The English alphabet 'code'


All 205 spellings for the 44 English sounds aresummarised in Table 1 in englishspellingproblems.blogsp....

A second table showsthe 69 spellings which are used for more than one sound, such as a in ‘an, any, apron’.

They provide a summaryof what phonics experts call the ‘Englishalphabet code’, or the relationships between English sounds and theirspellings, and which, they believe, all phonics teachers ideally shouldknow.

In for example, Pamela Snow and some colleagues explain:

“Phonics is a teaching method that focuses on the sounds within words – creating explicit links between these sounds and the letters that represent them.”

“When taught well, phonics confers an essential skill set that helps all readers to decode text. It can be taught using off-the-shelf programs, but these are not necessary if teacher knowledge is strong.”

They also think that,

“Evidence from Australia and overseas indicates teachers have unacceptably low levels of linguistic knowledge.”

This implies that the 1 in 5 functionally illiterate adults, which have been identified in all Anglophone countries in survey after survey, are due mainly to teachers not understanding the English spelling code. Or as John Walker said in response to my first piece on Staffrm,

“Schools of ed in this country, the USA, Canada and Australia are notoriously bad at teaching their students how to teach phonics, which is why we get such consistently poor results.”

Isn’t a bit odd that in all Anglophone countries, many university teachers and schoolteachers are ignorant inept? Why should that be?

I think that if u take even just a very cursory look at tables 1 and 2 on englishspellingproblems.blogsp..., u begin to get some idea why anyone’s grasp of the ‘links’ between English ‘sounds and the letters that represent them’ might be a bit shaky. – THERE IS A HECK OF A LOT TO LEARN!

Even if English had just the 83 main spellings for its 44 sounds, the code would be quite complex, but it would still be a teachable code. – To claim that a spelling system which is diluted by 112 random variants, in addition to its 83 main patterns, has an ‘alphabetic code’ is simply bull----.

But don’t despair. - English spelling is not totally un-alphabetic. Most of the 41 spellings for its 24 consonant sounds, the ones we make mainly with our lips, at the front of our mouths, are spelt phonically and don’t have many exceptions (b, ch, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, ng, p, r, s, sh, t, th, th, v, w, y, z, zh). - And fortunately, most words have more consonants than vowels (sit, spring, street).

It’s the spellings for the 19.5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u, ai, ee, ie, oe, oo, oo, ou, au, oi, ue, ar, er, or, air   + e/i/u in endings like -en,-er, -ery) that have many variants and make learning to read and write slow and difficult. Especially some of them, as I intend to explain next.

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

22 stories


Emma Burden Emma Burden @emmajb 10 months ago
Hi Marsha, this is really interesting and definitely true! Do you have any recommendations on how to teach this better to ESL student in order to provide clarity and simplify pronunciation and spelling?
Masha  Bell Masha Bell @mashabell 10 months ago
My main aim over the past 20 years has been to empower teachers, by giving them the knowledge of what there is to learn (or at least ready access to it), because i very much believe that 'knowledge is power'.
As an ESL student in my late teens, i used to annotate tricky-to-read words with phonemic spellings e.g. 'knowledge'[nollej].
For spelling i underlined the tricky bits in each new word that i learned. I gave up trying to make sense of English spelling after my first few lessons, because i had quickly realised that it often didn't.
U might find my helpful for teaching reading,
and the word lists further down on it might help some of your students too.
{{ modalTitle }} {{{ modalData }}} {{ modalTitle }} {{{ modalData }}} Join the conversation
Sign in or sign up to post comments, follow colleagues, recommend stories and build your own professional profile.
Staffrm is the professional network for educators passionate about their work.
Please Sign In {{ modalData }} Sign In