Sound-letter relationships (PDF, 49 KB)
Sound–letter correspondences are the relationships between sounds (or phonemes) and letters (or graphemes). This starting point highlights the connections between the sounds in words and the letters that are used to represent those sounds. Included are two other related concepts: the alphabetic principle and letter recognition.
Knowledge of sound–letter relationships means knowing, for example, that the /t/ sound is represented by the letter t. It also means knowing that the sound /s/ can be represented by more than one letter, for example, s as in soft and c as in city. Many adults who are non-readers have trouble with identifying these relationships between sounds and letters.
An awareness of the alphabetic principle means knowing that speech can be turned into print, that print can be turned into speech, and that letters are used to represent sounds in the language.1
Letter recognition is the ability to recognise and name the letters of the alphabet. It includes recognising and recalling the shapes of letters, identifying lower and upper case letters, and recognising letters in isolation and within printed words even when they appear in different fonts and sizes. Instruction that focuses on letter–sound relationships is known as phonics.
Several research studies with adult learners have shown that adult beginning readers have trouble applying sound–letter knowledge to work out words.2 To decode (sound out) words, learners need to have a level of phonemic awareness and to know the relationships between the sounds of letters and their written forms.
We know that good readers can recognise words by identifying the component letters,3 and that for fluent readers this is not a conscious process. The converse applies for writing: to form words, writers need to be able to turn the sounds they wish to convey into letters.
There are complex relationships among language, literacy, exposure to education and the written systems of different languages.4 Not all writing systems represent language in the same way. For example, in many scripts, the symbols represent meanings, not sounds; in Egyptian, the symbol for “sun” resembles the sun. Because English uses a phonemic (sound-based) script, the word sun has no relation to the actual sun other than its sound.
Learners who are literate in their mother tongue, and whose mother tongue uses a non-phonemic (or logographic) script such as Chinese, will need instruction in letter recognition (the alphabet) and in the sound–letter relationships of English.
Knowing the demands
Learners who have grasped the alphabetic principle understand that spoken words consist of sounds and that sounds are represented in written text as letters. To reach this understanding, a level of phonemic awareness is necessary (see phonological awareness). The alphabetic principle is sometimes referred to as the ‘cornerstone’ on which decoding (sounding out words) is built.
To become a proficient reader, the learner must learn how to ‘crack the code’ (decode). Learning to decode relies on the learner’s ability to match letters to sounds, so it is essential to learn common letter–sound relationships.
For example, to decode the word bed, learners need to know that the written letter b makes a /b/ sound,e makes an /e/ sound and d makes a /d/ sound. For learners, knowing letter–sound relationships is not always helpful; words such as cough, one, come and have need to be learnt as sight words, or worked out by analogy (likening the new word to one the learner knows already) if the learner knows other, similar words. As an example, learners who know the word sight can use this knowledge when they come across the unknown word bright.
A learner who is unable to recognise the different letters of the alphabet will have difficulty in learning the sounds that the letters represent.5 It is difficult for learners to understand that words consist of a sequence of letters until learners know the names of letters.
To acquire this knowledge, learners need to be able to explain the differences between letters, for example, to know and explain what makes the letter h and the letter b different, or how b is different to p.
Learners have to be able to recognise letters in different forms, for example, in upper and lower cases, in different fonts, sizes and spacing (see also ‘Letter formation').
Knowing the learner
The following assessment suggestions can be used to ascertain the extent to which a learner is aware of the relationships between sounds and letters. They will also help to find out about learners’ knowledge of the alphabet.
- Use a chart on which all the letters of the alphabet, both upper and lower cases, are arranged in a random order. Ask the learner to point to letters they know and give a sound and a word that starts with each of those letters.
- Use a chart on which all the letters of the alphabet, both upper and lower cases, are arranged in a random order. Point to the letters in turn, moving across each row then on to the next row. Vary your questions; for example, ask the learner to name a letter, to say the sound the letter makes, or to name a word that starts with the letter. You may want to use a card or ruler to focus on one row at a time. You can use another copy of the chart to circle any letters the learner does not know.6
- If you want to look more closely at the learner’s letter–sound knowledge, record the result of the tests above by using a code to note the letters the learner can name (N), the letters for which the learner can give the matching sound (S) and the letters for which the learner can name a word that starts with the letter (W).7
Tutors may need to seek expert ESOL advice on how best to meet learners’ needs in relation to letter recognition and letter–sound relationships.8
Knowing what to do
Teaching the alphabet
- Teach the names of the letters first (ABCs).
- Once students know the names of the letters they can progress to matching the name of the letter to the written letter (grapheme). For some letters, the letter name provides a clue to the letter sounds,9 for example, /s/, /k/, /m/, /z/.
- Once the learner knows the letter names, switch to using a random order for teaching letters and their corresponding names (not ABC).
- Use letter flashcards, with separate cards for upper and lower case versions of a letter where they differ. For many letters, lower and upper case forms are the same (for example, c, k, o, p, s, u, v, x, z) so there is no need to present lower and upper forms of these letters.
- Teach letters that may be confused in a context where they are easier to differentiate; for example, in the word bed the shape of the word makes the shape of a bed.
- Teach simple reminders to deal with confusing letters; for example, dish and spoon indicates that the round part of the letter d (the dish) comes before the stroke (the spoon); bat and ball indicates that the stroke (the bat) comes before the round part (the ball).
To raise a learner’s awareness, ‘noticing’ type exercises are useful. Some examples are:
- games and activities where learners circle the target letters, or the upper case letters in a short text
- letter bingo using upper case, lower case or a mixture of forms
- eliciting knowledge of upper and lower cases from learners as they write (ask them to identify individual letters or words).
This kind of noticing lends itself well to pair work, with learners reinforcing one another’s noticing.
Letter–sound relationships (phonics)
Learners tend to master the letter–sound relationships for consonant sounds relatively easily (b, c, d, f, h, j and so on). Begin by teaching words that have a simple pattern of single consonants and short vowel sounds (as in cat, pet, sit, cot, cut). Then explore variations such as:
- sit (remove s and replace with b)
- bit (remove b and replace with f)
- fit (remove f and replace with n)
- nit … continue.
Encourage learners to notice that changing one letter or sound changes the meaning of the word. Wherever possible, base activities like this on words that are relevant and used by the learners.
When this pattern is well established:
- introduce initial blends (st, sm, bl, pr) and final blends (st, sp, tch)
- introduce long vowel sounds when the learner has grasped short vowel sounds (for example, gate, Pete, site, code and cute)
- introduce consonant digraphs (with, rich, think) and r and l controlled vowels (her, hall).
It is important when teaching letter–sound relationships to refer also to the names of individual letters. When you discuss letters, it can be helpful for learners to have a distinctive label for different forms (for example, the ‘squiggle g’ as distinct from the ‘regular g’ form).
Ray is in his thirties and has been driving buses for about five years. He missed out on learning to read at primary school because his family moved many times and he was shifted from school to school. Reading was not a regular activity at home. By the time he got to high school, Ray had given up on reading and he left with no academic qualifications. He had a succession of unskilled jobs before he became a bus driver.
Ray has developed some sophisticated compensation and avoidance strategies when called on to read. For example, he asks others to read aloud for him, claiming he can’t find his glasses. So far in his job he has relied on workmates to help him out with the reading and writing he needs to do.
He is keen to do well in his job, as it is the first time he has felt the real prospect of a long-term career. To progress to a more senior role he knows he will need to read and write more effectively. This realisation has prompted him to enrol in an adult literacy evening class at his local polytechnic.
His tutor has established that he knows the names of the letters of the alphabet, but he has difficulty matching some upper and lower case letters. He knows some common sight words, for example the suburb names for the destinations on some of the bus routes he drives. He has limited phonemic awareness and is unable to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words.
Teaching suggestions for Ray
- Use flashcards of upper and lower case letters and ask Ray to match upper and lower cases.
- As he matches the cases for a letter, tell him the sound that this letter represents then ask him to repeat it. Ask him to tell you a word that starts with or contains that sound.
- Repeat this activity until he is able to tell you the sound and an example word for each letter.
- Using materials he may need to read for work (or newspaper headlines), ask him to point to all the words that start with (or end with, or contain) a given sound.
- Use words from these texts to make flashcards of more complex words, for example, those beginning with consonant blends. Make separate cards for the initial blend and the remainder of the word (for example, one set of cards for the blends: cr, fr, bl, tr, sl etc; and another set for endings: -y, -ue, -ash etc). Ask Ray to put cards together and read the words they make (for example, cr-ash, tr-ash, sl-ash).
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