Phonemes are the smallest possible sounds in a language which have a distinct meaning.
So what does that mean in practice?
Well, take these two words:
kiss – miss
When we say them, the only difference is the very first sound of each word:
k and m
This means that those two sounds, k and m, are phonemes because when one changes to the other, the meaning of the whole word changes.
In practice, a phoneme is a sound in a language.
Putting it simply, you can compare phonemes to the letters in the alphabet: in writing we have letters which go to make up words, in speaking we have phonemes which go to make up words.
When we write the sounds or phonemes we use the IPA since the sounds of English don’t correspond to the letters of the alphabet. All in all there are approximately 44 phonemes in English which can be combined in different ways. Thus we can write:
the cat looked at a king
ðə kæt lʊkt ət ə kɪŋ
Notice how in writing we might have different letters for the same sound or phoneme:
cat – kæt
king – kɪŋ
So a single phoneme can be written using different letters of the alphabet.
Phonemes and TEFL
Is it necessary to use the word phoneme with your EFL class?
Some teachers do and some don’t. Often teachers will restrict themselves to talking about sounds instead of using the probably unknown word, phoneme. This is a viable and practical option.
So in class by all means talk about the sounds in a word, perhaps how you produce the s sound in a certain way (instead of talking about the s phoneme).
But whatever you do, it’s often very useful to introduce very gradually the IPA so your class can learn how to write down the sounds of words as well.
And above all, get your class used to working with minimal pairs which are highly effective in showing where individual phonemes can make a huge difference when it comes to teaching pronunciation.
sheep – ship
saw – shore
and so on and by all means use the IPA to write the individual sounds down (or phonemes if you decide to use that word in class).
The exaplanation above is very simple. Note, however, that linguistically speaking phonemes take on a deeper and more complex meaning.
For example, take the word path. There are 2 common pronunciations:
Same word, two different pronunciations. There are obviously two different sounds here, however exchanging them does not change the meaning of the word. What we have here is a single phoneme with two allphones (or variations).
On the other hand, take this pair of words:
tarn – tɑːn
tan – tæn
The difference between them is the same difference as the two pronunciations of path above, but here changing the phoneme changes the meaning of the word entirely.
Note, however, that it is almost never necessary to go into this kind of depth in dealing with phonemes and an ELT class.
IPA – International Phonetic Alphabet – how we write phonemes
Minimal Pairs and TEFL – using very similar words to teach pronunciation
The English Alphabet – phonemes and letters; two sides of the same coin