Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound that make up our language. Learning about phonemes (individual sounds) is a critical part of developing phonological awareness (learning how sounds work together to make words).

While we have 26 letters of the American alphabet, we actually have around 44 sounds. (Different reading specialists will give slightly different answers to the number of total sounds we have in American-English.) And – here’s the part that makes English so hard to learn – we have 250+ graphemes or letter units that spell those 40-odd sounds.

How is that possible, you ask?


The 5 Steps to Learning to Read:

  1. Phonological Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary Development
  5. Reading Comprehension

Some Phonemes are made up of individual letters. For example, D makes the “duh” sound. No matter where D shows up in the word, it makes the same sound. Other letters, are a bit more tricky. Consider the letter C. Depending on the letters that come immediately before or after it, C can make a hard sound, like the letter “k”, or a soft sound, like the letter “s”.

Vowels make all different kinds of sounds, depending on their letter partners. Take a look at A. In its simplest form, A most often makes a short vowel sound. But, pair the the letter A up with the letter I or Y and suddenly the letter A says it’s name. If the letter R comes right after the letter A, then you get what is called a controlled-R sound. The letter A sound also changes with other consonant neighbors, such as letter W and letters LL.

LETTER HEARD in Words Like
D dog, middle, mud
C (hard) cake, courage, comic
C (soft) celery, cymbal, pencil
A (long) cake, pain, day, weigh
A (soft) cat, apple, magma
A (R-controlled) ark, jar, farm


The number of phonemes a word has will NOT always equal the number of letters in the word.

The goal of Phonological Awareness instruction is to help a child develop an ear for language. You don’t have to worry about reading or spelling so many different rules. When you focus on listening and learning to discriminate different sounds, you are laying the foundation for successful reading later on.

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Last modified on September 5, 2023