These two words joined the reading-readiness vocabulary in recent times, although phoneme dates back to the late 1800s and grapheme was in print in the 1930s. Using these two words (foh-neem and graf-eem) makes a lot of sense to help define how reading is taught and learned. Of course, these abstract words are not necessary to use when teaching a young child or even an adult. And they are not necessary, but, are very useful terms in organizing a reading program—whether you are organizing it in your head or on paper—whether for one student or a group of students.
Phonemes have to do with hearing sound, and graphemes have to do with seeing symbols. If the terms are unfamiliar, one way to distinguish between them is to think that you hear on a phone, and you see a graphic or symbol.
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound, in the set of speech sounds, for any language. When beginning to teach young children to read, the first phase is to help develop their ability to hear. Simple games and activities as well as talking about sounds are tools used to develop hearing awareness. This important phase can start at Pre-K level and should be continued, along with subsequent phases, throughout the journey to become an independent and confident reader. Ideally, this goal is reached somewhere around the beginning of third grade. However, no particular grade level should be the objective, as each individual progresses at their own speed—some faster, some slower.
A grapheme is the smallest unit of writing, in the set of letters or symbols, for any language. Letters (graphemes) have corresponding sounds (phonemes). The next phase in reading is introducing the relationship between graphemes and their corresponding phonemes. It is best done systematically with specific sets of letters and by introducing a new set each week. Activities include how to blend and sound out words, and to segment words. Eme, found at the end of phoneme and grapheme is a suffix, added to make a noun.
The third phase advances to the introduction of a more complex grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Subsequence phases gradually go deeper, but, phonemes and graphemes are the basic units.