As we know, graphemes are the written symbols that represent phonemes (the smallest unit of sound a person can identify).
In order to teach a child to read using phonics based reading systems, it is imperative that we instill in the child, the understanding of how to break down, or segment, words into the graphemes that are present within those words.
This process of splitting the words down into manageable, recognizable units will, with the right teaching, make sense to them because they will be able to understand each part of the word and assign it meaning on both the page and orally as phonemes.
Scientific study has shown that when a child with no reading skills first encounters a word on a page, they see it not as a collection of different sounds that must be understood or spoken in a particular order, but simply as a whole shape on a page. We must understand how baffling this can be to a child. They may not even know whether they have to start trying to understand this word by reading from left to right. It is easy to forget this, because we are so used to this way of understanding text. It has become something we are unconsciously competent at.
Unless we give children the tools to break that shape down into something they can begin to understand, they are unlikely to get very far with reading.
We have already talked about the fact that our starting point for this segmenting process would be to introduce the child to the individual graphemes using tools like flash cards, whilst simultaneously teaching them the phonemes that match the written graphemes.
There are a huge number of graphemes (150+), which the English language uses to represent the 44 phonemes that we hear. It would be a soul destroying task for both teachers and pupils if we were to teach a child all of them before introducing them to the process of decoding the written word.
It is normal practice therefore, to simplify things by teaching a small number of common graphemes first, and use those as a foundation for building the more complex graphemes as the child becomes more confident.
Examples of the more simple graphemes are: ‘s,’ ‘a,’ ‘t,’ ‘d,’ ‘m,’ ‘n’
Even with this limited number of graphemes, you can teach a child to first segment and then read words like ‘sat’, ‘man’, ‘mat’, and ‘mast’.
Once you have given the child confidence that they can begin to read, it makes it easier to introduce more complex graphemes and, by extension, more sophisticated words, because you have already shown them that they can do what you are asking of them, and you are offering them ways to succeed in manageable chunks rather than as the overwhelmingly huge task of ‘reading’ as a more abstract whole.
So, we start with simple graphemes and their equivalent phonemes. Once we are confident these building blocks are in place in the child’s orthographic store (memory hard drive), something that we do by reinforcing recall by repetition, we start segmenting simple words with the child.
At this stage it is important that we be clear on one thing.
Phonemes should not be confused with syllables.
Syllables, like phonemes, are also units of sound, but breaking down a word syllabically is a different process than doing it phonically.
Syllables are often broken down into larger chunks of sound than phonemes. Sometimes these are called clusters of sound.
Sometimes syllables can be phonemes, but not all syllables are phonemes, and not all phonemes are syllables.
Take the word ‘light,’ for example:
Light has one syllable – ‘light’
The syllables are the clusters of sound that make up the word as we speak it. Because, as natural born speakers of the language we are trying to read (for the most part) we speak very quickly, and often with regional accents, we shape the words sloppily in our mouths, which produces the sound clusters we refer to as syllables.
Let’s look at the word ‘light’ as a word we want to break down phonetically.
Light has three phoneme/graphemes – L-Igh-T
This is because at the phonetic level we are breaking the word down into the smallest discernible sounds we can identify that make up the word as we speak it.
Take the word ‘cat’
Cat is a word of one syllable or sound cluster.
Cat, if we break it down phonetically, has three clearly discernible sounds C-A-T
The purer the sounds the child hears, the easier it is for them to distinguish between individual phonemes and thus recognize graphemes. When we slur a word or make indistinct letter sounds it is much harder for them to distinguish between where one sound begins and another ends.