What is a Phoneme in Linguistics?

A small, but crucial, component of language

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The smallest unit of a language that conveys meaning. In terms of phonemic awareness, a phoneme represents each distinct "mouth move" a child makes in a word. For example,  the word "pop" has three distinct phonemes or mouth moves: /p/ /o/ /p/. The word "chop" also has three mouth moves, but the first is made up of two letters: /ch/. (In linguistics, phonemes are written between slashes like this: /p/.) Different speech sounds that are realizations of the same phoneme are known as allophones.

Phonemes in the Classroom

The ability to identify phonemes in their natural habitat—spoken words—is critical for school-age children. This is called phonemic awareness. Children need phonemic awareness to learn to read because reading is essentially relating written letters to phonemes in words. In this way, a phoneme is symbolized by a letter or digraph; it is the "mouth move" signaled by the letter.  The spelling of a word, that is, the sequence of the letters, is a map of the pronunciation, or the sequence of phonemes in a word. To learn to read words, we have to understand this mapping.  Familiarity with phonemes is essential to mastering them. This familiarity comes from reading and being read to, and seeing words written out. Invented spelling—allowing children to experiment with phonemes regardless of the rules of standard spelling—also has a role in the process of making children familiar with phonemes.

Once children became aware of phonemes, it's important for them to be able to find them in words. Teachers should begin with pointing out the phonemes that begin words. Showing children pictures of words that begin with the same phonemes is one way to reinforce this lesson. Then, children should be encouraged to find the phonemes within words and phonemes that end words.

Assessing Phonemic Awareness

Children in kindergarten and first grade should be tested on phonemic awareness. The aspects of assessment include matching, isolation, blending, segmentation, and manipulation.

  • Phoneme matching is the ability to identify words that begin with the same sound.
  • Phoneme isolation is the ability to isolate a single sound from within a word.
  • Phoneme blending is the ability to blend individual sounds into a word.
  • Phoneme segmentation is the ability to break a word into individual sounds.
  • Phoneme manipulation is the ability to modify, change, or move the individual sounds in a word.

History of Phonemes

The term phonème was reportedly first used by A. Dufriche-Desgenettes in 1873, referring to a speech sound. The term phoneme as an abstraction was developed by the Polish linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay in the late 19th Century. The term used was fonema. The concept of the phoneme was then elaborated in the works of the Prague School.