Spelfabet website, but it’s possible there are a few more rare ones.
Graphemes vs Morphemes
Graphemes are different from morphemes because the letters in graphemes represent sounds whereas the letters in morphemes have a specific meaning.
Examples of Graphemes in Words
How Many Graphemes Are in the Word Strap?
‘Strap’ contains 5 graphemes. Each letter acts as an individual grapheme and represents an individual phoneme. Some people might count the initial ‘blend’, ‘str’ as one grapheme, but each letter in the blend represents an individual sound.
In words containing digraphs or trigraphs, the number of letters and the number of graphemes doesn’t match. There are also some 4-letter graphemes called quadgraphs or tetragraphs as in the example below:
How Many Graphemes Are in the Word Weight?
Weight only contains 3 graphemes even though there are 6 letters. This is because the ‘eigh’ letter combination acts as a quadgraph grapheme and represents one sound:
w – eigh – t
How Many Graphemes are in Beautiful?
We would count this as 7 or 8 graphemes. It’s complicated because it depends on the way you count graphemes and how an individual pronounces the word. The most obvious way to identify individual graphemes would be to split the word up as follows:
b – ea – u – t – i – f – u – l
The ‘ea’ letter combination is acting as a digraph so there’s no doubt that this is an individual grapheme. The letter u appears twice, so you could just count this once, which would give a total of 7 graphemes.
However, each letter u represents a different sound in the word, so some people might argue they should be counted as individual graphemes. This would give a total of 8.
The letter u might also be considered to be acting as a digraph with the letter l at the end of the word because if you were to spell beautiful without the last u it could sound the same (depending on how you pronounce the /l/ sound).
b – ea – u – t – i – f -ul or b – ea – u – t – i – f – l
If you would like to see more examples, we’ve produced a comprehensive grapheme list that includes most of the letter-sound correspondences in English along with examples of words that contain each grapheme.
Learning about graphemes is really the same thing as learning about letters and sounds. We’ve included some links to activities for learning about graphemes below…
Our Phonological/Phonemic Awareness Activities for Parents and Teachers article includes a variety of activities for teaching graphemes/letter sounds.
Grapheme/Letter Sound Games Online
Click on the following link to access free letter sound games online.
You can also click on the following link to view our free printable alphabet letter sound and phonemic awareness worksheets.