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How To Identify Phonemes

Phonemes might sound like a complicated linguistic term. However, phonemes simply refer to the way each sound in a word is pronounced. This is different from the individual letters, and knowing how to identify phonemes is an essential part of learning a new language or pronouncing new sounds correctly. So, how do you identify phonemes?

For foreign language students, identifying phonemes is a difficult task. However, this becomes much easier when using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart. For native students, however, identifying phonemes is much easier than one might think, and you can easily train your brain to do so.

Many parents struggle when helping their children with language studies. This is mainly because they too don’t understand the linguistic terms used, and they also might not know how to explain the grammar to their children. However, the information shared in this article will help you understand how to identify phonemes and why being able to do so is essential.

How Can You Identify Phonemes?

Before discussing how to identify phonemes, let’s first establish what phonemes mean. The dictionary describes phonemes as: “a unit of sound that can distinguish one sound from another in a specific language.”

This is a complicated explanation for something straightforward. Phonemes are the way individual sounds connect to form a word. For example, in the word “bat”, the sounds /b/ /a/ and /t/ join to make the word. In this example, there is nothing complicated about how the sounds come together to form the word.

However, let’s look at the word “make.” In this word, the sounds /m/ /a/ and /k/ join to form the word. While the word is spelled with an /e/ at the end, this letter is silent. Therefore, when identifying the phonemes, you won’t include a description of the letter /e/ because it is not pronounced.

When identifying phonemes, you must consider the way a word sounds. This is different from how a word is spelled and will help you correctly pronounce any new words you learn, whether it is in your own language or a foreign one.

Phonemes are especially useful when learning to read and write in a specific language. By listening to the pronunciation of a word and then reading it, you can write your own phonemic understanding of the word. By doing so, you will have far less trouble pronouncing the word in the future.

For example, when you first see the word teacher, you can write the phonemes /t/ /ee/ /ch/ /i/ /r/ next to it. This way, you will be able to pronounce the word correctly. While learning phonemes might confuse some regarding spelling, it is certainly useful for heteronyms or minimal pairs.

Identifying Phonemes In Heteronyms

Heteronyms are words that you spell the same but sound different. Examples of heteronyms are:

  • Bow (to bend forward when greeting someone) vs. Bow (used for hunting with an arrow)
  • Excuse (ask or give permission to leave) vs. Excuse (giving a reason for missing something or being late)
  • Refuse (garbage) vs Refuse (not accept)

As you can see, all these words are spelled the same but sound different. As a result, these words might be challenging for people to identify, especially when reading. Therefore, by using phonemes, you can easily identify the different word meanings based on how they sound.

Let’s consider the phonemic value of each word above:

  • Bow phonemically sounds like /b/ /aa/ /w/; while the second Bow sounds like /b/ /o/ /w/.
  • Excuse sounds like /e/ /x/ /k/ /ew/ /z/; but the second Excuse sounds like /e/ /x/ /k/ /ew/ /s/.
  • Refuse sounds like /r/ /ee/ /f/ /ew/ /s/; while the second Refuse sounds like /r/ /ee/ /f/ /ew/ /z/.

By identifying the phonemic value of the words above, you can easily determine how to pronounce these words based on the context of the passage you are reading.

Resources for teaching Single Sounds, Phonemes and minimal pairs.

Although the terminology can be complex the actual concept is not. Phonemes are units of sound that when put together form words. These words convey meaning.

We have hundreds of resources on this site, including some examples of phonics resources that may be useful below. However our full list in in this link. Feel free to browse through these free english resources to help as needed.

Identifying Phonemes In Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are words that sound similar, with the exception of one sound. These words may or may not be spelled the same, but there is always one letter different. The meanings of the two words are also different.

Here are some examples of minimal pairs:

  • Bad vs. Bat
  • Bit vs. Mitt
  • Mat vs. Sat
  • Meat vs. Mean

The above words sound similar, except for one sound. Being able to pronounce these words correctly will help make your meaning clearer and help avoid confusion. Although you might understand the meaning of phonemes, you might still be unclear as to how and when we use phonemes. How are phonemes identified?

Steps For Identifying Phonemes

Now that you know how to identify heteronyms and minimal pairs, we can discuss how exactly to identify phonemes and determine the phonemic value. This will help you pronounce the word and get used to the spelling of certain words in a specific language. For example, the “ght” spelling in English is usually pronounced as /t/, as in the word ‘thought.’

Step 1: Counting Phonemes

We primarily identify phonemes by first counting them. A teacher might ask a student to write a word down phonemically, then ask the other students to guess what word the student has written. Breaking words down into different sounds helps students pronounce the words easier and allows them to read complicated words easier.

However, counting phonemes is much easier for individual words than it is for phrases. That’s because one word has multiple phonemes. To identify a phoneme, first look at the word and consider how many sounds are in the word. For example: the word hat has 3 phonemes: /h/ /a/ /t/. However, the word pitch also has 3 phonemes: /p/ /i/ /tch/, although it has more letters.

Step 2: Identify The Phonemic Value Of A Word

Once you have determined how many sounds there are in a specific word, you can start to determine their phonemic value – what do these letters sound like?

For example, the word thought has three phonemes and sounds like /th/ /aw/ /t/. Writing the phonemic value is much easier when you know the IPA chart for a specific language. By learning the IPA, you can write down the specific sound of each phoneme in a word, meaning that you will pronounce the word correctly every time you read it.

Step 3: Repeat The Word Before Moving On To The Next

After writing the phonemic sounds of the word, read those sounds normally to determine if it sounds exactly the same as the word you are identifying. For example, does the /oe/ sound in toe sound like /ow/ or /oo/? It sounds like /ow/. Thus, the word ‘toe’ has two phonemes: /t/ and /ow/. Once you have determined that the word’s phonemic value is correct, you can move on to the next word.


Identifying phonemes is essential when learning new words or learning a new language. It can help you learn how to pronounce words correctly and understand the pronunciation differences between heteronyms and minimal pairs.

Start by counting the phonemes and then determine the sounds present in a specific word. Write these sounds out and then repeat the word according to the sounds.





I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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