Basic Phonics Terms

Phonics is a method teaching for reading that stresses using sound-letter relationships. It focuses on the alphabetic principle. Learning the relationship between spoken sounds and written letters allows readers to decode words for reading and encode words for spelling. Decoding is the first step in the process of reading. The terms listed below will help multilingual (English Learner) educators gain a greater understanding of this beginning process. The other processes of reading will be covered under 'Basic Reading Terms'.

Note - Teaching phonics is a 'part to whole' method which works well for most learning styles. However, students who think and learn from 'whole to part' require a specialized approach to phonics.

The greatest difference between teaching English speakers and English learners is the background knowledge of phonemes and vocabulary. An English speaker has heard and practiced the set of English phonemes since birth and can easily hear and distinguish between various sounds. An English learner will have trouble hearing and distinguishing sounds not found in their native language/s. A five-year-old English speaker has a vocabulary of about 3,500 words. In contrast, an English learner may know less than 100 words of English. Lastly, another difference is the age of the students. An English learners may be five, fifteen, or 55 years-old when they begin to learn English. 

Sections 1-3 below will address phonological awareness, hearing distinguishing consonants and vowel sounds. These are followed by sections 4 and 5 concerning print awareness, writing systems, and letters. The last three sections discuss decoding terms and whole language.

1. PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS: the ability to recognize and manipulate sound properties of a language. English speaking children listen to nursery rhymes, stories, songs, poems, and everyday speech. English learners (ELs) do not have this background knowledge of English. However, ELs have been exposed to rhymes, words, and syllables in their native language. This sets the stage for decoding, blending and finally reading. Below are several skills that show phonological awareness. 
    • Rhyme: words that end with the same sound. These are often used in poetry.
      • way, neigh, may
    • Syllables Awareness 
      • Count Syllables: walking has 2 syllables
      • Blend Syllables: win + dow = win dow
      • Segment (divide) into Syllables: telephone = tel + e + phone
      • Delete syllables: rainbow - rain = bow
    • Segment (Divide) Words in a Sentence
      • Count Words: "I like apples." has 3 words
    • Alliteration and initial sounds: 
      • Identify words with the same initial sound: "Big bears eat berries."
      • Produce words with the same initial sound: cat, kitten, car, key

    A. Phoneme / Sound: The basic sound unit of speech. Phonemes combine to form words. Most linguists agree that English has 44 phonemes: 25 consonant phonemes and 19 vowel phonemes. One phoneme can be represented by one to four letters.

    • 1 phoneme - 1 letter:   a, I, d, s
    • 1 phoneme - 2 letters: ch, th, sh, ow, ee, oo, ar
    • 1 phoneme - 3 letters: igh, tch, dge,
    • 1 phoneme - 4 letters: eigh (eight), ough (bough)

    B. Phonemic Awareness:to recognize and manipulate spoken parts of words and sentences. 

    • Identify individual phonemes / sounds
    • Blend phonemes / sounds to form a word: p + e + t = pet
    • Segment phonemes / sounds in a word: van = v + a + n
    • Delete phonemes / sounds from words:  cup - c = up
    • Add phonemes / sounds to a word h + it = hit
    • Manipulate phonemes / sounds 
    • Onset-Rime:
      • Onset is any consonant sound before the vowel.
      • Rime is the vowel and any consonants following it.
      • bug: b is the onset, ug is the rime

    C. Syllable Stress/Accent:Multisyllable words in English contain one or more stressed syllables. English speakers learn this aspect of sound by listening to the spoken language. English learners must learn which syllable to stress in English words.

    D. Sentence Intonation:the unique lilt used for sentences and questions in a language. English speakers learn this aspect of sound in their first five years of life. English learners must learn English sentence intonation.

    2. CONSONANTS: phonemes marked by constriction or closure in the breath channel. There are 21 consonants in English. Letters other than a, e, i, o and u.

    A. Unvoiced Consonant: The vocal cords do not vibrate in creating the sound.

    • h: hi, hand
    • p: pay, cap
    • t: top, put
    • k: key, lock
    • f: find, puff
    • s: say, class
    • sh: shout, bush
    • ch: chair, lunch
    • th: Thursday, teeth
    B. Voiced Consonant: the vocal cords vibrate in creating the sound. 

      Some languages have a consonant sound that is in between two English sounds. This makes it difficult for English learners to hear and pronounce two distinct sounds. For example, Japanese has a sound between r and l. That is why Japanese English learners might say, "like" and "rice" with the same beginning sound.

      • b: bus, rib
      • d: dime, bed
      • g: gift, leg
      • j: juice, judge
      • l: left, bell
      • r: run, car
      • qu /kw/: quiet, quit
      • y: yes, you
      • v: van, give
      • w: win, where
      • x /ks/: box, exit
      • z: zipper, quiz
      • th: this, these
      • /ᶾ/: Asia, usual, measure
      C. Consonant pairs: unvoiced and voiced sounds made by the same configuration of the mouth. These are used to help English learners distinguish and pronounce similar sounds.
        • b and p
        • t and d
        • f and v
        • k and g
        • th (thin) and th (then)
        • s and z
        • ch and j
        • sh and /ᶾ/
        D. Nasal Consonant: the air flows out the nose because of a closure in the oral cavity.
        • m: milk, Monday
        • n: name, knee, women
        • /ng/: ring, angry, think
        E. Fricatives: consonant sounds that are made by squeezing air between a small gap as it leaves the mouth.
          • h: hi, hand
          • f: first, for
          • j: juice, judge
          • s: see, sun
          • v: van, very
          • z: zoo, zero
          • sh: she, shoe
          • th (voiced): thick, teeth
          • th (unvoiced): this, these

          F. Consonant Blends (Teams, Clusters):Two or more consecutive consonants which retain their individual sounds.Initial Blends are found at the beginning of words; final blends are found at the end of words. Blends are very common and can be recognized as a chunk.

          G. Initial Consonant Blends:Two or three consecutive consonants at the beginning of a word which retain their individual sounds. There are three groups of beginning blends. 

            • L Blends: bl, cl, fl, gl, pl, sl (tw and qu)
            • R Blends: br, cr, dr, fr, gr, pr, spr, str, thr, tr,
            • S Blends: sc, sk, sm, sn,  sp, st, sw, sch, sph 
            H. Final Consonant Blends:Two consecutive consonants at the end of a word which retain their individual sounds. There are four groups of final blends. 
              • N Blends: nd, nk, nt, mp
              • S Blends: sk, sp, st
              • L blends: ld, lf, lk, lm, lp, lt
              • T blends: ct, ft, pt 
              I. Consonant Digraph: Two or three consecutive consonants that represent onephoneme (sound). These can appear in the beginning, middle and end of a word. Some digraphs appear only at the beginning of a word, whereas others appear only at the end of a word. Some digraphs produce unique sounds while others have been reduced to one of the letter sounds. 'gh' makes several sounds.
                • All positions: that, mother, math
                • Beginning position: when, write, knee
                • Final position: watch, bridge, neck, sing
                • Different sound from its letters: th, sh, ch, ph, ng, gh (laugh), and dge
                • Reduced to one sound: wh, wr, kn, tch, ck, and gh (ghost)
                3. VOWELS:phonemes where air flows through the mouth unobstructed. The letters a, e, i, o, and u are considered vowels, although vowel sounds can be represented by consonants, or a combination of consonants and vowels.

                  *All languages contain vowels, but some do not write their vowels. Arabic and Hebrew are alphabetic languages that omit vowels in writing. Syllabic languages have one symbol for a consonant + vowel combination. Logographic languages do not write vowels.

                  • Standard Vowels: a, e, i, o, u
                  • Consonants as vowels: y - gym, fly, type, carry
                  • Combinations:
                    • aw: draw, straw
                    • ow: now, cow
                    • ar: car, star
                    • or: for, corn,
                    • igh: light, night
                    • eigh: eight, weight 

                  *Note - Other languages often lack one or more of these vowel sounds. This makes it difficult for English learners to hear and pronounce certain vowels. For example, Spanish does not have ou/ow, au/aw, or oo vowels. 

                  A. Short Vowels: the short vowel sounds are the most used type of vowel in English. These are often the first to be introduced, to English speakers. They are easy to identify in print because they generally come before one or more final consonants.  

                    Short vowels are often more difficult for English learners because they are unfamiliar with these sounds. English learners learn long vowels when they learn the letters in the alphabet. 

                    There are 7 short vowel sounds in English. The American short a is pronounced differently from the British short a. 

                    • a as in pat
                    • e as in pet
                    • i as in pit
                    • o as in dog
                    • u as in cut
                    • u as in put
                    • shwa: a as in about (ə-bout)

                    Schwa: the vowel sound of an unstressed syllable in English represented by an upside down e. Any vowel may make a schwa sound.

                    • 'a' in  balloon (bəl-loon)
                    • 'o' in wagon (wag-ən)
                    • 'e' in elephant (el-ə-phant)
                    B. Long Vowels: These say the name of the vowel. They are written in four different patterns and usually taught after short vowels for English speakers. They are often taught first to English learners.

                      European language speakers will have second language interference with long vowels. The Great Vowel Shift changed English vowel sounds making them different from the European vowels. 

                      • Long A: name, take, place
                      • Long E: these, week, eat
                      • Long I: time, pie, light
                      • Long O: home, phone, cope
                      • Long U: too, fruit, new
                      • Written Patterns of Long Vowels
                      • Silent e: make, these, wide, stone, tune
                      • Vowel Teams: rain, beat, tie, coat, glue
                      • Open Syllable: a, be, I, go, flu
                      • Vowel + 2 consonants: find, pint, sign, old, sold, told, holt, both, truth
                      C. Y as a Vowel Rule: if y is at the end of a one-syllable word, y has the sound of long i; if y is the only vowel at the end of a word of more than one syllable, y has a sound almost like long e. If y is at the end of a multisyllable word and the last syllable is stressed, it says long i.
                        • 1 Syllable, Long I sound: try, fly, cry
                        • Multisyllable, Long E sound: carry, happy, penny
                        • Multisyllable, last syllable stressed: reply, supply
                        D. Vowel Digraphs: Two vowels that represent one phoneme (sound). When these make a long vowel sound, they are commonly called vowel teams.
                          • Short E: ea - head, bread, thread
                          • Long A: ai - rain, ay - day, eigh - eight, ei - their, ey -  they, ea - great
                          • Long E: ee - tree, ea - eat, ey - key, ie- piece, ei - deceive
                          • Long I: igh- light, ie - tie, ye - bye
                          • Long O: oa- boat, ow - know, oe- toe
                          • Long U: ue - glue, ui - suit, ew - new, oo - soon, ou - you
                          • oo: book, hood
                          • au and aw: daughter, draw
                          • oi and oy: join, toy
                          • ou and ow: house, cow
                          E. Split Vowel Digraphs: Some curricula refer to silent e vowels as split digraphs.
                            • a-e make, i-e like, o-e home, u-e rule
                            F. Vowel Diphthong:A vowel sound that slides from one sound to another. These are sometimes called a “gliding vowel.” The sound begins as one vowel sound and moves towards another. The two most common diphthongs in the English language are the letter combinations oy/oi and ow/ou. However, several long vowels slide from one vowel to another.
                              • oi and oy: oil and toy
                              • ou and ow: cloud, cow
                              G. R Controlled Vowels: An ‘r’ sound following a vowel sound almost always distorts the sound. Common r-controlled vowels are: ar, er, ir, or, ur. The /er/ sound can be written with er, ir, ur, ear, and wor. Adding a w before an r controlled vowel often changes the sound.
                                • ar: car, star
                                • air: hair, care
                                • /er/: her, shirt, turn, early, word, work
                                • ear: hear, deer, fear
                                • or: corn, short, four, door, war
                                4, Concept of Print: A learner’s understanding that printed words carry meaning, and that reading and writing are ways to communicate information.

                                  English learners who are learning to read can be divided into three groups.

                                  • Nonliterate: Students who have lived in an environment without print. They have little or no concept of reading or print and need more time to gain the concept of print.
                                  • Preliterate: Students who are familiar with print and have observed people reading. They usually have a beginning concept of print and the process of reading. Because of these foundational concepts, preliterate students usually learn to read quicker that nonliterate students.
                                  • Literate: Students who can read and write in their own language/s. They still need to learn the letter-sound correspondence and vocabulary of English. However, they can transfer many reading skills from their first language to English. Literate students are the quickest to learn to read.

                                  The concept of print is an awareness of how print works and can be categorized into four main components:

                                  • concept of text: letters, words, and sentences
                                  • directionality: left to right and top to bottom for English
                                  • mechanics: pause with a comma and full stop with a period
                                  • concept of book: parts of a book

                                  Note - It is challenging for literate students whose languages track from right to left to become accustomed to reading in the opposite direction. 

                                  5. ALPHABETIC PRINCIPLE: The concept that letters and letter combinations represent the phonemes (sounds) of a spoken language. English is a phonetic language that has many patterns for decoding and spelling.

                                  A. Alphabet:The ordered set of letters of a language. English consists of 26 letters A to Z.

                                    *Literate students from alphabetic languages may experience second language interference if the letters in their home language have different sounds.

                                    B. Grapheme - a letter or group of letters representing one phoneme (sound). A grapheme may be one, two, three, or four letters in length.
                                      • 1 grapheme – 1 phoneme: b, f, a, i 
                                      • 2 graphemes – 1 phoneme-: sh, ch, th, ai, ee, ow 
                                      • 3 graphemes – 1 phoneme: tch, igh
                                      • 4 graphemes – 1 phoneme: eigh, ough
                                      C. Phonograms:a letter-sound combination that has the same phonemic value in several words. A phonogram may contain one or more letters. These are used in many phonics curricula.
                                        • s: sing, say, stop
                                        • ck: back, sick, lock
                                        • ee: bee, keep, sleep
                                        • dge: edge, lodge, fudge
                                        • igh: sigh, light, night
                                        D. Writing Systems:Languages have a variety of writing systems.
                                          • Alphabetic languages use a letter (written symbol) to represent a sound.
                                          • Syllabic languages, like Japanese, use a syllabary (written symbol) to represent a syllable.
                                          • Logographic languages, like Chinese, use a logogram (written symbol) to represent a whole word.
                                          • Mixed systems: Some languages contain a mixture of letters, syllabaries, and logograms.

                                          Handwriting is an important part of learning to read. If a student comes from a different writing system, they must be taught how to write letters and numbers. Handwriting helps connect the auditory sound with the visual letter in the brain.

                                           Handwriting by Strokes is a unique method of teaching handwriting quickly and efficiently. 

                                          7. WORD PARTS- Letters, onsets, rimes, syllables that when combined, result in words. Word parts include prefixes, suffixes, base words, and word roots. (See Vocabulary terms for more information.) The ability to recognize various word parts in multi-syllabic words is beneficial in decoding unfamiliar words.
                                          A. Onset:the consonant/s before the vowel in a word. These are used to teach the sounds of the same letter/s.
                                            • c: cat, cake. count, coat, cut
                                            • p: pad, pat, pants, pen, put
                                            • sh: shut, show, shoe, show, shout
                                            • bl: blue, black, blow, blood, blank 
                                            B. Rime:the vowel and consonants that follow it. These are often used to teach word families.
                                              • -at: bat, cat, fat, mat, pat, sat, that
                                              • -ine: dine, fine, line, mine, pine, wine
                                              • -ow: cow, how, now, vow
                                              C. Syllable: English has six syllable patterns
                                                • Closed: has a short vowel and ends with one or more consonants.
                                                  • am, in, but, did, end, sent, length
                                                • Open: ends with a long vowel.
                                                  • I, be, go, flu
                                                • Silent E: has a long internal vowel and a silent e at the end.
                                                  • Make, like, cope, tune
                                                • Cle: ends with a consonant + le.
                                                  • ta-ble, ti-tle, cy-cle
                                                • R Vowel: contains and r vowel.
                                                  • car, girl, mar-ker, bur-ger
                                                • Vowel Team: contains a vowel team that make a long vowel sound.
                                                  • main, team, light, coat, suit
                                                • Digraph Team: has a digraph vowel that is not long.
                                                  • auto, book, tool, now, house


                                                8. DECODING: The ability to translate a word from print to speech by using the knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns. It is the act of deciphering a new word by sounding it out.

                                                A. Blending: To combine the units of sound together to pronounce a word.

                                                  • phonemes: s-n-a-p, blended together reads snap
                                                  • onset and rime: c-at, blended together reads cat
                                                  • syllables: yes-ter-day, blended together reads yesterday
                                                  B. Chunking: A decoding strategy for breaking words into manageable parts. This can be done for phonemes, blends, digraphs, and syllables.
                                                    • phonemes: m-a-n
                                                    • Blends: bl-e-nd 
                                                    • Digraphs: th-i-ng
                                                    • Syllables: yes-ter-day.

                                                    C. Decodable words: Words containing phonic elements that have been previously learned.

                                                    D. Decodable text: Text in which a high proportion of words comprise sound–letter relationships that have already been learned. Decodable texts provide practice applying decoding skills and building fluency with known patterns and words.

                                                    9. WHOLE LANGUAGE: a method for teaching reading that emphasizes the use and recognition of sight words.

                                                    A. Sight Words:These are words that are recognized automatically. They may be spelled phonetically or irregularly.

                                                      If an English learner is not taught phonics, they will memorize every word spelling. In essence, they are reading logograms, similar to reading Chinese.

                                                      Often, new content vocabulary is taught only as sight words and not broken down for beginning readers.

                                                      B. Dolch Word List:This list of 220 high-frequency words was published in 1936. It is for beginning readers in kindergarten to second grade. A list of 95 nouns has been added to the original list. It is based on whole word method.
                                                      C. Fry Word List:This list contains 1000 high-frequency words compiled by Dr. Edward Fry in 1957 and updated in 1980. Fry words are divided into groups of 100 words to enable learning. It is based on the "American Heritage Word Frequency Book" and the whole word method.