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Spellings, Letters, Sounds and Learning to Read

Spellings, Letters, Sounds and Learning to Read

In the 17th century, the spellings of English words were ‘set in stone’ when the first dictionaries were written. These spellings have not changed over time. It is because of this, that we can read books written in previous centuries. However, the 26 letters of the English alphabet are pronounced in many different ways in written words.

If we consider the letters of the alphabet as they occur in common written words, we cannot help but notice that they are pronounced differently in each set of words.

a:  cat, a, baby, father, was, warm, farm, chair, heard, leaf, scare, any

b:  bat, lamb, debt

c:  cat, city, chip

d:  dog, jumped, ledge

e:  the, he, bed, her, sheep, dinner, flew, steak, sew, eyes,

f:  off, of

g:  got, orange, high, cough, through, gnat, thought

h:  hot, chip, this, she, think, rough, through, phonic, whole

i:  in, sign, piece, rain, soil, receive, fruit, friend

j:  jet

k:  kitten, knee

l:  lip, half, could

m:  man

n:  not, bang, autumn

o:  hot, soon, took, storm, toad, town, thought, boy, one, to, come

p:  pan, phonic, pneumonia

q:  queen, cheque

r:  run, farm, butter, curl, born, first, iron

s:  is, sun, ship, island, sugar

t:  top, them, think, catch

u:  nut, you, out, august, through, build, curl, guard, busy

v:  van

w:  was, saw, down, flew, two, when, whole, sword

x:  box, exam, xylophone

y:  my, mummy, gym, yes

z:  zebra
Clearly, from this limited exercise, only the letters j, m, v and z have one pronunciation each. Every other letter of the alphabet has multiple pronunciations. It is because letters and sounds do not have one-to-one correspondences in writing and speaking that learning to read and write in English is very difficult.

If we move on to consider some of the common letter combinations we see in English words, it is evident that most of these have multiple pronunciations too. Examples are:

ai:  rain,  said,  bargain

ay:  play

a-e:  came,  have,  camel

ee:  sheep

ea:  leaf,  head,  steak,  create,

e-e:  these,  never,  there,  were,  here

ie:  pie,  field,  quiet,  friend

i-e:  like,  give

oa:  toad,  broad,  oasis

o-e:  stone,  love,  move,  grovel

oo:  took,  moon,  cooperate,  door

u-e:  rule,  use,  cure

ue:  true,  rescue,  tongue

ew:  flew,  new,  reward,  sew

ow:  down,  show,  towards

ou:  out,  soup,  could,  though

ar:  farm,  warm,  parallel

er:  kerb,  butter,  very

ir:   girl,  direct,  mirror

or:  storm,  worm,  borrow

ur:  burn,  bury,  during

oi:  soil,  going

al:  ball,  shall,  half

wa:  was,  wax

ey:  key,  they

oy:  boy

igh:  high

air:  hair

are:  scare,  are

ear:  near,  bear,  heard , heart

ure:   pure,  picture

our:  hour,  pour,  colour

ore:  more,  forest

ck:  duck

sh:  ship,  mishap

ch:  chip,  chemist,  chef

th:  this  think

From this analysis we can see that only the letter combinations ‘ay, ee, oy, igh, air, ck’  have one pronunciation each. There are multiple ways to pronounce the rest.

Synthetic phonic programmes arrange these spellings and sounds the other way round. They begin with sounds, shown in slashes /a/, /b/ etc.and show the all different spellings. The resulting charts are called ‘alphabet code’ charts. An example is here:

/a/:   cat

/e/:   bed,   head,   said,   any

/i/:   pin,   crystal,   business,    monkey

/o/:   hot,   sausage,   was,   yacht,   cough

/u/:    up,   could,   brother,   blood

/ae/:   baby,  rain,   gate,   play,  steak,   ballet,  vein,  debut,  suede,  dahlia,

/ee/:    see,   me,   these,   leaf,   pony,   field,   radio,   protein,   money,   people,  quay,  foetus

/ie/:    my,   pie,   like,   find,   high,  eye

/oe/:    toe,   go,   toad,   glow,  bone,  sew,   shoulder

/oo/:    blue,   moon,   flew,  soup,   fruit,   shoe

/yoo/:  use,   new,   statue,   music,  beauty

/ar/:    farm,   half,   father,   heart

/schwa/: the,   dinner,   tractor,   centre,   colour,  pizza,   picture

/ur/:    were,   kerb,   girl,   curl,   heard,  worm

/or/:    for,    saw,   autumn,   fall,   warm,    caught

/ow/:   down,   out

/oo/:    look,   put

/oi/:    soil ,  royal

/ear/:   near,    here,   deer ,  pier

/air/:    hair,   bear,   there,  stare,   their

/b/:      bat,   rabbit,   build

/d/:     dog,    add

/f/:      fun,   off,   cough,   phonic

/g/:      got,   egg,   guard,   ghost

/h/:      hat,  whole

/j/:      jet,   edge,  orange,  giant

/k/:     cat,   kitten,   black,   chemist,   plaque,    biscuit

/l/:      leg,   doll,   apple

/m/:    man,  comma,  lamb,  come,  autumn

/n/:    not,   annual,   gnome,   know,   engine,   mnemonic

/p/:    peg,   happy

/r/:     rat,   lorry,   write,   rhyme

/s/:      sun,   mess,   city,   scent,   fence,  castle,   mouse

/t/:      top,   letter

/v/:      van,   of,   have

/w/:     will,    one,    when,   suite,

/y/:      yes

/z/:      zebra,   is,   cheese,   freeze

/sh/:    ship,   chef,   special,    admission,    attention

/ch/:     chip,   picture,   catch,   tune,   cello

/th/:      this,   breathe

/th/:       thank

/ng/:      ring

/zh/:      treasure,    vision

There are 174 common correspondences in the chart above, although Professor Greg Brooks has shown that there are 284 correspondences in his book The Dictionary of British English Spelling.
These alphabetic code charts have been drawn up by people analysing all the words of the English language to find all the letter/sound correspondences and the probability of each correspondence occurring. They are ‘top down’ constructs arrived at by people who are proficient readers with years of literacy experience.
However, children do not learn to read simply by matching sounds and spellings in this way. At age 5, they are only just becoming aware of the sounds within words.  Whilst they have been learning spoken language they have been paying attention to the meaning of the words and phrases, not the sounds within them. Spoken language proceeds too fast in normal conversations to pay attention to the sounds in words
Children learn to read and write by recognising a few words at a time, visually from the symbols,  and phonologically from the sounds, BUT only if the words mean something to them.
It is the vocabulary of the learner that is the key to learning to read and write.  If the words are meaningless to children, then the whole exercise of sounds and symbols is meaningless too.
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