C for chair and S for shoe: Understanding the difference between graphemes and letters

<b> <c>  <ch>   <d>  <f>  <g>  <gh>   <h> <j>   <k>   <kn->   <l>  <m>  <n> <-ng> <p> <ph> <r>  <s>   <sh>  <t>  <th>  <u>*   <v>  <w>   <y>*  <z> <-ck>  <-dg(e)>   <-tch>  <x>  <qu>  <wh->   <gu> <-ugh> <wr> <rh>

<ai>/<ay>  <au>/<aw>  <ea> <ee>   <ei>/<ey>   <eu>/<ew> <ie>  <oa>  <oi>/<oy> <ou>/<ow>     <oo>    <ui>/<uy> <eau> <-er>   <-ir>  <-ur> <-ar>      <-are>  <ear> <or>/<ore>   <our> <air> <oar>     <-ire>     <-ure>  <igh>

Recently I saw on the wall of a kindergarten classroom something that I have seen countless times in other classrooms: letters of the alphabet and objects associated with their “sounds”.   Each letter had a corresponding picture under it:  ant for A, ball for Bchair for C, dog for D, egg for E, … shoe for S, etc.  These displays are intended to facilitate the learning of “sound-symbol” relationships and are supposed to help make learning to read easy.

I was in a school for a professional development session with the teachers on reading.  I had been brought in to help the teachers with phonics.  According to the teachers, the students were struggling with reading and they (teachers) were having difficulties getting them to improve.  I informed the teachers that instead of phonics, we were going to discuss Orthographic Phonology, which makes more sense.  We spent some time discussing the structure of language itself – phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and discourse – and how the spelling system goes about representing that structure as written text.  They encountered the terms “orthography”  (meaning the spelling system of a language), phonology, etymology, morphemes, grapheme and phoneme for the first time.  No surprise there!   

We moved on to the conceptual hierarchy of English spelling system: morphology, etymology, and phonology.  We spent time discussing the implication of the three-concept hierarchy of the spelling system to literacy instruction.  I wanted to make it clear to them that English spelling consistently represents meaning (morphology) but also calls attention to the origin and history of words (etymology) before representing pronunciation. How a word is spelled depends on what it means, where it came from and how it is pronounced (in that order).  Before analyzing the pronunciation of a written word, the morpheme boundaries have to be determined first.  We worked through plenty of examples to help drive home that point.

We finally landed on phonology, our intended target. The teachers were introduced to the two aspects of orthographic phonology: phonemic awareness and graphemic awareness.  Phonemic awareness deals with pronunciation – the phonemic components and sometimes the prosodic features (especially stress) of words.  We have to be able to analyze the ‘sounds’ in the words we are trying to write down or read.  There is a lot of talk about the importance of phonemic awareness to reading development.  However, very little is said about graphemic awareness.  Graphemic awareness is the ability to analyze how the spelling units represent pronunciation.  This means you have to know what graphemes or spelling units are. 

To start with, you need to grasp the difference between letters and graphemes.  What is a grapheme?  A grapheme is a letter or group of letters that represents a phoneme (pronunciation) in a word.  Each of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet can be a grapheme in some word.  Linguists put graphemes in angle brackets <> to distinguish them from letters when discussing spelling.  For example, the word ‘hat’ is made up of 3 letters and 3 graphemes <h> <a> <t> which correspond to 3 phonemes (sounds): /h/ /æ/ /t/;  ‘girl’ is made up of 4 letters: g-i-r-l and 3 graphemes: <g> <ir> <l> which correspond to 3 phonemes /g/ /ɜr/ /l/;  ‘child’ is composed of 5 letters c-h-i-l-d but 4 graphemes <ch> <i> <l> <d> which correspond to 4 phonemes /ʧ/ /aɪ/ /l//d/.  ‘Laugh’ is written with 5 letters (l-a-u-g-h) but is made up of 3 graphemes <l> <a> <ugh> which correspond to 3 phonemes (sounds): /l/ /æ/ /f/. 

So, the number of graphemes will always be the same as the number of phonemes.  Based on the above, let us consider some common graphemes: <h, t, b, k, l, d, g,  a, i>. Each of these is a single letter grapheme.  <ch, oo, ir> are composed of two letters each.  Two-letter graphemes are called digraphs.  Examples of digraphs include: <ch, sh, ph, ck, wr, rh, wh, oo, ai, ay, ee, ea, au, aw, ou, ow, er, ar, or>. There are even a few three-letter graphemes known as trigraphs: <tch, ugh, rrh, eau, air>. <dg(e)> and <or(e)> can be either digraphs or trigraphs depending on how you analyze them. 

So back to the word ‘chair’: how do you analyze it?  What grapheme corresponds to the initial /ʧ/? Is it <c> or <ch> ?  If you are new to such analysis, what you can do is write down a list of words which contain the phoneme /ʧ/ and try to determine which letter(s) represent it.  Such an exercise could include such words as <chip, chair, chain, choose, church, teach>. What the above list of words have in common is the phoneme /ʧ/ and the letter sequence <ch>.   Is it <c> or <ch> for /ʧ/?  If you answer ‘<c>‘ , then you have to figure out what the following <h> corresponds to. And the answer can’t be “The ‘h’ is silent”.  You can safely deduce that there is a connection between the letter sequence <ch> and the phoneme /ʧ/.  Based on that you can assume that <ch> represents the /ʧ/.  So, in our classroom example, it should be ‘<ch> for chair‘ rather than ‘<c> for chair‘.

If we carry out a similar exercise with ‘shoe’ and assemble a word bank, we can deduce that it is <sh> for ‘shoe’ and not <s> because the <sh> corresponds to /ꭍ/ in words like <shirt>, <ship>, <shake>, <wash>, <push>, <cushion>.  Yes, <s> can represent the phoneme /ꭍ/ sometimes; but, what you notice in such cases is that the <s> is always followed by a <u> : sugar, sure, insure, assure, issue (American pronunciation). 

This goes to show that before we can effectively help the children in our care on their literacy journey, we would do well to equip ourselves as instructors first. We cannot keep telling them that “C is for chair” and wonder why they continue to struggle with reading and writing.


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