Category Archives: letter sounds

When two letters equal one sound: teaching digraphs

mother works with child reading story bookWhen children learn to read using a phonics method, they start by learning that each sound has a one-to-one relationship with a letter.  This makes reading seem logical to little children.  See a B and say “b.”  As teachers we don’t muddy beginning readers’ thinking by telling new readers that some letters mean more than one sound or that some letters, when paired with other letters, make totally different sounds or that some sounds can be represented by multiple groupings of letters.  We save that for later, after children have “mastered” the concept of CVC words and blends.

But eventually children learn that written English is not as logical as it seems at first.  Most advanced phonics instruction begins by teaching children consonant digraphs, two letters which, when paired, represent a sound that neither of the individual letters represents.  The pairs which are taught first usually include ck, qu, sh, ch, and th.

If you find that children balk at learning this part of the “code,” this is normal.  A four- or five-year-old’s understanding of logic is not the same as an adult’s.  One-to-one relationships between sounds and letters makes sense to little children, but one-to-two relationships do not.

I recommend you start with one digraph per lesson.  Just like beginning-of-word blends are easier for children to learn than end-of-word blends, beginning-of-word digraphs are too.  The exception is “-ck.”  I  teach that while I am teaching CVC words containing blends.

But for other digraphs, I usually start with “sh” because there are lots of “sh” one syllable, short-vowel words such as shag, shed, shin, shot, and shut.  I try to make learning “sh” at the beginning of words a game, using letter tiles and BINGO cards with “sh” words.

After a student becomes comfortable pronouncing “sh” at the beginning of words, I move on to another beginning-of-word digraph.  The order isn’t important, but it is important that you constantly review the previously learned digraphs as you move along.  For children who find remembering difficult, it is especially important to advance slowly, spending a large part of each lesson reviewing.

When the student is reasonably secure with pronouncing these digraphs at the beginnings of words, I might tackle teaching how to pronounce digraphs at the ends of words, one at a time.  Or I might delay this kind of instruction, depending on how difficult it was for the student to learn the beginning of word digraphs.

Teaching silent E

Phonics instruction guides vary as to when to teach silent “e.”  Some suggest teaching it before teaching digraphs starting or ending one-syllable, short-vowel words.  Others suggest teaching silent “e” after teaching digraphs.

My best advice is that it depends on the student.  I have spent months teaching CVC words to a student, and thinking she had “mastered” that concept, started teaching silent “e.”  But when we reviewed CVC words at the end of the lesson, she pronounced all the CVC words as if  they were silent “e” words.

Yet I have taught another student who understood the silent “e” concept by the end of our first lesson on that concept. She could accurately go back and forth from CVC words to silent “e” words.  Some students recognize silent “e” patterns in a single lesson.  Some students take months.

I use letter tiles to write a CVC word like “cat” and beside it to write the silent “e” word “cate.”  I explain that the “e” is needed for spelling and to signal that the previous vowel is pronounced like its name.  I start with “a” vowel word pairs:  ban, bane; fat, fate; hat; hate; mad, made, etc.  If the child catches on, I move on to other vowels.  But if the child cannot go quickly back and forth from CVC words to CVCe words, I slow down and focus on one vowel, and one or two consonants after that vowel, such as “t” and “d” as in mat, mate; Nat, Nate; mad, made, and bad, bade.

As always with young children, I try to break up a half hour lesson with game-like activities to keep them motivated.  Even the quickest to catch on prefer to learn using games.

Should you take care to use only real words?  I use non-words all the time, but after the student has pronounced a non-word correctly, I mention that there is no such word.  This offers more pair combinations, especially for the vowels “e” and “u” for which there are not many silent “e” words.

 

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

Teaching VC and VCC words beginning with short vowels

Many beginning readers have trouble pronouncing two- and three-letter words which begin with a short vowel such as at and ink.  Children can pronounce “cat” yet not “at.”

Just as it is easier for children to learn consonant sounds, it seems easier for them to learn words which begin with consonants than to learn words which begin with vowels.

As a result, I teach CVC words first, including words with beginning and ending blends.  Then I teach VC or VCC words.  Many one-syllable short-vowel, words begin with a vowel and end with consonant blends.  I teach such CVCC words before I teach VCC words.

First I introduce two-letter words, some of which (in, on) children have already learned as sight words.  Other two-letter words include Al, am, an, at, ax,  Ed, ex if, it, ox, up and us.

One problem in teaching such words is that many of these words don’t have pictures which form a meaningful association for children.   How do you picture “us,” for example.  Two girls, arm in arm?  The student will say “girls” or “friends” or “sisters” but not “us.”  Another problem is that some of these words, such as “ex” and “ox” are not familiar to children.  When I can, I find pictures and make flash cards to help children associate words with pictures.  But that is hard.

After I teach two-letter VC words, I teach three-letter VCC words, including add, alp, ant, app, ask, asp, act, aft, and, egg, elk, elm, elf, end, egg, imp, ink, and off.  By teaching, I mean making words of letter tiles for children to read, and then asking them to make the words I say, again using letter tiles.  I also play BINGO using cards with these words on them.  I  make lists to read (boring but necessary).  We review these words often.  I write sentences using these words for children to read, sometimes in the form of a question which they must answer with a yes or no.  (Can an ant ask an egg to sit?  Can an elk add 2 + 2?  The sillier, the better.)

You can’t assume that because a child can read “cat,” she can also read “act.”  Tiny words beginning with short vowel sounds should be taught explicitly and should be reviewed until you are sure the child can sound them out properly.

What are letters?

Letters are visual representations (drawings) of sounds.  Nothing in an “a” inherently connects it with the sound we make when we say “a.”  “A” means the “a” sound only because we readers agree that it does, the way we agree that a green light means go or a “?” at the end of a sentence means to raise our voices to a higher pitch.

Child Recognizes the Letter T.

In English we have 26 letters, some of which are duplicates of the same sound.  For example, “c” and “k” can both indicate a “k” sound.  Some letters represent multiple sounds.  “S” can indicate both an “s” and a “z” sound.  And some letters, when paired with another letter, can represent a sound different from the sound either makes separately.  “Th” does not indicate a “t” plus an “h” sound, but a separate sound.

In some languages, each sound is represented by a different letter.  No letters stand for two or more sounds.  No letters, when paired, represent a new sound.  There is a one-to-one pairing of sound to illustration.  If only English were so simple!

The 42 distinct sounds in American English can by symbolized by more than 100 letters or pairs of letters (because some sounds, as the vowel sound in “cow”  have more than one way of being represented, such as “ow,” “ou,” “ew,” and “ough.”)

More than 100 letter combinations are far fewer to learn than are the thousands of word pictures Chinese people learn to be fluent in their languages.  But those 100+ letter combinations are more than the Cherokee used to represent 88 syllables in their language.

The fact that you are able to read this blog proves that the code of English—that is, the pairing of sounds with letter symbols—can be learned.  Four-year-olds who start the reading process can expect to be reading three-syllable words with accuracy by the time they are nine.  That’s five years to learn the most important skill we undertake in our education, a skill we will use almost daily for another 70, 80 or 90 years.

Hard—yes, but worth the effort.

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.

Teaching sounds, not letters, is where reading begins

The basic “code” of written English is sounds represented by letters.  Learning this code begins with learning to recognize the sounds of English.  Combining these sounds into two- or three-sound words is where forming words begins.  And this can be taught to children before they ever see a letter.

Because learning the code of written English is so important, learning to recognize its sounds should not be rushed.  A lifetime of reading, a career, the ability to support a family—so much depends on being able to read.

Kids need plenty of time and various kinds of interactions with sounds to learn to recognize sounds.  The younger the children, the shorter their attention spans and the more need for game-like ways to learn.

But the learning doesn’t begin with letters.  It begins with sounds.

I recommend you use several strategies to help your children identify sounds, working with your child one-on-one using manipulatives.  Why?

Your child wants nothing more than to interact with you. Putting down your cell phone and sitting by her side shows your child you treasure her.  And working with her on reading skills shows her how important you consider that knowledge to be.

Research shows that the more senses we use, the more likely we are to remember. If a child can touch manipulatives, hear you say sounds, say them herself, see objects when she says sounds and feel your warm hug when she learns, the learning will stick. Plus she will be relaxed and happy, in an emotional state which is open to learning.

Some of the strategies I recommend to teach tiny children how sounds form words are these.

  • Work on a few sounds at a time with objects around the house. If your son’s name is Bill, for example, start with the “b” sound. Put a ball in your son’s hand and say “b” (the sound, not the letter) as in ball.  Put a banana in his hands and say “b” as in banana.  Do the same for other consonant sounds and for all the vowel sounds, even sounds we represent by two letters.  You can say “oi” (the sound) as in oink, or “ch” (the sound) as in child.  You can start this activity when a child is two or three without ever showing the child a letter.

 

  • Find objects in picture books which begin with basic English language sounds. ABC books are good for this, but the goal should not be to say “A is for apple.”  Rather it is to focus on the sounds in words.  At first start with words which begin with a sound, but then move on to small words which include that sound in the middle of CVC words like “cat” and “bag.”

 

  • When the child recognizes a handful of consonant sounds and a vowel sound such as “a,” say the “a” sound and a consonant sound slowly, one after the other. Make sounds which form a word like “a” and “t” or “a” and “x.”  Repeat the sounds a little faster each time until the child can hear the sounds come together.  Usually the child will say the word, but if not, help her to hear how the sounds come together to form a word.

 

All these activities can be done prior to ever showing your child a letter.  And they can be done with all 42 sounds in English.  Identifying sounds and understanding how they come together to form words is the basis of reading.  Save the ABCs for a later time.