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Phonics relates to the teaching of reading and writing where children are made aware of the links between the sounds abstracted from the spoken words of a language and its written symbols. Children are taught grapheme/phoneme correspondences, i.e. how symbols and sounds are linked.


Phonetics is the study of the sounds of speech of a language. Articulatory phonetics deals with the articulation of speech sounds (speech production), and auditory phonetics deals with the audible perception of speech sounds, (speech perception). Speech sounds are defined and symbolised by the International Phonetic Alphabet.


Phones are the smallest abstracted units of speech in a language, but humans can only articulate them within a syllable. Babbling babies produce sounds like /ba/ and /pa/. These are syllables and the inital sound of each is a 'phone'. The vowel in each is also a 'phone'. Please see the work of Robert F Port of Indiana University.

(2008)  All is prosody: Phones and phonemes are the ghosts of letters.


Syllables are the smallest units of speech that humans articulate in normal speech. They are made up of a vowel called the 'nucleus' and an optional consonant before and/or after the vowel. ***

The consonant (or cluster of consonants) before the vowel is called the onset. The consonant (or cluster of consonants) after the vowel is called the coda. It is not necessary for a syllable to have either an onset or a coda. 

When the nucleus and coda are presented together, the unit is called the rime, e.g. 'at in cat,  og in dog, ump in  bump'

When the onset and nucleus are presented together, the unit is called the body, e.g. 'ca in cat, do in dog, bu in bump'.

Syllables can be segmented (split) at the vowel in two ways:  onset and rime, or body and coda.

1. Segmenting single syllable words into onset and rime gives us  'm-an,  d-og,  sp-in, j-ump'.

2. Segmenting the same single syllable words into body and coda gives us  'ma-n',  'do-g', 'spi-n',  'ju-mp'

This means that the babblings of babies saying 'ba' and 'pa' are actually syllables without a coda, and words such as 'an, as, am, it', are single syllable words without an onset. A vowel, by itself, is also a syllable.

Words can have more than one syllable. e.g. 'Monday' has two syllables, i.e. 'Monday', and  'tomorrow' has three syllables i.e. 'to, mor, row'.

*** There are also a few 'syllabic consonants' in English, e.g. 'sh', (meaning - 'please be quiet'), 'zzzz' (meaning - a bee buzzing or a person snoring), 'ssss' (meaning - the hissing of a snake), 'mmm' (meaning - 'something tastes nice') are examples of these.

Professor Greg Brooks in his book 'The Dictionary of the British English Spelling System' states that 'in strict linguistic terms'.... 'only spoken words have syllables, and written words do not'. (Appendix A3, syllables page 458). This is because it is sometimes difficult to decide where syllables start and end in written words, e.g. extra/exact, cried/diet, toad/oasis, gave/camel, drive/drivel, does/poet without knowing the meaning of the word.


Phonology deals with the organisation of the sounds that convey linguistic meaning in a language. 

It includes any linguistic analysis below the level of the word, i.e. syllable, phoneme, articulatory gestures and features (including prosody, stress, tone), as well as "all levels of language where sound is considered to be structured for conveying linguistic meaning." (from Wikipedia, December 2013) "Phonology describes the way sounds function within a given language or across languages to encode meaning".

According to Clark et al. (2007), [phonology is] "the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language, or the field of linguistics studying this use."

Establishing the phonological system of a language is done by applying theoretical principles to the analysis of phonetic (spoken) evidence. This means that the data obtained from the phonetic transcriptions of the speech of the native speakers is analysed in order to work out the language's phonology.

The data from the analysis of speech in these transcriptions allows linguists to group sounds into 'distinctive categories'.  These categories of sounds, which contain variations due to region and culture, articulation, aspiration, prosody, etc., are called 'phonemes'


The glossary of the National Curriculum document for 2014 defines a phoneme as 'the smallest unit of sound that signals a distinct, contrasting meaning of a word, e.g. /t/ contrasts with /k/ to signal the difference between 'tap' and 'cap'; and /t/ contrasts with /l/ to signal the difference between 'bought' and 'ball'.  It is this contrast in meaning that tells us that two different phonemes are at work.' 

However, this 'smallest unit of sound' is actually a range of sounds that form a 'set of prototypical features' of that sound, i.e. a category of sounds. This category of sounds is called a 'phoneme'.

So, 'phonemes' are a range of sounds 'abstracted' from the speech stream to correspond to visual written symbols. They vary depending on the region and culture of the population, and also, the vocal tract of the speaker (mouth size, tongue position, larynx) as well as the tone and stress that the speaker uses when articulating them. They are the sounds that readers associate with a letter or group of letters in a word. 

But the sound of /t/ in the word 'tap' and the sound of /t/ in the word 'stop' are not the same, because the letters that precede and follow them change the articulation of them. These different sounds of /t/ are called 'allophones'.

When all the 'allophones' of /t/ are collected together they form a set of 'prototypical features' of /t/. These are what linguists use to describe the phonology of a language.

Sometimes these categories of sounds (phonemes) have differing pronunciations according to their 'lexical distribution'. This means that the pronunciation of phonemes within words varies depending on the region and culture of the country.

Examples of this phenomenon are the words 'fast, grass, dance, castle, graph', where the vowel sound is spoken as /a/ in the North of England and /ar/ in the South of England. /a/ and /ar/ are different phonemes, but they do not change the meaning of the word.

Phonemic Awareness

Written symbols are the basis of alphabetic writing systems. Their corresponding sounds are abstractions from the speech stream and they are called 'phonemes' when they are part of a meaningful word.

If they are not part of a meaningful word, the corresponding sounds are simply 'sounds'. To be 'a phoneme' the sound must carry a 'communicative meaning'. This means that the sounds heard in 'non-words' and 'pseudo-words' are not 'phonemes' because they carry no meaning.

In order to learn to read and write, children must become aware of the correspondences between the 'written symbols' and their 'phonemes' within the words of their language. 

In 'transparent' languages each written symbol (grapheme) corresponds to a single sound (phoneme). We say that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the graphemes and the phonemes.

The written English language is not a 'transparent' language. It has several written symbols corresponding to almost every sound, e.g. the symbol 'e' in 'me', 'ee' in 'sheep','ea' in 'leaf', 'ey' in 'key', 'ie' in 'field' and 'ei' in 'deceive' are all pronounced as the phoneme /ee/.

Written English also has letters that correspond to several sounds, e.g. the letter combination 'ea', is pronounced and heard in different ways in the words 'bead, head, great, creation, heard, heart'.

No one needs to be explicitly aware of phonemes unless they are learning to read and write. People who are illiterate are not aware of phonemes, neither are very young children. Understanding speech does not require an awareness of phonemes.


Orthography deals with the writing system of a language, e.g. the use of symbols, breaks between words, spelling rules, capitalization and punctuation. However, orthographic consistency contributes to the ease or difficulty of learning to read and write that language.

As explained above, the written English language is not 'transparent'. It has many-to-many correspondences of its symbols and its sounds. This makes it a difficult language to learn to read and to write.

Written languages which have a one-to-one correspondences between each grapheme (symbol) and each phoneme (sound) are said to have a 'transparent' orthography or a 'shallow' orthography. 

Written languages which have many-to-many correspondences between the graphemes (symbols) and phonemes (sounds) are said to have an 'opaque' orthography or a 'deep' orthography.  Written English has a 'deep' orthography.

Analytic Phonics

Analytic phonic teaching is based on the 'analysis' of meaningful words by splitting them into smaller phonological units.

Teaching begins with some words that children have already learnt to recognise visually. These words may be some of the 100 very common words which make up 50% of the words in children's books. They may also be the child's own name, words seen in picture books, on information signs or in the world around them.

The initial letters in these words are brought to children's attention so that they begin to learn letter/sound correspondences, e.g. 'p' in 'pat, put, pick, pen, party', and 'm' in 'mat, mum, made, mouse'. When children know the letter/sound correspondences of these letters, they are taught to recognise them in all positions in a word.

At the same time children are taught to identify words with the same 'rime' (rhyme), e.g. 'c-at, h-at, m-at, b-at, p-at, r-at, s-at' and words with the same 'body', e.g. 'ca- t, ca-n, ca-p, ca-b'.  

Consonant digraphs and vowel digraphs may be taught by analogy, e.g. from the word 'ship', children learn that 'sh' represents the same sound in the words 'shop, shed, shell, shut'. From the word 'see', children learn that 'ee' represents the same sound in the words 'bee, feed, deep, tree, sleep', etc.

Analytic phonics has a letter-to-sound orientation. The spelling/sound correspondences are taught as word-family spelling rules. Some words are memorised as whole words initially so that they can be used as examples for other words, e.g. from the word 'ball' other words with the same rhyme can be taught, i.e. 'tall, wall, call, hall, small'.

When teaching by the analytic phonic method, high-frequency irregular words may be learnt as whole words, e.g. 'no, go, so' may be taught as specific words in their own right. They do not have to be taught as having a spelling variation of the /oa/ phoneme.

Words like 'the, me, you, I, my, to' are taught early within the teaching sequence. They do not have to be left until all the 44 phonemes of English (Received Pronunciation) have been introduced.

Analytic phonics teaching begins with whole words that are meaningful to children. In this respect children are not initially working with meaningless letter/sound correspondences. 

Synthetic phonics

Synthetic phonics is a teaching method based on 'phonemes' being identified as the 'speech sounds' of the language. These 'phonemes' are then taught as discrete separate units.

Children are taught how to articulate each phoneme and how to blend the phonemes together to form words. No other language units are taught, i.e. no syllables, onsets, rhymes, or whole words.

Children are initially made aware of a single sound and a single letter that corresponds to it, e.g. the sound /s/ has a corresponding letter 's'.

When they know a few sound/letter correspondences, children are taught how to blend the sounds together, (always in a left to right order all through the word), to say words.  

When they know the sounds corresponding to the letters 's, a, t, p, i, n', i.e. /s/, /a/, /t/, /p/, /i/, /n/, they can blend these sounds into many words, e.g. 'sat, sit, sip, pat, pin, pip, nan, nap, nip, nit,  at, an, in, it, tap, tan, pan, tip, pit, tin, sap, sin', and non-words 'san, tas, pas, nas, nat, nin, nis' etc.

(It should be noted that in the words 'as' and 'is' the letter 's' is not pronounced /s/, but /z/.)

All the 44 sounds of the English language are taught initially, each corresponding to the most common spelling of the sound. This is called the 'basic code'. Alternative spellings of the sounds are taught after that, i.e. the 'extended code'.

The 44 sounds of the English language identified in the UK government's programme Letters and Sounds are:

Consonants: /b/, /d/, /f/, /g/, /h/, /j/, /k/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /p/, /r/, /s/, /t/, /v/, /w/, /y/, /z/, /th/, /th/, /sh/, /ch/, /ng/, /zh/. (/qu/ is a blend of 'kw' and /x/ is a blend of 'ks'.

Vowels: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /ae/, /ee/, /ie/, /oe/, /ue/, /oo/, /ar/, /ou/, /oi/, /ur/, /or/, /air/, /ear/, /ure/, /er/ (/er/ is the schwa or 'unstressed' vowel sound)

N.B. The letter 'c' is not included as a basic grapheme because it has two different sounds in 'cat' and 'city', i.e. /k/ and /s/.  Hence, 'c' forms part of the 'extended code' because it corresponds to two phonemes /k/ and /s/.

Synthetic phonics is taught from a sound-to-letter orientation. 'Discrete' sounds of speech are its basic concept, and the letters are seen as code for the sounds, i.e. the 'alphabetic code'.

Words which children come across that are not pronounced (decoded) according to the first sound-to-letter correspondence introduced (basic code), are 'tweaked' to compensate for the varying grapheme/phoneme correspondence. 

These 'tweaked' words are taught as having regular parts and irregular parts. The irregular parts are said to have spelling variations of the sounds they represent, e.g. in the word 'to', 't' is regular, but 'o' is a spelling variation of /oo/, and in the word 'they', 'th' is regular, and 'ey' is a spelling variation of the sound /ai/.

All the alternative spellings of a sound are taught within the 'extended code', e.g. 14 spellings of the phoneme /ee/ can be seen in the words 'me, bee, leaf, donkey, pony, protein, field, alien, marine, these, anaesthetist, quay, debris, foetus'. 

and 21 spellings of the phoneme /ai/ are seen in the words 'rain, play, lady, vein, neighbour, cake, they, break, sundae, dahlia, straight, halfpenny, gaol, guage, debut, fiancee, suede, abseil, croupier, desmesne, ballet'.


The term decoding, when applied to a written word, simply means pronouncing it out loud. The written symbols are translated to the sounds in speech. 


Graphemes are the written representations of phonemes. They are the letters and the combinations of letters used in writing the language. In written English they can be single letters,  e.g. 'c, a, t' in 'cat' or combinations of letters, e.g. 'sh' in 'ship',  'ee' in 'sleep', 'ea' in 'leaf'. 

There are very few one-to-one correspondences between letters and sounds in written English, e.g. the letter combinations 'a, ai, a-e, ea, eyay, e' represent the sound /ae/ in the words 'lady, rain, cake, break, grey, stay, cafe,', and the letters 'c', 'ck', 'ch', 'k' represent the sound /k/ in the words 'cup', 'sack', 'school' and 'kiss'.


A digraph is two letters representing one phoneme. There are consonant digraphs, e.g. 'sh' as in 'ship' and vowel digraphs, e.g. 'ow' as in 'down'.


A trigraph is three letters representing a phoneme, e.g. 'igh' in  'night', 'ear' in 'year', and 'air' in 'hair'.

Short Vowels

Short vowels are sounds made without any audible closure of the mouth. They are 'short' in time duration. They are usually written 'a, e, i, o, u' as in the words 'c-a-t, b-e-d, t-i-n, h-o-p, s-u-n'.

Long Vowels

Long vowels are 'long' in time duration. The most common ways to write them are: 'ai (rain),  ay (day), ee (see), ea (dream), ie (pie), igh (night), y (sky), oa (boat), ow (yellow), ue (rescue), ew (new), oo (zoom), ar (car), ou (out), ow (down), ur (curl), ir (bird), er (water), oi (soil), oy (boy), or (for), aw (saw), air (hair), are (stare), ear (dear)' and the split digraphs: 'a-e (cake), e-e (these), i-e (bike), o-e (nose), u-e (tune)'.


Consonants are sounds made by using the lips, the tongue and the teeth to cause some friction. They are the 'onset' and/or the 'coda' of a syllable. The following letters represent consonants, 'b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z'.

The letter 'y' can act as a consonant or vowel. It is a consonant in the words 'yes', 'year', but it is a vowel in the words 'Jelly', 'gym', 'sky'.

Consonant digraphs

Consonant digraphs are two different letters representing a consonant sound, e.g. 'ch (chip), sh (shop), th (this), ng (bang), ck (neck), qu (queen)'.


(Goswami 2010)   Interdisciplinary Persectives on Learning to Read: Culture, Cognition and Pedagogy by Kathy Hall, Usha Goswami, Colin Harrison and Sue Ellis  Chapter 8 by Usha Goswami  9 Mar 2010 ISBN 9780414561242

(Dehaene 2009) Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanilas Dehaene  Paperback Edition 2010 ISBN 9780143118053

(Ehri and Metsala 1998)  Word Recognition in Beginning Literacy by Linnea C Ehri and Jamie L Metsala  Reprint 2008  ISBN 9780805828993

(Adelman 2012) Visual Word Recognition Volume 1 Edited by James S Adelman  ISBN 9781848720589

(Vihman 2014) Phonological Development: The First Two Years by Marilyn May Vihman 2nd Edition Paperback  ISBN 9781118342800

(Brooks 2015)  Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks  Paperback edition  ISBN 9781783741076



Updated 25th october 2021

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