A while ago I fell into a phonics hole. What I mean is that I looked around all over the web to try to find a strategy to help children who struggle with reading. I was deep into the surprising reasons why English words have so many random spellings that violate the phonics rules, and then I decided I needed to try to make sense of it all. I think most people just memorize these weird spellings and get on with their life. For people with dyslexia, this is a problem. Having a system to decode words is really the only solution because it is very challenging for people with dyslexia to remember the order of letters in words.
Sound Pattern vs. Letter Order
The phonics of some languages are straight forward – there is one sound for a given combination of letters and sometimes there is only one way to spell a sound. This is not the case in English, and it leads to quite a bit of frustration. Everything seemed pretty random to me. This is partly because a large proportion of very commonly used words are exceptions to the rules. After really looking deeply into things, I think I have some patterns to share.
This is an Experiment
This is a bit of an experiment. There are lots of methods out there to help people with reading and spelling. I am going to suggest a way that makes sense to me as someone with dyslexia. I think other methods introduce these sound combinations in an order based on the number of words that use them or how many common words include them. I see the point of that, but I think it is easier to remember these if you introduce them in groups with similarities. This helps to reduce the chaos of learning the combinations.
One thing about spelling for me is that often I am pretty sure what letters are in a word and the consonant order is usually pretty straight forward, but the vowels seem like they could be in any order. What I realized only lately was that some combinations of letters are not usually found next to each other in the same syllable in any common words. For example ae, yo, io, ia, aa, uu, ii are not in the same syllable in any/many common words, but ea, oy, oi, ai, ee, and oo are often seen. Now ei and ie are a special type of problem, but they are not completely random.
First the Consonants and Short Vowels
Most consonants only have one sound when they are alone in a cvc word (consonant-vowel-consonant). Vowels have so many sounds! You need to help your reader figure out when the vowels are short, long, or consonant influenced. The sound is influenced by the other letters in the word, and this is governed by rules (most of the time). In the beginning, start with the short vowels and the hard sound for c and g. I like to use flash cards with the capital and lowercase letters, but you may just want to use the lower case letters. Kids often have problems with b, d, p, q, g, u, n, m, and w because they look similar but with a rotation. The capitol letters are easier to distinguish, but they will be reading lower case letters for the most part.
Get a deck of letter flash cards.
Take out y and q.
Use the short sounds for the vowels.
Use the hard sound for c (as in cake) and g (as in gate).
qu – y -soft c and g, ck
as in queen, yes, baby, cell, gel, back (left to right top row, bottom row)
These finish off the alphabet. Q is never by itself so just always represent it in the qu combination. Y has 4 different sounds, but it is y as in “yes” when at the beginning of a word. Only a few words have it as a long i at the end of the word (by buy cry dry fly fry my ply pry shy sky sly spry sty try why wry). In all words with more than one syllable (10,000 words) it is a long e sound. The c is soft when it comes before an i or e likewise with g most of the time. The ck is the other way to make hard c sound.
Common Consonant Combinations That Make a New Sound
Consonant Combinations with a Silent Letter
n, w, m, r
Long Vowels v_e (v=a,e,i,o, or u)
long a, long e, long i, long o, long u, long e
The silent e at the end of words changes the vowel from a short to a long sound (hat vs hate).
Long Vowels with two Adjacent Letters and New Vowel Sounds
Please include ee and ea in this group (both with the long e sound), even though they are pictured in the groups above and below these.
long a, long a, long e, shout, boil, boy
author, saw, talk, blue, blew, food
This can also be short oo as in foot or short u like blood, but there are not that many common words like this.
In the middle of the word ow is often as in brown, at the end of the word it is often long o (show), long o, long a, long e, all 3 pronounced like air
Some words are said both ways with two different meanings like bow, row, and sow. The middle and end rule for ow is not always true, but kind of makes sense for words like growth because it is an alteration of grow, which does follow the rule.
Some times this sounds like long oo as in shoe
ei – ie exceptions
Sometimes ei or ie are next to each other, but in two different syllables and so they make 2 independent sounds. C influences both ei and ie. A c before ei changes the sound from long a to long e. A c before ie changes the sound from long e to short e. (You see the big problem is that ie and ei can both have the long e sound even in some words without a c). Ie is sometimes long i as in pie.
Ea is a tricky one because it has 3 sounds (long e, short e and long a). The most common is long e (152 common words) so that is what should be used for this card. The short e sound is in 56 common words however so that will lead to confusion. (Compare that to the y as long e which is 10,000 words vs 17 words with the long i sound when y is at the end of the word.) The long a sound for ea is only in common words break, great, and steak.
R Influenced Vowels
long e, car, order, nurse, bird, farmer
j (judge), wer (work), sh (tension), long a (eight), long i (night)
English is full of exceptions. It does not help that 46 out of the 100 most commonly used words violate the first of rules listed above. I’ve made a list of words that just have to be memorized, and are fairly likely for young children to come across. You can see words with the alternate vowel oo, ea, y, ow, ei, ie sounds in there. Ei and ie are a bit of a mess, because there are so many exceptions. I didn’t list many of the words where the syllable break is between the e and i or i and e. I find those words to be somewhat easy to spell because I would be saying each vowel in my mind. For the other sounds these are all or almost all of the words that break the rules, so there aren’t too many in total.
The way words are said varies in English speaking countries, which changes these vowel sounds a bit regionally. The other issue I didn’t mention is that all unstressed vowels tend to have the schwa sound in America, which is kind of a really light, short “e”. This does not help with spelling. I recommend when silently reading or typing to always read the vowels not using the schwa. So when you think about how Americans say “again”, instead think of it as short a, hard g, long a (ai), n, for example.
Hopefully this is helpful. If you have any feedback or questions for me and the comment section of this post is closed, just message me on social media. I’ll update this post after I’ve tried it out.