Phoneme: Definition, Segmentation & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a Phoneme?
  • 0:34 Phoneme Segmentation
  • 2:13 Importance of Phonemes
  • 3:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Phonemes are tiny units of sound in speech. When phonemes are combined, they can make up words. In this lesson, we will discuss what phonemes are, how to segment them in words and why they are important.

What is a Phoneme?

A phoneme is a unit of sound in speech. A phoneme doesn't have any inherent meaning by itself, but when you put phonemes together, they can make words. Think of when adults try to get a baby to say his or her first word. They often coax him or her to sound out the beginning of a word by repeating that sound, or phoneme, over and over by saying something like, 'M, m, m' for 'Mommy.' The 'm' sound, often written as /m/, is an example of a phoneme.

Phoneme Segmentation

You can segment, or break apart, any word to recognize the sounds or phonemes in that word. In order to figure out how many phonemes a word has, it's best to say the word out loud to focus on the sounds that make up the word rather than looking at the letters on paper. For example, if you say the word 'sun,' you will hear that there are three sound units, or phonemes, in that word: /s/ /u/ /n/.

Look at the image below and notice how the man is able to segment the word 'table' into its phonemes with the consonant /t/, the vowel /a/ and the consonant blend /bl/. Consonant blends are two consonants, such as the letters 'b' and 'l' put together to create a sound or phoneme where each sound is pronounced in the blend.

Phonemes can be letters or consonant blends
Graphic demonstrating the segementation of table in phonemes

There are about 40 phonemes, or sound units, in English, thanks to the many ways that the 26 letters of the alphabet can be used and arranged. For instance, the phoneme or sound /f/ can be spelled using the letters f, ff, or ph.

Reading teachers must be able to easily segment and count phonemes in order to help children connect letters to phonemes through phonics, which is a teaching method used to help people learn to read and pronounce words by recognizing the sounds that letters and letter groups make. Counting phonemes can actually be challenging in English because there are so many ways to make different sounds.

For example, the word 'match' has five letters but only three phonemes: /m/ /a/ /ch/. The 't' in match is silent and the 'ch' is a consonant digraph, two letters together that make a distinct sound.

The Importance of Phonemes for English Learners

When someone is learning English, such as a native Spanish speaker, miscommunication can occur if phonemes aren't used correctly. For example, if a native Spanish speaker is speaking English to a native English speaker and he says, 'I went on a sheep across the ocean,' the native English speaker might be very confused.

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