Grapheme vs Phoneme and Morpheme


A grapheme is the basic unit of written language, corresponding in most cases to the letter. There are twenty-eight fundamental graphemes at the word level in English usage (the lowercase letters, the hyphen, and the apostrophe), plus another twenty-six (the capital letters) substituted based on context, and finally the syntactic or contextual graphemes (the punctuation marks). The simplest representation of spoken language for a native speaker is phonemic, where there is an exact relationship of one phoneme to one grapheme. In this article, we will define Grapheme vs phoneme.

English orthography (spelling) was largely phonemic at one point in the past but is now more traditional. There is no longer an exact correspondence between graphemes and phonemes. Rather, the written representation contains etymological (world-historical) information as well as some phonemic information. Similar spellings with different pronunciations may at one point have been pronounced the same; different spellings with similar pronunciations may at one point have been pronounced differently.

English orthography makes use of digraphs, which are two graphemes used as one (‘sh’, ‘th’, ‘ch’, ‘ea’, ‘ou’, and many others). Some digraphs are used for phonemes that have no other representation; some are used to mark syllables and thus vowels (by marking a syllable as “closed”, the included vowel becomes “short”). English spelling also includes many examples of “silent letters”, and graphemes that do not correspond at all to modern phonemes but have been retained (or in some cases reinserted) for historical (and even pseudohistorical) reasons. Some of these silent letters are useful in predicting the pronunciation of words; perhaps the best-known example is the “silent e”, which typically marks a preceding vowel as “long”

Difference between a phoneme, a grapheme, a morpheme


A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound.  A phoneme is the smallest unit of spoken sound and is often the one thing that distinguishes one word from another. For example, cats and rats are only differentiated by the first phoneme. In many cases, a single letter represents a single phoneme, but in most cases, there are multiple ways of representing a particular phoneme in English spelling. And the case of the letter x, it is actually comprised of two phonemes /k/ & /s/.

Generally, the accepted belief is that there are 44 phonemes in English. This includes short vowel sounds, long vowel sounds, digraph sounds such as /sh/, /th/ (voiced and unvoiced), and /ch/, and single consonant sounds. Most people consider the diphthong sounds /oy/ and /ou/ to be single phonemes as well. Linguistically, /ng/ and /ar/, /or/, /er/, /ear/, /oar/, and schwa are also phonemes.

So, a single phoneme such as /n/ may be represented by letters in numerous different ways such as n, nn, kn, gn, or pn. Phonemes can be indicated through the International phonemic alphabet or by indicating a sound between slanted lines.

Phonemic awareness, the ability to hear and manipulate individual sounds is foundational to the development of literacy. The ability of your students to segment and differentiate phonemes is crucial for accurate decoding, encoding, and understanding of speech. Meaning is very much affected by differences in words of a single phoneme which may differ only by whether it is voiced or unvoiced.


In linguistics, a grapheme is the smallest unit of a written language whether or not it carries meaning or corresponds to a single phoneme. In different languages, a grapheme may represent a syllable or unit of meaning.

Graphemes can include other printed symbols such as punctuation marks. In this example, the grapheme <x> represents the phonemes /k//s/ while a single character in Japanese may represent a syllable. Different types/fonts of a single letter are considered the same grapheme. A basic alphabetic understanding and rapid recognition are necessary first steps to learning to read. Your student’s ability to quickly, accurately, and easily write graphemes is necessary for fluent writing and spelling.

When we are speaking purely about English, you will often see another definition of grapheme. In this case, a grapheme is a letter or group of letters that represent a single phoneme. This is a term used more or less synonymously with phonograms. There are often numerous graphemes (or phonograms) that can represent a single phoneme. For example, the /ā/ sound is a phoneme that can be represented by numerous graphemes including ai, ay, ey, ei, eigh, and a-e.

To make things even more confusing for young learners, a single grapheme such as ea may represent three different phonemes /ē/, /ā/, or /ĕ/. While English has 26 letters and 44 phonemes, there are approximately 250 graphemes.


Perhaps the most neglected term and concept in the study of teaching reading is the morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning that cannot be further divided. So, a base word might be a morpheme, but a suffix or prefix, or root also represents a morpheme.  For example, the word red is a single morpheme, but the word unpredictable is made of the morphemes un + pre + dict + able. While none of these units stand alone as words, they are the smallest units of meaning.

Morphemes can vary tremendously in length from a single letter such as the prefix a- to a place name derived from another language such as Massachusetts, which in English represents a single morpheme. As students move into reading and writing more sophisticated academic language, the concept of morphemes becomes increasingly important to their decoding and their spelling as well as their ability to infer meanings of new vocabulary. The root of a word makes tremendous differences in spelling words with the -ion suffix for instance.

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