Jelly and Bean

Spaces between words, units of meaning and phonics

Spaces between words, units of meaning and phonics

Consider the word ‘to’. It is written as two letters with a space either side. Once we have seen it and someone has told us how to pronounce it, we are able to remember ‘to’ in its written form.

We learn its sound (phonology) and its spelling (orthography). It is a unit of meaning in our spoken language. It is part of our receptive and spoken vocabulary (our internal lexicon).  The written word ‘to’ becomes embedded in our memory both visually and phonologically so that we are able to both read it and write it.

Consider the letters ‘to’ and how we see them without spaces either side. These letters occur consecutively in the written  words ‘atom, storm, stoat, stout, stoop, stood, octopus, automatic’. They are pronounced differently in each word.

Consider the written words ‘top, tower, touch, toad, torn, tomb, tone, took, tool, tour, tousle, tout, tow, toy’ which have a space only on the left.

In these words, the combination of letters ‘to’,  seen in a left to right order, are all pronounced in different ways. How do we learn how to pronounce these letters in these words?

Let us consider what our eyes are doing when we first start to learn to read. We look at the letters first. We are told that spaces separate the letters into words, such that each unit enclosed by spaces is a word. Words are the smallest units of meaning we need for verbal thought.  (Except instances of morphemes, e.g.  a letter ‘s’ at the end of a word can indicate a plural form, and the letters ‘ed’ indicate the past tense. )

For example, when we see the letter ‘a’ with a space either side we know it is a word. We learn how to pronounce it. We know it means a single object. We are able to remember it phonologically and visually because it has meaning for us.

Similarly, when we see the letter ‘I’ with spaces either side, we learn that it is a word representing ourselves. We learn how to pronounce it. We are able to remember it visually and phonologically because it has meaning for us.

The point is that the spaces either side of each letter tells us that they are words, not just letters per se. These same letters in combinations with other letters are pronounced in a many different ways, e,g, ‘a’ in the words ‘cat, cake, market, warm, ball’ and ‘i’ in the words ‘tin, find, soil, field, girl’.  In the English language the words ‘a’ and ‘I’ are the only single letter words we have.


Let us now go back to the consider the two letter combination ‘to’. We can see from the spaces either side that it is a complete word by itself. What happens when our eyes see these two letters followed by more letters, e.g. ‘top, tower, torn, touch, toad, took, tool, toy, tow’. The combination ‘to’ is not pronounced in the same way in any of these words.  So how do we learn how to pronounce them?

If we are being taught to read using the synthetic phonic method, we are taught to look past the letters ‘to’ and include the third letter in our eye scan. So we are now looking at ‘top, tow, tor, tou, to a, too, toy’. From these letter combinations we can pick out ‘ow, or, ou, oa, oo, oy’. These combinations are called ‘digraphs’. A digraph is a combination of two letters that represents a single sound. These are the ‘ow’ in ‘tower’, the ‘or’ in ‘torn’, the ‘ou’ in ‘touch’, the ‘oa’ in ‘toad’, the ‘oo’ in ‘took’, the ‘oy’ in ‘toy’.

We are told we have to learn to recognise these letter combinations, I.e.  ‘ow, or, ou, oa, oo, oo, ou, ou, ou, oy, ow’, because they are the graphemes corresponding to the phonemes /ow/, /or/, /ou/, /oa/, /oo/, /oy/, /ow/.

Only after we have done this will we be able to work out the pronunciation of the second and third letter combination in the words and go on to pronounce the whole word.

The point is that we have to look past ‘to’ to the next letter in each word to work out its pronunciation. The fact that there are no spaces after ‘to’ forces us to do this. We have to see the next letter and then work out if the two consecutive letters, including the ‘o’ form a digraph, e.g. ‘oa, oe, oo, oi, or, ou, ow, oy’. If they do, we have to learn the sound corresponding to this digraph.  Only after we have done this action of converting the two consecutive letters to sounds – orthography to phonology – can we pronounce the word that includes the written digraph.

( I haven’t even considered the differences in the pronunciation of ‘ow’ in ‘tower’ and ‘ow’ in ‘tow’ here, or the different pronunciations of ‘oo’ in ‘took’ and ‘tool’.)

The above process encompasses the basic premise of synthetic phonic teaching which is to look at the letters in written words in a left to right order and work out the sounds they represent; then to blend these sounds together and say (decode) the word. This is not an easy process, given that there are at least fifteen combinations of letters that children are expected to learn as the representations of the basic vowel sounds of English in the Reception Year at school.  These are ‘ai (ay), ee, ie (igh), oa,  ar, er, ir (ur), or, ou (ow), oi (oy), air, ear, ure, oo (moon and good))***. Children are expected to remember these letter/sound correspondences, as well as others, when they have their phonic screening check at the end of Year 1. In this check they have to work out how to pronounce them in pseudo-words. These are not real words but children are told they are the names of alien creatures, e.g. zirb, stroam, boum.

*** Depending on the phonic programme used by the school, the digraphs in brackets may be the examples that the child is taught during their Reception Year in school.


Suppose, on the other hand, we see some simple two letter words, i.e. they have spaces either side, e.g. ‘as, at, am, be, in, is, it, me, we, he, go, no, so, do, to, oh, on, of, up’. Is learning to recognise these letter combinations as whole words with meaning any more difficult than learning that certain letter combinations form digraphs? In my opinion it is not. It is easier, because we have the extra factor of spaces either side of the letters to help us. The spaces let us know that the letters form a word and this has a meaning. Once our eyes see these two letter words we are able to recognise them as their own specific combination. We have them in our memory as meaningful words, (visually, phonological and semantically).

We don’t need to split them into phonemes and graphemes and learn that in the word ‘to’, the letter ‘o’ is a spelling variation of the /oo/ phoneme, and in the word ‘go’, the letter ‘o’ is a spelling variation of the /oa/ phoneme. If we are capable of learning that two letters represent one sound (or maybe more than one sound e.g. ‘ou’ in ‘you, out, tough, should, through, thought’), then we are capable of learning that two letters represent one meaningful word – ‘as, at, am, be, in, is, it, me, we, he, go, to, so, do, oh, on, of, up’.

So, I have come to the conclusion that it is easier to learn two letter words ‘by sight’ (visually, phonologically and semantically) as whole words with specific spellings, than it is to go through the whole process of splitting them into single letters and sounds which may or may not have 1:1 phoneme/grapheme correspondences.

Even the word ‘of’ is pronounced ‘ov’, and in synthetic phonic terms the letter ‘f’ is classed as a spelling variation of the /v/ phoneme, and the word ‘is’ is pronounced ‘iz’ where the letter ‘s’ is classed as a spelling variation of the /z/ phoneme. Do little children really need to know this abstracted knowledge? After all, it has been gathered by adults analysing written language in a top down fashion many years after they learnt to read themselves without it. Is this synthetic phonic analysis appropriate for 4 year olds? In my opinion it is not. If children are told how to pronounce the whole written word, and they see it and write it often in their reading and writing, they will remember it.


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