When children learn to talk, they pay attention to the meaning of the words they hear and say. They do not pay attention to the sounds within words. This is because human speech is a continuous stream of ever changing sound and the rate of change in a normal conversation is too fast to take notice of the specific sounds within the words.
When the inventors of alphabetic writing decided to use symbols to correspond to sounds, (as opposed to symbols corresponding to the meaning of words) they had to do two things: invent the symbols and identify the sounds.
To identify the sounds they had to listen to the speech of many, many people in their community. All these people had different voices, and the sounds they made as they said their words were not the same from person to person. However, the inventors of written language could identify the sounds which changed the meaning of the spoken words, e.g. 'o' is a different sound to 'i' in the words 'dog' and 'dig.'
These sound classifications, which also depend on people's accents and dialects, and relate to the change of meaning of words, could be put into categories. These categories of sounds are called 'phonemes' and the symbols that match them are called 'graphemes'.
When they learn to read and write children have to learn about these sounds (phonemes) and their corresponding symbols (graphemes). The UK government's phonic programme Letters and Sounds has this process of learning letters and sounds broken down into phases so that children experience a systematic approach to learning about them.
Phonic Phase 1:
This relates to children listening and speaking in such a way that they learn to identify the sounds in the words they hear and say. There are no books for this phase.
Phonic Phase 2:
Children are taught to identify the 19 most frequently used letters of the alphabet and one sound for each. This means that they learn the letter symbols and one corresponding sound for the small (lower case) letters a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u.
They are also taught to write the capital (upper case) letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U and that the sound of each capital (upper case) letter is the same as the sound of each small (lower case) letters. (We pronounce the symbols 'cat' and 'CAT' in the same way, whether they are written in lower case or upper case symbols.)
Children also taught the name of each letter. These are not the same as the sounds of the letters and they are pronounced 'ay, bee, see, dee, ee, eff, gee, aitch, eye, kay, ell, em, en, oh, pea, are, ess, tea, you.'
These letter names refer to both small letters and capital letters, so that the name of both A and a is pronounced 'ay'.
It is not surprising that this can be a confusing time for children.
If we add into the mix the fact that it is impossible to write any reading material without using the words 'the', 'I' and 'a', we see straight away that we have included more than one single sound/letter correspondence for each of the letters 't, h, e, i, a', because
't' in 'the' is not pronounced the same as 't' in 'cat',
'h' in 'the' is not pronounced the same as 'h' in 'hat',
'e' in 'the' is not pronounced the same as 'e' in 'red',
'i' in 'I' is not pronounced the same as 'i' in 'tin',
and the word 'a' is not pronounced the same way as 'a' in 'cat'.
Yet alternative pronunciations for the letters of the alphabet are not introduced formally in Letters and Sounds until children reach Phonic Phase 5.
To get around these problems Letters and Sounds introduces the words 'the, I, a' as common exception words or high-frequency words. These are to be taught as whole words with specific spellings. Children must memorise these words visually, linking the sight of each to the whole word. Other common exception words specified for teaching in Phonic Phase 2 are 'no, go, to, into'. In these words there are two other sounds associated with the letter 'o', so that during Phonic Phase 2, children are taught that the letter 'o' corresponds to three different sounds, e.g. in the words 'hot, no, to'.
Other words to be taught in Phonic Phase 2 include 'as, is, his' . In these words the letter 's' is pronounced as /z/, so this is a second pronunciation of this letter. Even in the words 'cats' and 'dogs' we can hear the letter 's' is pronounced differently in each.
We may ask the question how do children know which sound to say when they see the letters in written words they meet for the first time. The only possible answer is that they use the context of the sentence or a picture to make a decision. Children need these other clues to help them identify the word as one they already know from their knowledge of spoken language. This means that they are using syntax (the order of words in a sentence), or semantics (the meaning conveyed by the sentence) or pictures to help them make decisions about pronunciation. It is impossible to pronounce (decode) new written words without using these extra clues.
Phonic Phase 3:
In this phase children are taught one single letter/sound correspondence for each of the other letters of the alphabet: j, q, v, w, x, y, z and J, Q, V, W, X, Y, Z as well as the names of these letters 'jay, queue, vee, double you, ex, why, zed'.
Then children are taught about digraphs. Digraphs are two letters which are written next to each other and they represent one sound. There are consonant digraphs and vowel digraphs.
The consonant digraphs taught in Phonic Phase 3 are 'th, sh, ch, ck, ng' as seen in the words 'this, ship, chop, duck, ring'.
The vowel digraphs taught in this phase are 'ai, ee, oa, oo, ow, ar, er, or, ur, oi, oo' as seen in the words 'snail, tree, boat, moon, town, car, under, fork, burn, soil, wood.'
There are also four vowel trigraphs taught in this phase. These are 'air, ear, ure, igh' as seen in the words 'hair, dear, pure, night.'
The common exception words taught in this phase are 'me, he, we, she, be, my, they, are, all, you, was, her.'
The above phonics and high-frequency words means that by the end of Phonic Phase 3 children using Letters and Sounds have been taught:
three pronunciations of the letter 'e' (red, the, me),
two pronunciations of the letter 'y' (yes, my), (but not 'y' in happy, sorry, mummy)
two spellings for the sound /ai/ (rain, they), (but not 'ay' in play, away)
three spellings of the sound /oo/ ( to, moon, you),
two pronunciations of the letters 'oo' (cool, good)
five pronunciations for the letter 'a' ( a, that, are, all, was),
two pronunciations for the letter 's' (cats, dogs)
three pronunciations for the letter 'o' (not, go, to).
Phonic Phase 4:
This phase relates to the clusters of consonants at the beginning of English words: e.g. 'bl, fl, cr, pr, sp, st' in words like 'blog, flag, crab, pram, spot, stop', and the clusters of consonants at the end of English words: e.g. 'mp, nd, st, nt, sk' in the words like 'jump, hand, fast, tent, ask'.
Here at Jelly and Bean Ltd we have found it impossible to write stories without using clusters of adjacent consonants almost from the start. In our AB Starter Series, book 3A, Phase 2, we have used the word 'frog'. We have continued to use words containing adjacent consonants in all our Phase 3 and 4 stories, e.g. 'pond, grass, help, next, jump, drip' and many, many more.
Phonic Phase 5:
In Phonic Phase 5 children are taught two important facts about the written English language.
1. There are many ways to spell the 44 phonemes, e.g. the sound /oa/ has different spellings in 'boat, show, gold, toe', the sound /ie/ has different spellings in 'find, night, fly, time, cried' and the sound /k/ has different spellings in 'kitten, cat, chemist, cheque, luck'.
This is the approach characterised by synthetic phonics, where the sound is foremost, and is taught first, and the spellings follow as variations. A typical chart is shown below.
/e/ bed head said many
/i/ pin crystal business money
/o/ hot sausage was yacht cough
/u/ up could mother blood love does
/ae/ baby rain play gate steak vein ballet
/ee/ see me these leaf pony field protein radio key
/ie/ my pie high like find
/oe/ toe go toad glow bone sew
/ue//oo/ blue moon flew soup fruit to move shoe
/ue//yoo/ rescue new use music beauty
/ar/ farm half father heart
/er/ the dinner tractor centre colour picture
/ur/ were kerb girl curl heard worm
/or/ for saw autumn fall warm thought caught
/ow/ down out
/oo/ look put
/oi/ soil royal
/ear/ near here deer pier
/air/ hair bear stare there their
/b/ bat rabbit build
/d/ dog add
/f/ fun off cough phonic
/g/ got egg ghost guard
/h/ hat whole
/j/ jet edge orange giant
/k/ cat kitten chemist black plaque biscuit
/l/ leg doll apple
/m/ man comma lamb come autumn
/n/ not annual know gnome engine
/p/ peg apple
/r/ rat lorry write rhyme
/s/ sun mess city scent dance
/t/ top letter two debt thyme
/v/ van of have
/w/ will one when suite
/z/ zebra is cheese freeze
/sh/ ship chef special station admission
/ch/ chip picture tune cello
/th/ them breathe
/zh/ vision treasure
2. The second important fact about written English is that there are other ways to pronounce both the single letters of the alphabet and the written combinations of digraphs they see on a page: e.g. 'a' is pronounced differently in the words 'cat, lady, father, fall, was', and 'ea' is pronounced differently in 'bean, bread, steak, create'.
In fact, the only letters having one pronunciation each in written English are 'h, j, m, v, z'. Most of the other letters can be seen in digraphs or 'silent letter' combinations. The only digraphs and trigraphs I can find with one pronunciation are 'ee' in 'sheep', 'ck' in 'duck', 'ph' in 'phonic', 'air' in 'hair', and 'oor' in 'door'.
a cat, a, baby, father, was, any
b bat, lamb, debt
c cat, city
d dog, jumped, ledge
e the, he, bed
f off, of
g got, orange, cough, through, gnat, thought
i in, sign, fruit, friend
k kitten, knee
l lip, half, could, salmon
n not, autumn
o hot, one, to, go
p pan, pneumonia
q queen, cheque
r run, iron
s is, sun, island, sugar
t top, duvet
u nut, build, guard, busy
w was, whole, sword, written
x box, exam
y my, mummy, gym, yes
ai rain said
ay play says
a-e came have camel
ea leaf head steak create
e-e these never there here eye
ie pie field diet friend
i-e like give police
oa toad broad oasis board
o-e stone love move grovel
oe toe shoe does poet
oo took moon cooperate
u-e rule use cure
ue true rescue tongue
ew flew new reward sew
ow down show towards
ou out soup cough thought through
ar farm warm parallel
er her butter very
ir girl pirate mirror
or storm worm borrow doctor
ur burn bury during
oi soil going
al ball shall half false
au autumn sausage laugh
aw dawn aware
ey key they
oy boy yoyo
igh high straight
are stare are
ear near bear heard heart
ure pure picture burette
our pour hour colour
ore more forest
sh ship mishap
ch chip chemist machine
th this think
ng bang mango angel
wh when whole
(It can be seen that when these letter combinations appear in separate syllables within words they are not digraphs at all (diet, oasis, create, grovel, poet, camel, angel, mango, mishap, forest, yoyo, aware, going, during, borrow, mirror, reward, towards.)
These lists are not exhaustive and entire. The book Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks (2015) lists them all.