The English alphabet has 26 letters that are used individually in various combinations to represent between 42 and 44 different speech sounds! A range of 42 and 44 is used because experts don't agree on the exact number of phonemes found in the English language (click here to see our Phoneme Chart). Factors such as dialect or accent, the amount of emphasis that we put on syllables as we speak and other influences affect the total number of phonemes that we produce.
Speech sounds are also called phonemes. A phoneme is defined as the smallest part of spoken language that makes a difference in meaning. When you clicked on the Phoneme Chart, did you notice that some phonemes are represented with single letters and some phonemes are represented with two letters? Remember that a phoneme is not the same as a letter! Phonemes are speech sounds. Letters are used to represent sounds. This will be especially important when we begin counting the phonemes in words. For example, the word book has four letters, but three phonemes: /b/-/oo/-/k/. As we move through this module, keep this in mind.
Phonemes (speech sounds) are represented in writing by placing the letter(s) used to represent the sound between slashes - so, for example: the sound that you say at the beginning of the word pot is represented by /p/.
It is vital that teachers understand how speech sounds work. Struggling readers generally fall into two categories: children with phonological processing problems (trouble identifying, using, and/or learning the sounds of speech that correspond to letters) and children with problems comprehending text. Teachers must be knowledge about the sounds of speech if they are to be of much help to children in the first group. Teachers who are knowledgeable about language can play a crucial role in preventing phonological processing problems in children who are at-risk for developing problems.
Let's take a look at a video clip§ about speech sounds.
§ To play this clip, you'll need a copy of the free RealOne Player. Most computers already have it installed, or you can download it now.