Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence

Background Information

The first category in our scope and sequence is Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence. Most scope and sequences are organised based on the introduction of different graphemes and their corresponding phonemes, however many programs use the phrase letter/sound correspondence rather than grapheme/phoneme correspondence. We use the terms “grapheme” and “phoneme” from the beginning of instruction because we feel it can help to reduce confusion later in instruction when students learn that multiple letters can work together to make one sound.




A grapheme is a unit of a writing system. It can be made of a letter or combination of letters . Graphemes are often defined as a written unit that represents a phoneme, but can also do other jobs such as mark pronunciation or indicate an historical relationship.

  • grapheme <a >can represent phoneme /ă/
  • grapheme <ck >represents /k/
  • grapheme <-tch >represents /tʃ/ (/ch/)
  • grapheme <e >marks the preceding vowel long (/ ā /) in “cake”
  • grapheme <l >in “talk” marks an etymological relationship (historical relationship) between “talk” and “tale”

Note: when you see <>, say the letter name(s); when you see //, say the phoneme (sound)



A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech distinguishing one word (or word element) from another

  • e.g., “fish” and “dish” - /f/ is a different phoneme from /d/
  • e.g., “re” and “be” - /r/ is a different phoneme from /b/

Phonemes are coarticulated in words - a phoneme’s articulation may be influenced by the phonemes that come before or after it, as such, phonemes can be considered “abstract”. To demonstrate this, consider how differently the phonene/t/ is articulated in the following words:

  • “tack”, “cat”, “water”

Keep in mind that phonemes also change depending on where you are in the world. The same word/phoneme can be pronounced very differently depending on the accent of the person who is speaking.


Where does Phonemic Awareness fit in?

  • Phonemic Awareness refers to the ability to focus on and manipulate the individual phonemes in the English Language. Students with strong phonemic awareness can discrimiate between, add to, remember, and manipulate sounds at the phoneme level.
  • Although phonemic awareness can be taught without the inclusion of graphemes, studies have shown that phonemic awareness instruction tends to be more effective when linked with associated graphemes.
  • Phonemic awareness is a strong predictor of reading success, and is directly involved in the process of orthographic mapping. (see Orthographic Convention Background Information Sheet)

Grapheme/Phoneme Big Ideas

Big Idea


  • Many graphemes represent more than one phoneme
  • <ea >can represent /ĕ/ (e.g., “bread”)
  • <ea >can represent /ē/ (e.g., “eat”)
  • <ea >can represent /ā/ (e,g., “great”)
  • There is more than one way to represent many phonemes
  • /ŏ/ can be represented by <o >(e.g., “on”)
  • /ŏ/ can be represented by <a >(e.g., “all”)
  • /ŏ/ can be represented by <aw >(e.g., “saw”)
  • The location of a grapheme and the graphemes around it can give readers hints to which phomeme the grapheme represents
  • vowels at the end of a syllables tend to make their long sound (e.g., “go”)
  • when a vowel is followed by an <r >, the vowel sound changes (e.g., “her”)
  • <c >represents /s/ when followed by <e >, <i >, or <y >
  • Not all graphemes in words represent phonemes
  • <g >in “sign”
  • <e >in “cake”
  • <l >in “talk


***Important Note about the limits of Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence***

English is a morphophonemic language - it incorporates both morphological information as well as phoneme information. This means that the study of grapheme/phoneme correspondence on its own will not give readers and writers a full understanding of our language. The primary job of spelling is to represent meaning, so it is critical to teach morphology and etymology alongside grapheme/phoneme correspondence. To demonstrate this concept, consider the spelling of the following words: “jumped”, “dogs”, and “heal”.

  • “jumped”: sounds like /j/, /u/, /m/, /p/, /t/
  • “dogs”: sounds like /d/, /o/, /g/, /z/
  • “heal”: sounds like /h/, /ē/, /l/ - how do you know which grapheme to use to represent /ē/?

The study of morphology and etymology will help students learn about the structure of these words, and words that are related in meaning. This knowledge will help students understand which grapheme to use to represent the phonemes they hear in these words.



Key Concepts about Teaching Graphemes


Letter formation matters - research shows that adding letter formation practice while learning graphemes is extremely helpful - think of letter formation as having a “pathway”, with an entrance and exit point

  • when learning a new grapheme, have students form the letter(s) at the same time
  • students can form the letter(s) even if their fine motor skills are not yet developed
  • consider drawing in sand with a finger, or in the air with an arm
  • it can help students remember a grapheme and associated phoneme if you also choose a “key word”
  • when practising grapheme correspondence, have students say the letter name(s), keyword, and then associated phoneme (e.g.,<a >, “apple”, /ă/)

Certain graphemes have placement constraints (e.g., words of English origin do not end in <v >; we use <ay >to represent /ā/ at the end of a base, etc.)

  • it is efficient to teach these placement constraints at the same time as you teach the grapheme and associated phoneme
  • these constraints fall into the category of “orthographic conventions” - more can be read about this in our next tip sheet

It is important to work towards mastery. Instruction needs to be explicit, direct, and cumulative .

  • Consider moving away from “letter of the week” - new concepts need to be taught, consolidated, and cycled back again and again to ensure students have mastered each grapheme/phoneme correspondence.
  • materials used for practice (word reading, phrase reading, sentence reading, connected text) should include concepts taught up to this point in instruction

It is important to introduce students to the correct terms regarding graphemes, such as digraphs and trigraphs. Teaching about digraphs early in instruction can help students understand that it is common for graphemes to consist of more than one letter.

  • digraph: a grapheme comprised of 2 letters representing one phoneme
    • consonant digraph examples: <ck >representing /k/, <ff >representing /f/, <sh >representing /ʃ/
    • vowel digraph examples: <oa >representing /ō/, <ay >representing /ā/
  • trigraph: a grapheme comprised of 3 letters representing one phoneme
    • consonant trigraph examples: <-dge >representing /j/
    • vowel digraph examples: <igh >representing / ī /


Key Concepts about Teaching Phonemes


Changes in our lips, tongue, mouth position, air flow and vocal cord vibration result in the creation of different phonemes.

  • it is important to help students recognize how their mouths feel when they make certain phonemes
  • ask students to describe what they are feeling in their mouth - ask them to consider what they are feeling with their lip, tongue and throat
  • some mouth formations can be seen in a mirror - have students look into a small mirror as they make different phonemes

Phonemes can be categorised in different ways. Some of the most common ways are described below:


Stop Phonemes

  • consonant phoneme where the air flow is stopped in articulation
  • include /b/, /k/, /d/, /g/, /p/, /t/
  • should be pronounced in a “clipped” way - if you try to extend them, you are adding a sound that shouldn’t be there, usually ends up sounding like a drawn out “uh” at the end of the phoneme
  • it can be a bit challenging to blend from a stop sound into a vowel sound - it is best to practise with continuous sounds first

Continuous Phonemes

  • phoneme that is made with a continuous, uninterrupted flow of air from our mouth or nose
  • includes all vowel phonemes, as well as /f/, /h/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /r/, /s/, /v/, /z/
  • it is much easier to learn to blend with continuous sounds, as they can be held for a length of time before you blend into the next phoneme
  • note: not all phonemes fall clearly into either “stop” or “continuous” - for the purpose of early instruction, we have listed the most common and the clearest examples

Voiced Phonemes

  • phoneme articulated with vibrating vocal cords
  • all vowels phonemes, as well as /b/, /d/, /g/, /j/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /r/, /v/, /y/, and /z/
  • have students gently place their palm on their throat - when they articulate a voiced phoneme, they will be able to feel a vibration in their vocal chords

Unvoiced Phonemes

  • phoneme articulated with no resonance of the vocal cords
  • phonemes /k/, /f/, /h/, /p/, /s/, /t/
  • have students gently place their palm on their throat - when they articulate an unvoiced phoneme, they should not be able to feel a vibration in their vocal chords

Vowel Phonemes are continuous, voiced, and they have unobstructed airflow . Think of /ă/ compared to /v/. Both are continuous and both are voiced, but when you articulate /v/, your teeth sit on your lower lip and obstructs your air flow. When you articulate /ă/, your jaw drops, your mouth opens, and your tongue does not interfere. “Unobstructed airflow” is the key defining feature of vowel phonemes. All spoken syllables contain a vowel phoneme, which will be represented by at least one vowel letter.



***Important Note about Phonemes in Isolation***

When we say phonemes in isolation, we can explore their articulation. We can feel our lip, tongue, mouth position and vocal cord vibration. As soon as phonemes are combined into words, things become a bit more complex. Phonemes are coarticulated, which means that their pronunciation is influenced by what phonemes come before and after. Here are some examples to show the concept of coarticulation:

  • say / ă /, now say the word “an” - listen to the difference in the sound of the phoneme /a/ in both examples
  • say /t/, now say the word “water”, now say the word “cat” - listen to the differences in the sound of the phoneme /t/ in all three examples

As well as the concept of coarticulation, we need to consider the effect of “stressed” and “unstressed” words and syllables. English is a “stress-timed” language. This means that we automatically stress certain words or syllables when we speak. These stressed syllables are perceived to occurr at regular intervals, creating a natural “rhythm” to our speech. Unstressed syllables are often said faster to help maintain this rhythm.

Polysyllabic words always have a syllable that has the primary stress. Vowels in unstressed syllables/words are called a “schwa”. A “schwa” is a non-distinct vowel sound that doesn’t sound like any of the main vowels in isolation. Here are some words and phrases to show the concept of “schwa” and stress:

  • say “banana” - listen to how the <a >sounds different in each spoken syllable (ba/na/na) - the stress is on the middle syllable, so that <a >sounds the most like / ă/ in isolation - the other two <a >are pronounced as a schwa /ə/
  • say “pencil” - listen to how the <i >sounds in the second syllable - the syllable is unstressed, and it is also a schwa rather than a short /ǐ/
  • say the phrase “in a park” - notice that we would not typically stress the word “a”, so it tends to sound like a schwa /ə/ rather than an / ă/

Be careful when students ask for support with spelling words that contain a schwa - make sure you do not change how you would naturally articulate the word, as students are not able to do this and it is not a strategy that will help them gain independence with spelling. On top of that, it might give them the false message that they should be able to hear a phoneme that isn’t actually articulated in a word.


Final Note:

Our brains are “hard wired” to learn language - the majority of humans do so at a young age without much conscious intent. When we are learning to read and write however, we need to be explicitly taught how to bring conscious attention to the phonemes within words, and the graphemes that represent them.




Lesson Ideas for Developing Foundational Skills with Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence


Phonemic Awareness:

  • students need regular practice identifying, segmenting, blending, and manipulating previously taught phonemes and target phonemes in words
  • to begin with, provide opportunities for students to listen for the target phoneme in words - example activities might be to have students put a thumbs up if they hear the target phoneme at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word
  • provide opportunities for students to blend and segment words with previously taught phonemes and the target phoneme:
    • Tap it Out: students stand in a circle, educator says a word (e.g., mat) students and teacher tap out the phonemes on their bodies (/m/ tap head; / ă / tap waist; /t/ tap toes. Continue with several words using target phoneme.
    • Toss it: Students stand in a circle, educator mimes throwing 3 balls to a student saying a phoneme with each toss (e.g., /b/ / ī / /k/), student mimes catching the balls, repeating the phonemes after the teacher, then once they have all 3 balls blending the phonemes together to say the word (e.g., “bike!”)
    • Say it, Move it (blending): Students are given 3 counters, connecting cubes, or any other small item, educator slowly says phonemes in a word (e.g., /n// ă //p/) and students slide the counters/cubes up one at a time while repeating the phoneme, then try blending the phonemes together to say the word
    • Say it, Move it (segmenting): Students are given 4 counters, connecting cubes, or any other small item, educator says a word (e.g.,slip) and students slide counters/cubes down one at a time, segmenting the word into its separate phonemes

Grapheme Deck:

  • print out a grapheme deck to use with students - include graphemes previously taught, as well as the target grapheme for the lesson - introduce the new grapheme and help choose/assign an associated keyword to help student remember phoneme
  • Review each grapheme by saying the letter name, keyword, and letter sound (e.g., <b >, bear, /b/) having students repeat after you while they form the letter in the air or with their finger
  • With the vowel grapheme cards , include the gesture or action when introducing the sound (e.g. <a >, apple, /a/ and gesture eating an apple explaining that this mouth formation helps to form the short /a/ sound; for <i >, itch, /i/ demonstrate itching your arm as the gesture)
  • Blending: demonstrate to students how you will be practising blending the letters together to read words. On the table in front of them (or whiteboard using magnets on back of grapheme cards), start with some simple VC blends using the graphemes introduced in Cat Nap (e.g., at, on, an, am)
  • Word Chains: using the grapheme cards create word chains (changing just one letter at a time) for students to practise blending sounds together for words in Cat Nap (e.g., cat, mat, map, mop, top, tap, tad, dad, sad, sat, pat, pot, hot, got)

Word Reading/Phrase Reading/Sentence Reading:

  • prepare words, phrases and sentences for students to read using previously taught graphemes and the target grapheme
  • start with simple review words, then move to more complex words that include consonant clusters, digraphs, etc. If students come to a word that they do not know, have them say each phoneme aloud (corresponding to each grapheme on the page), then have them blend the phonemes to read the word
  • move from words, to phrases, to sentences
  • if reading of phrases or sentences is disfluent, have student read the phrase/sentence again
  • students can practise reading independently, then listen to students reading out loud one at a time while other students practise. Finish by having the whole group read the sentences out loud together


Encoding is the opposite of decoding (blending phonemes to read words). Encoding involves segmenting words into phonemes in order to spell the words. Research has shown that there is a strong connection between decoding and encoding and practising encoding reinforces a student’s ability to decode (read), while practising decoding reinforces a student’s ability to encode (spell).

  • have students place a selection of grapheme cards in front of them (both target grapheme and review graphemes)
    • Spell the sound: say several phonemes one at a time to students, and have them point to the corresponding grapheme from their set (e.g., /b/, /m/, /a/, /p/, /o/)
    • Spell the word: say a word - have student segment the phonemes, then identify the graphemes they would use to spell the word
    • Write it: give each student a piece of paper and pencil (or whiteboard and marker), dictate several phonemes, words, phrases, and then sentences that you have worked on this lesson - students will listen, repeat, complete sound analysis, then identify and write down the corresponding graphemes to represent what was dictated

Connected Text:

For the final step, students will read a controlled (decodable) text, consolidating all of the skills they have worked on through the lesson. Key things to consider when reading decodable texts:

  • students should be familiar with all (or almost all) concepts found in a decodable book
  • if there is a word that might be unexpected for them, it should be reviewed ahead of time
  • if stuck, students can identify the graphemes, corresponding phonemes, then blend each phoneme to make a word
  • if an error is made, review the corresponding grapheme/phoneme correspondence by forming letter, saying letter name, keyword, and associated phoneme - note the error for consolidation in next lesson

Comprehension Corner

Comprehension matters! Take time to discuss the book before, during, and after reading. Although it is important to not interrupt the flow of the reading too much, it is okay to stop and ask the student to think about the text. The Simple View of Reading reminds us that Word Recognition on its own is not enough! Here are some ideas for exploring comprehension with decodable books.



Decodable books often present many opportunities for making inferences. Because authors have limited vocabulary they can use due to the nature of controlled text, there are many times when the reader needs to do some inferencing to determine what is happening in the story. Watch for these instances and bring them to your students’ attention.


Vocabulary development

Again, due to the nature of the controlled vocabulary in decodable texts, authors sometimes choose words that vary from what a student might typically use. An author might use “cross” instead of “angry”, “glad” instead of “happy”, or “pals” instead of “friends”. For this reason, decodable books lend themselves to discussions about synonyms. Take time to explore less frequently used words and help to build students’ understanding of the nuances of our language.



Predications can be made before, during, or after reading. Although we are trying to avoid having students predict or guess a word based on a picture or what they know about a topic, it is still a valuable activity to have students predict what they think might happen in a story based on their understanding of the character and the events in the story so far.



It is very important to do a full check after reading a decodable book to make sure your students have come away with a good general understanding of the book they have just read. With leveled readers, students are accustomed to using meaning cues as often as they use other cues to solve unknown words. With decodable books, the full focus of decoding is on graphemes/phoneme correspondence, orthgraphic patterns, and morphological elements. We need to make sure students don’t end up with tunnel vision on those individual elements and lose the thread of the text as a whole. This takes practice, and rereading texts to develop fluency and support comprehension is a good strategy.