One spelling, different sounds – a reprise

This post is an edited version of a post of the same title I wrote in October 2012. As it’s an aspect of phonics teaching that seems to come up time and time again on social media, I thought I’d amend it slightly and re-publish it.

In written English, spellings can represent different sounds. It’s an idea about which even many phonics advocates get confused; and, of course, if a teacher doesn’t quite understand how this feature of the writing system works, they won’t be able to teach it effectively.

Fluent readers rarely even notice this factor, until, that is, they come up against a word they’ve never seen before, visit a place whose name they don’t recognise, or come across someone’s name they are unsure how to pronounce. However, teachers and parents notice it all the time because it presents them with a conundrum that baffles them when it comes to teaching young beginning readers how to manage it.

Amusingly, this particular aspect of understanding of how the English alphabet code works is something we often come across on radio and television: someone will appear on a programme and be addressed by the presenter as one thing and the person will sometimes have to correct them. A few years ago, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Evan Davis was introducing a guest by the name of Niall Crowley. Davis wanted to call him /n/ /ie/ (as in ‘tie’) /schwa/ /l/ and /k/ /r/ /ow/ (as in ‘brown’) /l/ /ee/; whereas, in fact, his name is /n/ /ee/ (as in ‘see’) /l/ and /k/ /r/ /oe/ (as in ‘toe’) /l/ /ee/. People often do the same and call the historian Niall Ferguson /n/ /ie/ /schwa/ /l/; whereas he too calls himself /n/ /ee/ /l/. [When I was a boy, ‘Mowgli’ was always said as an /ow/ (as in ‘brown’); now, thanks to Disney, it’s always said as an /oe/ (as in ‘no’). You’re probably also thinking about how people pronounce the author of the Harry Potter books, too.]

Another example of this aspect of the alphabet code is the place name ‘Broughton’. Broughton is a place in Northamptonshire and is pronounced /b/ /r/ /ow/ (as in ‘brown) /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. In Milton Keynes, however, there is also a place of the same spelling that is pronounced /b/ /r/ /or/ (as in ‘or’) /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. So, the spelling [ough] can be /ow/ and it can also be /or/.

The question is how would you know this? To which the answer is that you wouldn’t – unless someone in the know told you. Now, here’s the thing: in the case of fluent readers, this is only likely to happen with examples such as the ones I’ve given above. In virtually all other cases where this happens in everyday reading, as I’ve already indicated, fluent readers don’t even notice this aspect of the language. For example, when reading the sentence ‘Last night I ate a tasty steak.’ a fluent reader would have no problem with being able to pronounce [ ea ] the spelling in the word ‘steak’. Of course, in this word, the [ ea ] spelling represents the sound /ae/. In other words, though, it can be the sound /ee/ (‘seat’) or /e/ (‘head’).

So, how do we know that in ‘steak’, it’s /ae/. Well, firstly, as fluent readers, we process all the information in the word so fast (in milliseconds) that our brain isn’t aware of what we’re doing. It’s all happening under the level of conscious attention. We are also simultaneously processing meaning: ‘Last night I ate a tasty ‘stek’ or a ‘steek’ just doesn’t make sense and our brains ‘know’ this before we are consciously aware of it.

If you are in any doubt about this, Mark Seidenberg has devoted considerable space to it in his recently published Reading at the Speed of Sight and Diane McGuinness discusses how the brain processes information much faster than we are consciously aware in her book Early Reading Instruction.

There are also orthographical patterns (redundancy) in the language that are so common and insistent, they ‘demand’ a certain response. For example, the spelling [ a ] most usually represents the sound /a/ (as in ‘bat’), but when we see it positioned in front of the spelling [ ll ] for /l/, we immediately read it as /or/ (‘ball’, ‘tall’, etc.).

The problem for beginning readers and for people who are having trouble learning to read is that they are rarely explicitly taught that, in most cases, a spelling can represent/stand for/be more than one sound. Why this should be? Goodness only knows because this is by no means a difficult concept to grasp. We live in a world of symbolic tools: signs, symbols, graphs, musical notation, etc. Spellings are no different. Even quite young children have no difficulty in understanding that a circle can represent different things: a ball, a pizza, a moon. Exactly the same is the case for, say, the spelling [ o ]: it can be /o/ in ‘hot’; it can also be /oe/ in ‘no’; it can be /oo in ‘to’; and it can be /u/ in ‘mother’ – one spelling, four sounds. Naturally, children have to be taught that [ o ] can represent all four of these sounds in order to be able to try out the one that makes sense.

Neither are many beginning readers or poor readers given the skills and the systematic code knowledge to enable them to engage successfully with this aspect of the code. If they read the name ‘Gemma’ as /g/ (as in ‘get’) /e/ /m/ /schwa/, it won’t be recognisable as a name they are familiar with and, in this case, they should be taught to ask themselves what the potential problem is. If we teach them that the spelling [ g ] can be /g/ (as in ‘goat’), but in some words it can also be /j/ (as in ‘giraffe’), then we have /j/ /e //m/ /schwa/, ‘Gemma’.

Good quality phonics teaching does NOT involve teaching code knowledge alone. For the reasons outlined above, it also requires that learners understand how the code works – how the spelling system relates to the sounds of the language – and that beginning readers and writers are given the skills necessary for them to use the knowledge they have.

As always, to teach children these elements of conceptual understanding, of code knowledge and the skills needed, teachers themselves need to know exactly how the system of spellings and sounds works, which particular skills they need to teach, and all the most pertinent code knowledge that needs to be covered, or there will be huge potential for confusing children.

3 thoughts on “One spelling, different sounds – a reprise

  1. Hello John. Your article is very refreshing in that it sets out aspects of reading and spelling that seem not to be even on the horizon for many teachers. I wrote a reading series of books – see my website details below – which cover all the sounds of English, so d has a t sound in missed; s has a z sound in has; f has a v sound in of and roofs – and so on. I included sentences to help students learn word meaning and see that the same letter can have a different sound according to its position and partners in a word, for example g as in girl, age, gnat, sing, flight.
    However, my efforts were in vain (not vane or vein!), and my books sat unloved on shelves because they weren’t workbooks and they required teachers to teach more orally and explicitly than they were able.
    Not even my book on the schwa stirred curiosity, causing me to wonder how much is missing in pre-service teacher-training courses.
    Again, thank you for your article.

  2. I am a teacher in training and am so interested in the area of teaching children to read , can you suggest some articles where I can read more , I am really enjoying your blog, thank you.


    1. The book I’d most happily recommend is Diane McGuinness’s Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. It’s an absolute cracker. Best, John

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