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Phoneme and Grapheme
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Improve reading skills with this phoneme and grapheme guide

An effective way to improve students’ spelling and reading skills is to give them phoneme and grapheme practice. This involves making them aware of sounds made in words and the letters that are used to represent these sounds. An example is the /k/ sound being represented by a ‘c’ in cat, ‘ch’ in tech, ‘qu’ in quarter, ‘lk’ in walk, ‘rk’ in park, ‘wk’ in hawk and ‘ck’ in back.

Being aware of how sounds and symbols work together can help students to learn to spell and read easier. Many students believe that spelling and reading are difficult for them because there are tons of rules that they just can’t understand. They need to know that when it comes to learning sight words, all rules go out the door.

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This guide offers teachers and parents important information for teaching phoneme and grapheme lessons. The terms used in this guide are not meant for the students to learn.

It offers 4 lists of words of similarly spelled words. This should assist with lessons on phoneme and grapheme using posters, worksheets, flashcards and word games.

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of a word. Before learning to spell or read, a person must be able to identify each sound in a word when listening to speech.

E.g. pat /p/-/a/-/t/ and bait /b/-/ai/-/t/ both have three phonemes even though bait has an extra letter.

There are several things to know about a single sound in a word.

A phoneme is a single sound in a syllable which can be open, ending in a vowel as in hotel, closed, ending in a consonant as in welcome, vowel consonant e as in dislike, r-controlled as in portable, vowel team as in meaning, and consonant -le as in table.

It can be part of a blended sound as in train, /t/-/r/-/ai/-/n/. It can be hard as in the letters b, c, d, g and k, and can be soft as in c, f, g, j and l.

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A phoneme can be long as in the vowel sounds in ape, weigh, eat, field, ice, psyche, oat, though, use and youth. It can be short as in the vowel sounds in the words act, egg, hear, said, ink, physical, got, born, gone, cup and cop.

The single sound in a word can be voiced as in all vowel sounds and the consonant sounds in bad, dog, this, that, wave, van, are, ear, it, of, up and zig zag. It can be voiceless as in the initial sounds in cell, far, hat, pat, tip, thin and think.

A phoneme can also be stressed meaning it is louder, higher and longer than other sounds in a word as in break in breakfast. It can be unstressed like the syllable fast in breakfast.

These are important things to know about a phoneme. It is best to teach this using conversation and verbal word games. Once students understand the individual sounds made in words, they are ready to learn about graphemes.

What is a grapheme?

A grapheme is the letter or letters used to represent a phoneme or single sound in writing. Students are usually aware of graphemes that have a single letter.

It is important that they attempt to spell words on their own using their knowledge of the 26 letters of the alphabet before learning about graphemes that are made up of 2, 3 and 4 letters. This will show you their competence in phonics.

Some phonemes are represented by multiple letters. This can make learning to read or spell very difficult for some students because spelling rules don’t apply to words that contain graphemes with more than one letter.

What is the best way to get phoneme and grapheme practice?

When learning or teaching English, using grapheme lists can be very helpful as similarly spelled words are grouped together. Students can learn to spell words using lists of words that are spelled similarly but may not sound the same.

These lists help to group sight words for students to make sense of the arbitrariness of the phoneme and grapheme language system.

The words are placed into four groups with several examples. These are enough to encourage conversation in the classroom, make posters and flashcards, or play word games.

Also, the best way to practise spelling and reading is to read as many books as possible. That way, students can see the words in the lists used in context. Here are 4 groups of graphemes that represent phonemes.

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4 word lists of graphemes

Single letter

These are written as capital or common letters: Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ee, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Oo, Pp, Qq, Rr, Ss, Tt, Uu, Vv, Ww, Xx, Yy and Zz.

The letters a, e, i, o, u and y represent long and short sounds. The letters b, c, d, g, j, k, l, v, w, x, y and all vowels represent hard sounds. Soft sounds are represented by f, h, p and t. Nasals are represented by m and n. Sibilant sounds are written with an s and z.


digraph is a grapheme made by two letters that represent one sound. Some are ai, ea, ee, ei, ey, ew, ie, oa, oo, ou, ow, ch, sh, ss, th, wh and wr. Each grapheme that is a digraph may represent one or more phonemes. Listen to the different sounds made with the same grapheme in the following words:

  • ai – paid, said
  • ea – bead, head
  • ee – feed, been
  • ei – vein, leisure
  • ey – obey, honey
  • ew – few, sew
  • ie – field, friend, believe
  • oa – boat, road
  • oo – took, food
  • ou – soup, cousin
  • ow – slow, tow
  • ch – chat, tech
  • ph – phone, graph
  • sh – ship, wash
  • ss – passion, fuss
  • th – thin, that
  • wh – white, whole
  • wr – write, wrong


trigraph is a grapheme made by three letters that represent one sound. Some of these are air, are, ear, eir, eig, dge, ght, oar, oor, igh, ure and tch. Observe the single sounds made with the following trigraphs:

  • air – hair, pair, stair, flair
  • are – care, rare, dare, share
  • ear – bear, dear, fear, tear
  • eir – their, weird, weirdo
  • eig – reign, foreign, feign, sovereign
  • dge – edge, grudge, hedge, ledge
  • ght – caught, weight, height, bought, daughter
  • oar – boar, roar, soar, board
  • oor – door, floor, poor, moor
  • igh – sigh, highlight, sight
  • ure – cure, endure, mature, sure
  • tch – catch, fetch, switch, notch
  • gue – vague, vogue, fatigue, colleague

4-letter grapheme or ‘tetragraph’ and ‘quadgraph’

A ‘tetragraph‘ or ‘quadgraph’ is a term used by teachers to describe a single sound that is represented by four letters. Some of these are augh, eigh, ough, ngue and heir. Listen to the single sounds made with the following ‘tetragraphs’ or ‘quadgraphs’:

  • augh – caught, naught daughter
  • eigh – eight, weigh, height
  • ough – through, although, though
  • ngue – tongue, cangue, gangue
  • heir – heir, heirdom, heirloom
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This guide can definitely help students to improve spelling and reading effectively. Knowledge of the phoneme and grapheme groups of words will open their eyes to the different ways that sounds are represented by letters. They should be more relaxed with learning new words than thinking that there are tons of rules that they can’t seem to understand. Have fun!

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See also:

Alphabet: 7 major things to know about letters and sounds

Trace alphabet: Download 27 free worksheets

Learn alphabet: Download 27 free worksheets to colour

Words -an ending: Download 6 free worksheets to trace

Words -at ending: Download 8 free worksheets to trace

Words -am ending: Download 5 free worksheets to trace

Two letter words: Download 5 free worksheets for tracing

Trace numbers: Download 32 free worksheets for practice

Learn numbers: Download 32 free worksheets to colour

Vowels – syllables, digraphs, trigraphs, long, short and silent

Consonants – digraphs, trigraphs, hard, soft, blends, silent sounds

Spelling rules for ch, tch, ck, k, oi, oy, ou, ow, ie, ei

Affixes – rules for adding prefixes and suffixes

Phonological and phonemic awareness: Help a struggling reader with sounds

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