Phonics Part 2: What are Phonemes, Graphemes, Blends, Digraphs, and Diphthongs?

by C. Elkins, OK Math and Reading Lady

With 44 different phonemes (sounds) in our English language, no wonder some students have a hard time learning to read! Click on this link to get a chart to show all 44: 44 Phonemes This list shows the 5 vowels, 18 consonant sounds (remember the letters c, q, and x don’t make their own distinct sound), the combinations of vowels (digraphs, diphthongs and r-controlled), as well as the consonant digraphs. See the end of this post for some freebies. And be sure to reference Phonics Part 1 for some other cool resources and videos for teaching phonics.

Below are some commonn phonics terms that often get confused.

Phoneme: The smallest unit of sound. Phonemes can be made up of more than one letter. Phonemic awareness experiences are those in which students listen to or produce these phonemes that are heard in words. Here are some examples:

  • Phonemes can be made up of one or more letters: /d/, /sh/, /ow/
  • The word dog has 3 phonemes:  /d/ + /0/ + /g/.
  • The word ship also has 3 phonemes: /sh/ + /i/ + /p/
  • The word cow has 2 phonemes: /k/ + /ow/

Grapheme: The letter or letters used to write the sound (think about the “graph” part of the word). What obviously gets confusing is that many phonemes can be represented by different graphemes such as:

  • Long a:  sayrain, gateeight
  • /f/:  phone, farm, enough
  • /k/:  cat, Christmas, kick

Blend:  A combination of 2 or 3 consonant letters in which each consonant sound is voiced, but blended together.  Blends are often found at the beginning and/or ending of words. Sometimes blends are referred to as consonant clusters.  Here are some common blends:

  • r blends:  br, cr, dr, fr, gr, kr, pr, tr   Be on the alert for students who actually hear /jr/ or /chr/ when looking at words with “dr” or “tr.”
  • l blends:  bl, cl, fl, gl, kl, pl, sl
  • s blends:  sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw
  • 3 letter blends: scr, str, spl

Consonant Digraph:  Two consonants which work together, but make one sound. These are made with the letters ch, sh, ph, th, wh, kn, wr. The “graph” part of the word “digraph” deals with the concept of writing / spelling (ie graphics, grapheme).

  • Often these are introduced early in phonics since they are present in many sight words: sh, th, wh, ch

Vowel Digraph:  Like consonant digraphs, vowel digraphs are the written vowel pairs or teams which work together to produce one sound.  Some vowel digraphs are vowels combined with consonants (such as ow, ay, aw). Here are some examples:

  • ea:  team, reach, bread
  • oo:  foot, soon
  • ai:  chain, bait

Diphthongs:  The sound created when two combined vowels are pronounced differently.  The word diphthong comes from the Greek language meaning “two voices” or “two sounds.” Most common diphthongs are spelled with the digraphs ou, ow, oi, oy.  Notice how your mouth changes or glides as you make these sounds. They aren’t long a (as in ai, ay) or long e (as in ea, ee), etc; but usually a sound that cannot be classified as a long vowel or short vowel sound.

Here are some cool charts (FREE) which are handy to keep at your teacher table to show the different letters, digraphs, and blends you are likely to reference:

Please share your thoughts or your own ideas!