Key concepts of phonics

The English Spelling System

English can be thought of as an alphabetic language consisting of 44 speech sounds (phonemes) which map onto letter patterns (graphemes). Graphemes can be a single letter (graph), or a combination of two (digraph), three (trigraph), or four letters (quadgraph).>

For details, see: The 44 Sounds of English (pdf - 230.7kb)The 44 Sounds of English (docx - 223.93kb)

Some languages are phonetic in their spelling (e.g. Finnish, Italian), where there is a simple one-to-one relationship between sounds and letters. In English, there are only 26 letters, so combinations of letters (graphemes) are needed to represent all 44 sounds (phonemes). This makes the spelling system (orthography) of English more complicated than languages with more phonetic orthographies.                                                                 

Another factor that illustrates why English's alphabetic orthography is complex is that some letters make multiple sounds. For example, the letter combination “ough” can be read in at least seven different ways: as in “through”, “thorough”, “although”, “plough”, “thought”, “cough” and “rough”.                                                           

Also, In English there are often multiple ways to spell the same sound. For example, the /or/ vowel sound can be spelt “or” as in “horse”, “au” “haunt”, “our” “court”, “augh” “caught” and “ore” “store” to name a few.                                                                

Despite this complexity, there are numerous sound-letter patterns (graphemes) that are useful to highlight, so that children can crack the code of written language.                                                                

English is also considered a morphophonemic language, which means that its spelling is also made up of various morphemes (e.g. prefixes, suffixes, base words). The morphology of words increasingly becomes important for the teaching of reading and spelling as students progress in their literacy abilities. The morphology of words also adds to the complexity of the English spelling system.  

Graphemes map onto phonemes

English can be thought of as an alphabetic language consisting of 44 speech sounds (phonemes) which map onto letter patterns (graphemes). 

We have 20 vowel sounds, and 24 consonant sounds. In English we use graphemes to represent these various sounds. Graphemes can be a single letter (graph), or a combination of two (digraph), three (trigraph), or four letters (quadgraph).                                                           

Sound-Letter Pattern
GraphemeExample GraphemeExample Words
1 letter making 1 soundGraph b    arub  cat
2 letters making 1 soundDigraph ch    oy
chop  soy
3 letters making 1 soundTrigraphdge    ereridge    here
4 letters making 1 soundQuadgraphoughthrough  though

It is important for teachers to be familiar with the most common and productive sound-letter patterns (graphemes).    

For more information and a list of the most common graphemes, see: Graphemes = Sound Letter Patterns (docx - 124.65kb)

Regular/Irregular, Low/High Frequency

Words can be categorised as regular or irregular (in terms of their spelling). Distinguishing between words that are completely (or mostly) regular or irregular is useful when supporting students to decode quickly and accurately.

Regular words are words that can be decoded using knowledge of phonics patterns (such as get, well, which, before)                                                               

Irregular words are words that do not conform to phonics patterns (such as do, said, could, yacht, doubt)                                                               

Words can also be categorised as either low frequency or high frequency, referring to how frequently they are found in texts for students of a particular year level. Overtime, it is expected that students will become proficient and efficient at reading words they encounter the most (high frequency words).                                                               

High frequency words are words that students of a particularly learning level encounter frequently (such as get, well, help, because)                                                               

Low frequency words are more rare (or not usual) for a student in a particular learning level to come across (such as cog, pharaoh, deleterious)                                                               

It can be useful to use lists of high frequency words (e.g. Oxford Word List, Magic Words). However, when you identify the graphemes within these words it is clear that many high frequency words are also regular words.                                                               

For more information, see: Words - Regular/Irregular and High/Low Frequency (docx - 208.63kb)

Word Morphology

Morphology is the study of words and their parts. Morphemes (like prefixes, suffixes, and base words) are defined as the smallest meaningful units of meaning.                                                                 

All words can be broken down into their morphemes:                                                                 

Some words have  1 morphemesystemsystem(1)
Some have 2 morphemes
Or 3 morphemesunsystematicun+system+atic(3)
Or 4 morphemesunsystematicalun+system+atic+al(4)
Or more!unsystematicallyun+system+atic+al+ly(5)

Other examples of words with multiple morphemes are: roll+er     driv+ing     under+stand+able     class+ic+al                                                            

Morphemes are important for phonics (reading and spelling), as well as vocabulary and comprehension. Teaching morphemes is useful, as they are often spelt the same across different words (even when the sound changes), and often have a consistent purpose and/or meaning.

For example, students can learn about the plural -s, and how it can be spelt with an "s" or "es", based on a sound rule. See plural s section for more details.  For more information, see: Word Morphology

44 Speech sounds video