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What is a phoneme?

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Phonetics is the study of the sounds of human speech. Phonology is a branch of linguistics that studies the system of sounds within a language. Phonetics deals with the production of speech sounds, while phonology deals with the patterns of speech sounds. Phonology, then, is about establishing what phonemes are...

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Phonetics is the study of the sounds of human speech. Phonology is a branch of linguistics that studies the system of sounds within a language. Phonetics deals with the production of speech sounds, while phonology deals with the patterns of speech sounds. Phonology, then, is about establishing what phonemes are in a given language.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech. For example, the word "pat" has three phonemes: /p/ /a/ /t/. Typically, a phoneme is associated with a letter of the alphabet, but there are some letters that form a phoneme when put together. These are known as digraphs. A example of this would be when the letters "c" and "h" are put together: they form one sound, /ch/.

Children learn phonemes early on in phonics instruction. Knowing phonemes can allow children to sound out each part of a word in order to say it correctly.

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A phoneme is the smallest possible unit of sound that can be identified as a separate part of the spoken language. When a beginning reader is working to sound out words, s/he is actually making the sounds of the different phonemes and attempting to connect them into a larger unit, which is the word being read.

Phonemes are written in the format of the letter(s) or symbol(s) used to portray the sound with a slash (/) on either side. For example, the sound made at the beginning of the words kite or kill would be written as /k/. In some languages, there is a very close association between each letter of the alphabet and one unique sound, so there are as many phonemes as letters in that language's written record. In other languages, including English, there are many phonemes created by combinations of letters; there are also combinations of letters that can represent different phonemes, or sounds when the combination is pronounced aloud.

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