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Written by
Voyager Sopris Learning
Supported with input from
Denise Eide
Updated on August 11, 2023
Quick Takeaway
Phonograms, the key building blocks of language, offer a powerful way to unlock reading and writing skills. Mastering phonograms enhances reading, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, transforming learners into confident readers. Although learning phonograms can present challenges such as irregular patterns or difficulties blending sounds, effective strategies and practice can help students overcome these hurdles, allowing them to fully understand phonograms and elevate their literacy skills.

Do you remember how you learned to read? Chances are, you did not come out of the gate knowing all the words in the English language. The same goes for early learners. They learn through multiple key elements, one being phonograms. Learning phonograms helps readers make the connection between the sounds and graphemes of the English language, which promotes long-term reading success.

Phonograms, often regarded as the building blocks of language, play a pivotal role in unlocking the mysteries of reading and spelling. Understanding phonograms is like obtaining a key that opens doors to a world of literacy and comprehension. These powerful combinations of letters or letter patterns are essential to deciphering words, enhancing phonics skills, and ultimately leading to reading success.


Whether you are an educator seeking effective reading instruction methods or a parent looking to support your child's literacy journey, understanding the power of phonograms is crucial to teaching this valuable skill to your reader. Let’s explore basic phonograms and common phonograms, the science behind them, and the power they hold in reading success.

What Are Phonograms?

It is important to note phonograms are not the same as individual letters or phonemes. While phonemes represent the smallest units of sound in a language, phonograms combine multiple phonemes to form meaningful units. They provide a bridge between the sounds of spoken language and the symbols used in written language.

Phonograms are made up of a single letter, like /t/, or combination of letters, like /sh/ or /eigh/, that form phonogram sounds. Phonograms have one, two, or more sounds made up of consonant and vowel sounds. Phonograms are also known as word families, as they follow the same spelling rules. In fact, most sight words follow these same spelling rules, which will help learners recognize these patterns as they learn to read these words.  

Phonograms are an integral part of phonics instruction, which teaches the relationship between letter sounds and their corresponding letters or letter combinations. By learning and practicing phonograms, students develop phonemic awareness, enhance their decoding skills, and gain confidence in reading and spelling. They can learn about them by playing a phonogram game, using phonogram flash cards, and through interactive phonogram activities.

The Science Behind Phonograms

The science behind phonograms lies in the field of phonics, which is the study of the relationship between sounds and their corresponding letters or combinations of letters in written language. Phonograms are essential components of phonics instruction and are rooted in the understanding of phonemic awareness, which refers to the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.

Research has shown that explicit phonics instruction, which includes teaching phonograms, is highly effective in promoting reading development. By learning phonograms, students become aware of the recurring patterns in words, which helps them decode unfamiliar words and read with greater accuracy and fluency.

Phonograms also facilitate spelling acquisition by providing a foundation for understanding the spelling rules and patterns in written language. For example, teaching vowel sounds and single-letter sounds will help learners decode common consonant-vowel-consonant words. The same learning application is also useful when learners advance to reading word families and sight words. 

Including phonograms in phonics instruction helps students learn and recognize sounds and letters and blend them together to form words. Once they know single-letter sounds, they can learn sounds made up by two letters, also known as digraphs. Then, learners will be able to recognize the grapheme that matches each sound. Breaking language down in this way allows learners to understand the foundations of the English language and how to read and write more effectively.

Denise Eide, author of The Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy, stated, “When the phonograms and rules of English are taught in a systematic manner through solid, multimodality teaching methods which develop visual muscle memory, prevent reversals, and address the needs of all types of learners, we will be on our way to solving the literacy crisis for all its current victims and preventing it in future generations.”

Phonics - Girl Listening on headphones

Unleashing the Power of Phonograms

There is much more to unlock in the English alphabet than the ABCs. Phonograms are a powerful tool in language learning and literacy development. They are visual representations of sounds or phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound in a language.

This gives learners logic of English rules and helps them identify common English words. By understanding and utilizing phonograms, students can unlock the ability to read, spell, and pronounce words accurately and fluently. Unleashing the power of phonograms involves harnessing their potential to enhance language skills in several ways.

Phonemic Awareness

By associating phonograms with individual sounds, learners become more adept at recognizing and differentiating sounds in words. Phonemic awareness allows learners to recognize consonant and vowel sounds individually and within words.

These are foundational elements of the English language that will turn learners into fluent readers. This skill is crucial for reading and spelling. 

Decoding and Encoding

Phonograms provide a systematic approach to decoding and encoding words. Decoding refers to the ability to sound out unfamiliar words by recognizing the phonograms and blending their sounds together. Digraphs are two letters that represent one sound, and blends are two consonants together that make two sounds.

These letter sounds are crucial elements to learning how to decode and encode words. Segmenting words into individual sounds will help learners differentiate the sounds in spoken and written words.

Building Vocabulary

Phonograms can expand vocabulary by facilitating word recognition and understanding. Once learners become familiar with a set of phonograms, they can recognize and read a range of words that share those phonograms.

The more words students are able to learn, the more their vocabulary expands. For example, learning sight words will help readers recognize word families and learn more words at a faster rate.

Spelling Proficiency

A phonogram plays a crucial role in spelling, and by analyzing the sounds within words and selecting the appropriate phonograms, learners can avoid common spelling errors like /dge/, /igh/, or /ough/, and develop a strong foundation in written language.

Phonograms help learners remember spelling rules and the letter sounds in relation to its grapheme. In doing so, phonograms also equip learners with the necessary tools to spell words correctly and confidently, emphasizing comprehension of language patterns over rote memorization.

Fluency and Reading Comprehension

Phonograms contribute to fluency and reading comprehension. They provide a road map for efficient reading, allowing learners to focus on understanding the meaning of the text rather than struggling with word recognition. The faster a reader can identify and understand a word, the better they are able to comprehend it. 

Phonogram boxes are a popular method in Montessori and public schools that teach students how to read and understand sounds within a single letter or combinations of letters.

Benefits of Phonograms in Reading

Phonograms are visual representations of sounds (also known as phonemes), and play a vital role in reading and literacy development. Whether you follow Spalding phonograms or agree on another number of phonograms, we see they offer a multitude of benefits that enhance reading skills and overall language proficiency.

By understanding and utilizing phonograms, learners can improve decoding abilities, develop spelling proficiency, expand vocabulary, enhance reading comprehension, build phonemic awareness, and gain confidence in their overall reading abilities. 

Improved Decoding Skills

By associating specific sounds with visual representations (phonograms), learners can break down words into their individual sounds and blend them together to read the word accurately. This includes consonant sounds as well as long and short vowel sounds, which help students understand the whole word instead of trying to get them to memorize words or only work on certain sounds.

This will make readers more confident in their reading abilities when they are faced with new phonograms and use their phonemic awareness to decode the word. The ability to recognize and understand new phonograms further bolsters a student’s capacity to dissect and understand new words, leading to smooth reading progression.

Enhanced Spelling Abilities

By recognizing the phonograms within words and applying the appropriate sound-spelling rules, learners can become more confident and skilled spellers. Knowing how words break down and how the sounds work together will prevent learners from making spelling errors and keeping their focus on their thoughts instead of getting stuck on how to spell words.

Vocabulary Expansion

This allows learners to independently decipher new words and comprehend their meanings. Phonograms provide a systematic approach to unlocking and expanding vocabulary. Learning phonograms equips readers with the tools they need to decode a word and decipher its meaning on their own.

Increased Reading Comprehension

Phonograms provide a foundation for efficient reading, enabling learners to focus on comprehending the meaning of the text rather than struggling with word recognition. When learners are able to identify new words at a faster rate, they have more brain power to understand what the words mean as they read them.

This leads to improved overall reading comprehension and shows that phonics and teaching phonograms are the foundation young learners need to become fluent, confident readers.

Building Phonemic Awareness

Connecting common phonograms to specific sounds enables learners to become more proficient at recognizing and differentiating sounds in words. This skill is vital for reading and spelling success, as it helps learners break words down into their component sounds. 

Transferable Skills

Phonograms provide students with transferable skills. Once learners understand the relationship between sounds and letter phonograms, they can apply this knowledge to new words they encounter. This begins to build their reading fluency, which builds on their reading comprehension and further expands their vocabulary. 

Confidence and Motivation

As learners gain proficiency in decoding words through phonograms, they experience success and a sense of accomplishment. Once they have mastered basic phonograms, more advanced blends will be less of a challenge for them.

This positive reinforcement boosts their confidence, leading to a greater willingness to tackle more challenging reading materials.

Overcoming Challenges with Phonograms

Phonograms, visual representations of sounds in language, are a powerful tool for developing reading and spelling skills. However, learners often encounter challenges when working with phonograms. We know the English language presents an array of language rules, so learning the foundational elements of English will help students form a firmer logic of English. 

These challenges can include irregular phonograms, multiple phonograms representing the same sound, and difficulties blending sounds, applying phonograms in context, developing automaticity and fluency, and accommodating individual learning differences. Overcoming these challenges is crucial for learners to harness the full power of phonograms and the potential in their literacy abilities.

Irregular Phonograms

Some English words do not adhere to regular sound-spelling rules and phonics rules, making them challenging to learn. Overcoming this challenge involves explicitly teaching and practicing irregular phonograms through word-analysis activities, word lists, and exposure to a range of words containing these irregularities. 

Multiple Phonograms for the Same Sound

English has 32 multiple phonograms representing the same sound. Remembering all of these can be challenging for young learners. To address this challenge, explicit instruction and consistent practice on sound-spelling correspondences are necessary.

Consider hanging a phonogram chart with the list of phonograms in your classroom or home so that your readers can practice them and easily remember the combinations of letters and letter sounds.

Blending Sounds

Blending sounds together to read words can be challenging for some learners, especially those who struggle with phonemic awareness. This challenge applies to single-letter and multi-letter sounds.

It can be addressed through explicit instruction about blending techniques, such as tapping or stretching sounds, and using manipulatives to represent each sound. These techniques can be used with consonant and vowel sounds as well as word families. 

Applying Phonograms in Context

While learners may be proficient in recognizing individual phonograms, applying them in real-world contexts can pose a challenge. This includes understanding the role of phonograms in multisyllabic words, identifying syllable divisions, and determining which phonograms to use when decoding and spelling words.

Consistent practice and exposure to diverse reading materials can bridge this gap, helping learners to internalize and effectively use phonograms in their day-to-day reading and writing. Mastering phonograms will allow readers to encode words and become more confident in their literacy skills.

Automaticity and Fluency

Developing automaticity and fluency in using phonograms requires consistent practice and exposure. Learners may initially need help with applying phonograms consciously, which can impede reading fluency. Practicing sight words is an effective way to cultivate this skill, which eventually builds reading comprehension.

Individual Learning Differences

Each learner has unique strengths and challenges when it comes to phonograms. Some learners may require additional support due to learning disabilities, language differences, or other individual factors. In this instance, try multisensory methods of teaching phonograms, provide immediate feedback, practice often, and monitor their progress on a printable progress chart.

As stated by Eide, “When reading is not taught correctly, many students do not make solid connections between the phonograms (the pictures of the sounds) and the phonemes (the sounds themselves). Instead, they seem to rely heavily on the visual center of their brain.”

Conclusion

Phonograms are the foundation on which early learners build their literacy abilities. They hold the power to the English language and benefit the entirety of learning how to read and comprehend words.

Any challenges that arise can be resolved through practice and multisensory and interactive methods so all early learners grow into fluent readers.