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What is a Phonogram?

By Jess Rummins
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word phonogram literally means sound-write: it is a sound that has its own written symbol. It is a term that was coined in the mid 1800s by Isaac Pitman, a shorthand expert and teacher. The word itself most likely is based on the then-popular word telegram. Since that time, it has become an important tool for teaching and learning to read.

When students are learning to read, they typically begin to associate what they see on the page with the sounds they hear. Individual letters of the alphabet no longer operate separately: they work together to form words. Decoding these words quickly usually is the first step in reading. Phonogram sounds help to create the mental link between isolated letters and whole words.

Every letter of the English alphabet is a phonogram. It is a sound that is represented in writing. Many sounds in the English language are expressed by combining letters into groups. A group of letters that stands for a sound is also a phonogram.

Phonograms can have one, two, three, or four letters. Each one represents at least one sound. Some of them represent more than one sound. Likewise, each sound is represented by a phonogram, while some sounds are represented by more than one.

One way to demonstrate this relationship is through the use of a chart. It is easy to see how this system can quickly become complicated.

Sound Phonogram Example Other sounds represented by this phonogram
OY oi loin None
oy toy None
OW ow now O = sow
ou aloud O = four
oo = you
u = various
ough plough O = dough
oo = through
uff = rough
off = cough
o(ah) = bought
ow = plow

As complex as it may seem, a phonogram is a useful tool for understanding the relationship between spoken and written language. Once they are ingrained in the mind of a student, the relationship between sound and symbol becomes second nature. Teaching this was once a required part of every elementary school curriculum. Learning them was as important as learning multiplication tables.

Common phonograms have been gathered into lists for use in reading and writing instruction. Wylie and Durrell’s list, published in 1970, contains 37 of them. The Ayres List and Revised Ayer’s List each have more than twice that many. Other examples include the Montessori, Orton-Gillingham, and Romalda Spalding lists.

These lists are often adapted into games and flashcards. Some lists also have been adapted to include word families. Word families are key parts of many popular children books, most notably those by Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss used the phonogram as the basis for some of his most popular works. The word family for "-at" includes the words bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, rat, sat, brat, chat, flat, spat, and that. Many readers will recognize these words from the classic favorite The Cat in the Hat. Many other books for children contain excellent examples, as well.

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