Quick facts

  • The smallest units of speech sound that can convey a unique meaning
  • There are 44 English phonemes, 34 in French and 46 in German
  • Dyslexics have trouble distinguishing and manipulating the sounds
  • Successful dyslexia reading programs help improve students' abilities to discriminate, pronounce and manipulate the sounds
  • Phonemic awareness is the best predictor of future reading ability

Word origins

The English word dates back to the late 19th century and was borrowed from two sources:

1) The French phonème meaning sound unit, which in turn was derived from...
2) The Greek word phon, which means sound and is found today in all kinds of English words from telephone to saxophone to symphony.


"Phon-emes" are the smallest units of speech sound that can convey a unique meaning, they consist of consonants, long and short vowels, digraphs and other sounds. Each language has its own unique set. In English there are 44 sounds. Spanish has just 24, French 34, German 46, and Italian 49.

These are the critical building blocks of language that dyslexics have a lot of difficulty manipulating when it comes time to read or write and even speak.

For example, the words Bat, Mat, Cat and Rat all differ by just one sound, but that one sound makes all the difference in meaning!

What are the sounds?

You may think there would be just 26 sounds in the English Language, one for each of the letters, but in fact there are 44. Check out our detailed list of the 44 phonemes in English or try this more printer friendly pdf courtesy DSF Literacy Solutions if you need a hard copy.

The many sounds of S

To understand how there can be 44 sounds in English consider the sounds associated with the letter S in the words 'Silly', 'Treasure'  and 'Shark'. In the word 'Silly' the S makes its customary hissing kind of /sssss/ sound, but in the word 'Treasure' in makes more of a /zzzz/ sound, and of course in 'Shark' it is a blended digraph that makes the sound /shhhh/. That's one letter and three sounds!

Why do dyslexics have trouble with phonemes?

Good question. No one is really sure exactly why, though we know that the cause of dyslexia lies in the way the brain processes words and language.  Luckily, for most readers, the unique sounds of language can easily be distinguished and manipulated.

If you ask someone without dyslexia what word you would have if you remove the /t/ sound from Train they will tell you 'Rain' without hesitation, but dyslexics have trouble making that seemingly simple jump, which explains their difficulty creating rhymes.

In short, the phonemic sounds are 'sticky' for dyslexics. They seem to comprehend words as whole entities, almost like an object that can't be broken down into parts. This is part of the reason that dyslexics will confuse one word for another just by the way it looks.

Seeing words as wholes not parts

The words Witch and Watch look similar in length and shape and if you're not paying close attention to the letters and sounds making up the words, then you may see one for the other - which can leave those with dyslexia wondering witch watch is which! They are not mixing letters up, they are just plain seeing the whole word incorrectly. They may also be hearing the word incorrectly. See our page on auditory dyslexia for more information. 

This explains why many of the language programs for dyslexics are geared toward improving the ability of students to explicitly discriminate sounds and use each one independently. 

Improving phonemic skills

Successful reading programs for students with dyslexia include explicit instruction on phonemes, phonemic awareness, and more specifically, the decoding and spelling of words. The Orton-Gillingham method of instruction is the classic example.

This approach is  contrasted with the 'whole language' method of instruction which contends that the best way to teach struggling readers is simply to immerse them in a language rich environment, emphasizing meaning, semantics and syntax. The U.S. 2000 National Reading Panel study looked at all the research on phonemic awareness and concluded that:
"These findings show that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective across all the literacy domains and outcomes."

Since that time research continues to support this conclusion, and we know of no effective reading program for students with dyslexia that doesn't include phonemic awareness or takes a whole language approach.

Final phoneme thoughts

Parents and teachers need to understand the role that phonemic awareness plays in dyslexia, mainly to ensure that reading interventions include the development of this skill. But this awareness also helps parents and teachers to be more patient and understanding with students as they struggle to pronounce sounds, letters and words that they have encountered many times before.

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