Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Graphemes

graph (that which is written) + eme (smallest possible unit of)

Being able to perceive sounds in words is important for writing, since novices have to get down, in the right order, all the symbols that represent those sounds. That’s why the concept of phonological awareness is such a well-known and accepted facet of literacy instruction. If you can’t perceive the syllables and the phonemes in words, if you can’t hold their order long enough to transcribe them, you’re going to have trouble representing them with graphemes.

This is why order is important. This is why having children memorise whole words without paying attention to the order of the strings of letters they contain is inefficient. It’s possible, but it’s a poor way of storing those words and it doesn’t lead to high quality retrieval or to generalisation to other words very easily.

A grapheme is a unit of written language. It can contain more than one letter. In many cases it represents a phoneme, but in some cases, graphemes also exist to convey information about a word and don’t, in fact, represent any sound at all. Take for example the grapheme at the end of pine. It represents no sound, but signals that we should pronounce the preceding vowel as its name, not its more common sound. If we were to remove it, the signal would disappear and we would revert to our default pronunciation of pin. It is this important aspect of English spelling that allows us to express two different words with a small set of letters. 

Another example is the grapheme at the end of crumb. It doesn’t represent a sound, but indicates the family it belongs to (unetymological ), and also reappears as a sound in crumble. The same happens with autumn (autumnal), hymn (hymnary), column (columnist) and solemn (solemnity).

Graphemes also correspond to etymological markers such as in the case of . Many of these words have come to English via Germanic languages and correspond to a other words with or in a similar position, but also to words retained in Scottish and Irish English. Take a look at these correspondences:

straight           strict

night               nocturnal

fight    `           fecht (Scottish)

lake                 loch (Scottish)           lough (Irish)

bough             branch

neigh              nicker

1 grapheme + 1 grapheme representing 1 sound = digraph

Consonant digraphs are relatively easy to master, but vowel digraphs are trickier, in that they can represent multiple sounds and that multiple sounds can be represented by many of them.

The chart below shows all the possible vowel digraphs in English with examples of words using them to spell sounds commonly associated with them. The squares with crosses indicate no or uncommon instances of these in English words.

Vowel digraph chart

A NOTE ON THE TERM ‘SPLIT DIGRAPH’

I have seen the rise of an approach to teaching the effect of Final Silent E called the ‘split digraph’. Digraphs don’t just get ‘split’. Look at the chart above. Where do they get ‘split’ except in the <e> column? That’s a mischaracterisation of both the term ‘digraph’ and the role of word-final <e>.

There is a logic, history and consistency to the way that the graphemes in English have been arranged. Different graphemes for the same phoneme help us distinguish homophones too.

In Language Arts, those graphemic stories are told through the Four-Step Process. This process can be taught even to children who are still learning basic phoneme grapheme correspondences.

Care should be taken to reduce cognitive load where necessary, however. 5 year old novice children are not expected to know what you mean when you talk about Germanic or Latinate words retaining or not retaining their identity. Far more useful to them is a teacher who teaches a sequence of basic grapheme phoneme correspondences, screens for phonological awareness, instructs carefully on the processes of segmenting and blending, and explains and reinforces grip posture and letter formation. That’s enough biologically secondary material for foundation thank you very much. However, the closer your initial instruction is to the linguistic truth, the easier it is to build reliable schema. I’m looking at you ‘split diagraph’.

For more information on this, see the Digraphs in Depth video here (you do not have to watch this to complete the course):

Every phoneme has an expected grapheme, which is what the simple and extended code dictates, but sometimes, for etymological reasons, our expectations are dashed. This is known as irregularity, but in a good structured literacy curriculum, it shouldn’t present much of a problem.

The problem arises when deciding what to teach first and how to explain it in a way that can be taken up by the largest number of children. This is why our introduction of graphemes needs to be systematic and consistent throughout the entire school. A scattergun approach leaves too much to chance.

Graphemes Video (5 minutes)

Graphemes

Lyn Stone

What do you find to be the trickiest graphemes for students?

The book shown in the video, and other great homophone illustrations can be found at this website

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