How to Count Phonemes in Spoken Words

How to Count Phonemes in Spoken Words

How to Count Phonemes in Spoken Words
Posted on October 22, 2023

Phonemes are the basic vocal gestures of a language, recycled to form all our spoken words. English has about 42 distinct phonemes. These 42 mouth moves compose the interchangeable parts from which all our spoken words are constructed.

In talking about phonemes as distinct from letters, we symbolize them with Roman letters inside slash marks, for example, /t/. Since diacritical marks are hard to type, I try to use the most common spelling of the phoneme as a symbol, for example, /ch/ for the first sound in chair. For the short vowels, I use lowercase letters (e.g., /a/ as in hat), and for the long vowels, I use capitals (e.g., /A/ as in rain). Letters are italicized without slash marks around them.

Here’s a challenge: What words could we make using all four of these phonemes: /a/, /k/, /s/, and /t/? Note that you don’t have to use the letters aks, and t. For example, the word asked is made from these phonemes (/a/s/k/t/). Counting homonyms, I found 13 different words constructed of these phonemes in different orders.

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Reading teachers must have expert ability to count phonemes because they must help children connect letters to phonemes in phonics and spelling work. However, counting phonemes is surprisingly hard in English because there is rarely a neat one-to-one match between phonemes and letters.

Also, phonemes are pronounced with amazing speed, enabling us to communicate our thoughts rapidly. How fast can you say, “He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum”? That takes me about 3 seconds to say normally. That sentence contains 28 phonemes. That means I am saying over 9 phonemes every second!

Let’s try counting a couple of words for starters. How many phonemes in rich? How many in pitch?

Rich has 3 phonemes, even though it has 4 letters. The combination ch stands for the mouth move /ch/ at the beginning of chop. But pitch also has 3 phonemes; you can tell because it rhymes with rich. Don’t be fooled by the tch spelling, which represents /ch/ after most short vowels.

Two kinds of spellings get teachers messed up: digraphs and clusters.

digraph is a multi-letter spelling (usually 2 letters) for a single phoneme. Digraphs can be consonants (ck, ll, tch, ng) or vowels (ee, ew, igh, ow). Either way, the combination stands for one mouth move.

The digraph ng can fool some people. The ng combination directs you to move the back of your tongue against the roof of your mouth to block the air; as you make a sound in your throat, the air comes out of your nose in a kind of humming. Try it. You will find it is distinctly different from /n/ (made with the front of your tongue) and /g/, which is an explosive sound rather than a humming.

The digraph ow can also be a fooler. It can be pronounced /O/ or /ow/, and in both cases our mouths travel as we say it; our lips move toward a kissing shape, which is the starting position for the phoneme /w/. But /w/ is only found at the beginning of syllables. Thus, whether ow represents /O/ or /ow/, it stands for a single phoneme.

Consonant clusters (a.k.a. blends) (dr, pl, st, spl, nk) are combinations of single consonants pronounced in a rapid sequence. Each consonant retains its distinctive mouth move, but sometimes the individual phonemes are blurred a bit to make a smooth sequence. For example, the /d/ and /r/ at the beginning of drive, when clustered, veer toward /jr/, which is how they sometimes appear in children’s invented spellings.

In counting consonant clusters, you must break the cluster into separate phonemes to get an accurate count. A common problem in counting phonemes is  failing to split clusters into separate phonemes, thus getting an undercount.

The trickiest clusters seem to be those involving the phonemes /r/ and /l/, which are common in many consonant clusters. Note the tongue and lip positions for /r/ and the tongue position for /l/ behind the upper front teeth.

A good strategy in distinguishing a digraph from a cluster is to stretch it. No matter how slowly you say a digraph, it is still one mouth move. But by stretching a cluster, you should be able to identify its individual mouth moves and count each one.

Let’s examine the word stretch. If you elongate the beginning of the word, you should find three separate phonemes, /s/, /t/, and /r/.

If you can recognize digraphs and clusters, you’ll be able to count phonemes successfully.

Exercise #1: Write down each of these words, count the phonemes, and then check your answers:

     hat      knock      bring      through      strict

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If you had any trouble, let’s take another look at digraphs and clusters.

Before I go further, I’m going to introduce a useful term: grapheme. A grapheme could be either a single letter or a digraph. It is a letter or letter combination that represents a single phoneme within a word. A grapheme is a spelling of a phoneme.

Digraphs are graphemes spelled with more than one letter, usually two. We need many digraphs because English has more phonemes (42) than letters (26).

Our most popular consonant digraphs in English involve the letter h: ch, ph, sh, and th. Other digraphs have silent letters, for example, kn, wr, and ck. Let me remind you once again about the trickiest of digraphs: ng. Say sing. Say the last phoneme in sing. Feel where your tongue is? That is ng‘s mouth move. We spell the same phoneme with the grapheme n before k in words like think and bank.

Most vowel combinations are digraphs. All the long vowels commonly use digraph spellings in one-syllable words, e.g., brain, speak, speed, fight, float, glow, shoot.

I’m going to count phonemes in some words for you, explaining my thinking.

I’ll start with chop. Stretching it out, I find /ch/, /o/, and /p/, 3 phonemes. The ch is a digraph.

I’ll try shy. The sh is a digraph, so /sh/I/ has just two phonemes.

One more:  throat. The th is a digraph, so it counts as one. Also, oa is a vowel digraph. Stretching throat, I find /th/r/O/t/, 4 phonemes.

Exercise #2: Your turn to count phonemes in words with digraphs. Write down each of these words, count the phonemes, and then check your answers:

     block       sting       wreck        slink        spring

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Clusters are blends of consonants that can be separated, but resist separation. Clusters always blend together either 2 or 3 phonemes.

Here’s a helpful rule for counting the phonemes in clusters: If you can break ’em up, do break ’em up. You can’t break digraphs like /sh/ because they represent one single mouth move. Slow it down all day, and your mouth is still just doing one thing. But slow down a cluster, and you’ll find a succession of mouth moves.

Many clusters involve l (bl, cl, fl), r (fr, gr, pr), and s (sp, st, sw). Some people say the phoneme /l/ sounds like a flying saucer: /lll/. Others compare its sound to a blender: /lll/. Stretch these words and listen for /l/: flop; splash. As you say those words slowly, you should hear that blender at work.

Let me count a couple of words with /l / clusters for you. Flop is first. Stretch it out:  ffflllo-o-op. Hear the blender? My mouth is making 4 moves: /f/l/o/p/. Wouldn’t it be nice if every word with 4 letters had 4 phonemes?

Let’s try splash. It starts with 3 consonants clustered together: /s/p/l/. Then comes the vowel /a/, and a final phoneme /sh/, spelled with a digraph, sh. Count ’em up:  /s/p/l/a/sh/ — 5 phonemes.

The phoneme /r/ sounds like a chainsaw, /rrr/. Others say it sounds like a growling dog, /rrr/. Say these words and listen for /r/: bring; grape. You have to growl a little as you say each word.

I’ll count a couple of words with /r/ clusters for you. Stretch out bring, brrriiing. I detect /b/, /rrr/– there’s that growling dog. /b/r/i/ng/, 4 phonemes. Don’t be fooled by that tricky ng digraph.

Let’s count the phonemes in grape. Stretch it, /grrrAAAp/. /g/rrr/ — there’s the growly one.  /g/r/A/p/. 4 phonemes.

One other common phoneme in clusters is /s/, an easy one to spot because it makes a distinct sound like air leaking out of a flat tire.

I’ll count the phonemes in slow. Stretching it, /sssllllOOO/. Easy, /s/, /l/, and /O/ for 3.

Here’s a harder one: sprout. Stretching that cluster, /sssprrr/, 3 so far. If you can break ’em up, do break ’em up. What’s left?  /ou/t/, 2 more, for a total of 5.

Exercise #3:  Count how many phonemes are in these words:
      dream       glow      sweet      spread      slice

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Digraphs and blends are often found together.

Exercise #4:  How many phonemes are in these words?
      branch       string      speech       shrink      thrash

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More Help Learning to Count Phonemes

Now make a chart of the phonemes. Print out the phoneme chart in the and fill in all the phonemes you can think of. I’ve started you out with some examples.

Consonants always involve some friction. You can stretch continuants like /f/ and hold them until you run out of air. In contrast, stops like /t/ are made by blocking off air and then releasing it with a mini-explosion.

With voiced phonemes like /l/, you make sound with your vocal cords. With unvoiced phonemes like /k/, you don’t use your vocal cords. Fricatives are continuants like /s/ that leak air. Nasals are continuants like /m/ where the air comes out your nose.

Vowels are really different mouth shapes we make as we vocalize. Long vowels are the sounds of letter names like /A/. Short vowels can be spelled with one letter. The short vowel sounds are found at the beginning of each word in this sentence: “Ask Ed if odd’s up.” They are difficult vowels to recognize because they are defined by relatively slight differences in the shape of the mouth. Other vowels like /oi/ are neither long nor short. Most of them are diphthongs, meaning that your mouth changes shape as you are saying them.

Now add all the phonemes you can come up with to the map. You can get ideas by clicking here:

Answers: Mapping the 42 English Phonemes

Phoneme Chart Answers

Ready for more practice? Now that you’ve identified phonemes, it should be easier to spot them in words and include them in your count. Remember that some phonemes are spelled with 2- or 3-letter digraphs. In other cases, several consonants are blended quickly in a cluster. If you can break them up, do break them up.
Exercise #5:  Count the phonemes in the following words.
        cloud          stretch           trunk          brush          paste
        train          stamp            plow

[Scroll down for answers.]

Remember why accurate phoneme counting is so crucial: In phonics and spelling lessons, teachers help children link the phonemes in spoken words to the graphemes in written words. If your phoneme count is not accurate, you cannot help children understand and remember spellings. In this case, most children will try to memorize spellings, which is much, much more difficult.

Final Exam: Count the phonemes in the following words.
        ten          bath          best           shoot          stripe          truck           show
        and        threw        beach       state           high           splash

[Scroll down for answers.]

Answers to the Exercises

Puzzle Answer
Words with /a/k/s/t/: cast, caste, tacks, tax, sacked, task, scat, skat, stack, asked, axed, acts, cats

Answers to Exercise #1
hat — 3 (/h/a/t/)
knock — 3 (/n/o/k/)
bring — 4 (/b/r/i/ng/)
through — 3 (/th/r/U/)
strict — 6 (/s/t/r/i/k/t/)

Answers to Exercise #2
block — 4 (/b/l/o/k/)
sting — 4 (/s/t/i/ng/)  Watch out for digraph ng!
wreck — 3 (/r/e/k/)
slink — 5 (/s/l/i/n/k/)
spring — 5 (/s/p/r/i/ng/)

Answers to Exercise #3
dream — 4 (/d/r/E/m/)
glow — 3 (/g/l/O/)
sweet — 4 (/s/w/E/t/)
spread — 5 (/s/p/r/e/d/)
slice — 4 (/s/l/I/s/)

Answers to Exercise #4
branch (5 — /b/r/a/n/ch/)
string (5 — /s/t/r/i/ng).  Catch that ng digraph?
speech (4 — /s/p/E/ch/)
shrink (5 — /sh/r/i/ng/k/)
thrash (4 — /th/r/a/sh/)

Answers to Exercise #5
cloud — 4 (/k/l/ou/d/)
stretch — 5 (/s/t/r/e/ch/)
trunk — 5 (/t/r/u/ng/k/)
brush — 4 (/b/r/u/sh/)
paste — 4 (/p/A/s/t/)
train — 4 (/t/r/A/n/)
stamp — 5 (/s/t/a/m/p/)
plow — 3 (/p/l/ow/)

Answers to Final Exam
ten — 3 (/t/e/n/)
bath — 3 (/b/a/th/)
best — 4 (/b/e/s/t/)
shoot — 3 (/sh/U/t/)
stripe — 5 (/s/t/r/I/p/)
truck — 4 (/t/r/u/k/)
show — 2 (/sh/O/)
and — 3 (/a/n/d/)
threw — 3 (/th/r/U/)
beach — 3 (/b/E/ch/)
state — 4 (/s/t/A/t/)
high — 2 (/h/I/)
splash — 5 (/s/p/l/a/sh/)

How’d you do?

13 right — You’re ready to teach phonics and spelling. You’re a phoneme counting expert!
11-12 right — A little review and you’ll have it done. You’ve almost got it.
8-10 right — Go back and read about digraphs and clusters, and then try the exercises again. Good start.
0-7 right — Don’t give up. This time, make your own phoneme map. Afterwards, read though the examples and try the exercises again.

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