Words are to do with meaning, phonemes are to do with sound. For many years, the emphasis in the teaching of reading has been on meaning and teachers have been discouraged from explicit attention to the sound-symbol associations that underlie our writing system.
However, recent research shows that awareness of language sounds underlies children's ability to read and, later, to spell. Some pupils seem to develop this awareness naturally, but many need help. We have to alert them to the sounds we use to make words and then show them how they can be written down.
This is why the National Literacy Project makes such great play of "phonemes" - teachers will be encouraged to introduce this word to infants, although fortunately the official term is now "sound". This is a clear assertion of the importance of sound in developing literacy skills: awareness of sound first, leading to symbolic representation second.
There is a direct correspondence between many English sounds and alphabet letters (especially as regards the consonant sounds). However, other sounds, especially vowels, may be represented in a variety of ways. The grunting uh, for instance, which occurs in many English words (letter, colour, elephant, upon) has a huge number of possible spellings - indeed, it's so tricky linguists have given it a name: the "schwa".
Not all the phonemes need to be taught. Most teachers would agree that uh and er are sufficiently similar to be elided together for teaching purposes, as are voiced and unvoiced th. The sound zh occurs so infrequently in children's reading and writing that it could be passed over in the early stages, and the nasal ng is probably best tackled as part of specific letter-strings like -ing and -ink.
The teaching of phonemes is best approached in three stages; 1) During nursery and reception, ensure that children are able to discriminate the individual sounds through enjoyable activities like action games, alliterative rhymes and songs. Once children are sensitised to sound, you can focus on the simpler symbolic representations, starting with the alphabet letter sounds, including the short vowels.
2) Help children recognise the main ways in which all the other sounds may be represented so they'll recognise them when reading. A lot of this teaching will be incidental and will blend in with the teaching of other reading strategies, including sight words and the use of context. To cover the phonemic element satisfactorily, teachers need to be aware of the sounds and the major ways in which they're represented.
3) Overlapping and consolidating this incidental coverage is structured attention to the major sound-symbol correspondences of English. This links reading to spelling, as children are made aware of the main ways in which sounds may be represented in writing. Often there will be more than one spelling pattern to learn - oa may be written as oa in goat, ow in window, oe in toe, and o in go.
Attention to phonics is an essential part of literacy, and all primary teachers need a good working knowledge of the phonemes, and the spelling patterns and rules through which they are represented. But this is just one small aspect of the teaching of reading. The words, the text and the meaning are just as important as they ever were, and too much attention to phonics at the expense of these is likely to do children more harm than good.
Helpful books and resources:
* Phonics Handbook, by Sue Lloyd, Pounds 19.95. Jolly Learning; 0181-501 0405
* Sound Beginnings, by Julie Garnett and Jean Gross, Pounds 37.60. From LDA, 01945 463441
* The Morris-Montessori Word List, by Dr Joyce Morris, Pounds 9.95. London Montessori Centre, 18 Balderton Street, London W1Y 1TG; 0171-493 0165
* THRASS Sounds Wall Charts, Pounds 15 each or a Pounds 40 for pack of three. Collins; 0141-772 3200
Sue Palmer is a former primary head and a freelance writer and in-service training provider
Illustration: Amanda Hutt
THE 44 PHONEMES IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
5 short vowel sounds.
a as in cat
e as in pen
i as in big
o as in dog
u as in nut
5 long vowel sounds
ay as in day
ee as in sea
igh as in night
oa as in boat
oo as in rule
10 further vowel sounds
er as in fern
or as in corn
ar as in farm
ow as in clown
oy as in toy
uoo as in pulllook
ear as in dear
air as in chair
oor as in poor
uh as in letter
18 consonant letter sounds
b as in bag
k as in cat d as in dog f as in fun g as in got
h as in hat * as in nut
p as in pet r as in run s as in sit t as in top v as in van
j as in jam * as in leg m as in man
w as in wig y as in yes * as in zip
6 further consonant sounds
sh as in ship
ch as in chip
zh as in television
ng as in singthank
unvoiced th as in thumb
voiced th as in the
Most alphabet letters stand for a single phoneme, but c could be k (as in cat) or s (as in cent) and qu and x each represent two phonemes: k-w and k-s.
Many vowel phonemes cannot be represented by a single letter, and some have a wide variety of possible representations.
Examples: l"sheep" has 3 phonemes: sh-ee-p. l"Next" has 5: n-e-k-s-t.
* "Martian" has 5: m-ar-sh-uh-n.
* The word "ear" has 1: ear.
The National Literacy Project
The National Literacy Project's teaching framework includes a list of sounds and main spelling patterns for each term. The Government plans to send the latest version to all primary schools in February