Letter Names Can Cause Confusion and Other Things to Know About Letter–Sound Relationships
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A teacher asks kindergartners to write about what each of them did over the weekend. One child writes the letters HRH on her paper. When the teacher asks her to share what she has written, the child says “church.” Why? Because the pronunciation of the letter name for h ends with the ch sound.
—Donna Scanlon, Professor
Letter names in English can cause confusion for young children. Knowing this and other things about English orthography (the standardized alphabetic spelling system of the English language) can help teachers better support young children’s literacy development (e.g., McCutchen et al. 2009). However, teachers need to know not only about letter names and letter–sound relationships in English words but also about applying this knowledge in their interactions with young children.
In this article, we present 10 essential understandings about English orthography and examples of how this knowledge can help teachers appropriately support preschool and primary grade children’s literacy development.
1. Letter names can be confusing.
H is one of three letters whose names, when pronounced, do not contain a sound that the letter represents. The other two letters are w and y. Children sometimes write a w for /d/ (/d/ means the d sound: slashes around a letter [or letters] denote its sound or pronunciation) because the pronunciation of the letter name for w (double-u) starts with /d/. And you’ll sometimes see children write a y for /w/, as in YAT for wait. The pronunciation of most letter names includes at least one sound the letter commonly represents, although the position of the letter’s sound in the letter’s name varies. For some letters, the sound comes first and is followed by a vowel sound, as in b, c, d, g, j, k, p, q, t, v, z. In other letters, the letter’s sound comes second, preceded by a vowel sound, as in f, l, m, n, r, s, x. Moreover, the vowel sound is not consistent. Sometimes it is /ee/, as in the letter names for b, c, d, g, p, t, v, z; sometimes it is /ĕ/, as in the letter names for f, l, m, n, s, x; sometimes it is /ay/, as in j and k; in q it is a long u; and in r it is an r-controlled a (more about r-control later).
Rather than teaching children rules, expose them to lists of words that all follow a particular pattern.
We can see why children learning letter–sound associations and trying to apply that knowledge in their reading and writing are sometimes mystified. Some researchers recommend that we not teach letter names at all (e.g., McGuinness 2004). However, other research indicates that instruction in both letter names and letter sounds is best for children (Piasta, Purpura, & Wagner 2010).
What you can do
As a teacher of young children, be sure to devote at least as much attention to helping children learn the sound or sounds associated with each letter as you do the letter name. When interacting with children, look out for the influence of letter names and address this explicitly. For example, if a kindergartner writes YD for wide, you can say, “I understand why you put the letter y there. You hear /w/ at the beginning of the name for y. But the letter y actually makes a /y/ sound. That’s confusing, isn’t it! Do you know what letter makes the /w/ sound?” (If more support is needed, provide a name or other key word children have learned for /w/, such as Waheed, a classmate’s name.)
2. English is more systematic than we may realize.
All too often, the English language is viewed as being highly complicated and irregular—with many exceptions to every rule. George Bernard Shaw suggested that English is so irregular and chaotic that the word ghoti might conceivably be pronounced fish (Venezky 1999). However, Venezky shows that Shaw’s claim is misleading. The letters gh can represent /f/ only when they come at the end of a word, such as in enough. Shaw suggested that o can represent the short i sound; but according to Venezky, Shaw was referring to the word women, which is the only word in the English language in which o represents short i. Finally, ti can represent /sh/ only when followed by other letters (as in action), never at the end of a word. Venezky’s rebuttal of Shaw’s argument illustrates the systematicity of written English.
Of course, systematicity does not necessarily mean simplicity. English orthography is indisputably complex, and it is important not to make simple, unwarranted generalizations. Many of the phonics generalizations or phonics rules that elementary grade students learn are too simplistic, having far too many exceptions to be valid (Clymer 1963). For example, regarding the rule stating that “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,” Clymer found that only 45 percent of English words having two vowels together follow it. Johnston (2001) revisited this analysis with a different database. She also found that this rule often did not apply, nor did any broad phonics generalization she studied.
What you can do
Rather than teaching children rules, expose them to lists of words that all follow a particular pattern. For example, rather than teaching the aforementioned rule for vowels, present children with a list of words such as look, book, took, cook, and help children focus on the sound–letter pattern. Johnston (2001) found that many specific (rather than broad) generalizations were true much of the time (e.g., in her database oi represents the sound in coin 100 percent of the time). In addition, to counter your colleagues who question the value of phonics instruction, share the ghoti example to demonstrate that English is more systematic than we realize.
3. English orthography is complex for good reasons.
Written English has a long, rich history. As a result, pronunciation of some words has evolved even while their spelling has not. For example, originally the word gnat was pronounced /gnat/, but over time, the g has become silent. We now pronounce it /nat/; yet, we still spell it with the g at the beginning.
In addition to evolved pronunciations, many words, such as llama or rhyme, have been borrowed from other languages. English is also a language in which morphology (the study of the smallest unit of meaning in words), as well as phonology (the study of speech sounds), drives orthography (Venezky 1967). (For definitions of these words and other related vocubulary, see “Glossary of Terms” at the end of the article.)
In a purely phonological orthographic system we would spell words exactly as they sound. For example, bugs might be spelled bugz, and insects, insex. But in a partially morphological orthographic system such as English, we spell these words bugs and insects to signify with the -s that both are plural. Although admittedly posing challenges for readers and writers in early stages of literacy development, the fact that English orthography conveys morphological relationships can be a big help to readers and writers in later stages of literacy development, when they begin encountering a lot of words in reading that aren’t in their everyday oral vocabulary.
It allows us to see semantic, or meaning-based, relationships between words. For example, even though magic and magician have very different pronunciations (/majic/ and /majishun/), we can see by their spelling that they are related. The morphological nature of English orthography also allows us to figure out the meanings of words we have never seen or heard (e.g., kleptophobia—the fear of stealing or being stolen from). Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that stronger morphological awareness supports literacy development (Carlisle 2010). Recognizing the morphological nature of English orthography offers readers an advantage.
What you can do
Consider teaching some beginning morphology to children in kindergarten or first grade (depending on their readiness for this). For example, you might help them understand that we use -s to make a word mean more than one even if we say it with /z/. Help them understand that we use -ed to make a word indicate that something happened in the past, whether we say it with a /d/ or with a /t/, as in walked. You can use the preceding examples to help parents, colleagues, and others better understand that the language system is based on both phonology and morphology.
4. Some letters represent different sounds in different words.
Ms. Wilson is introducing the letter c to her kindergartners. She explains that c stands for at least two sounds: /k/ as in cat and /s/ as in cereal.
Like c, there are a number of letters that commonly represent either of two sounds. Another is g. The two sounds are referred to as hard and soft. The hard sound of c is /k/, as in cat or cookie, and of g is /g/, as in goat or grandma. The soft sound of c is /s/, as in cereal or center, and of g is /j/, as in gym or ginger.
Hard and soft sounds provide another opportunity to underscore that English orthography is more systematic than we may realize. It is not, in fact, random whether the c or g is pronounced with its hard or soft sound. Try pronouncing these two words: ceilent and gantin. These are made-up words, so you haven’t seen or read them before. Yet most likely you pronounced the c as /s/ (soft) and the g as /g/ (hard). The reason is that c and g typically represent soft sounds when followed by e, i, or y, and hard sounds when followed by a, o, or u.
We would not teach these generalizations to young children, but they can remind us of the systematicity of English spelling. There are other letters that represent two or more different sounds—the letter s is one, as in sun and was; x is another, as in xylophone and fox (the x in fox represents two sounds, or phonemes, pronounced together: /k/ /s/). Each vowel represents at least three different sounds. One of these, the schwa sound, will be discussed in point number 10. The other two are referred to as long vowels and short vowels.
Typically, a short vowel is the sound the vowel represents in a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) word. For example, short a is the middle sound in bag (for the other short vowels, it’s /e/ as in bed, /i/ as in bit, /o/ as in hot, /u/ as in cut). Long vowels “say their names”—for example, long i is the sound the vowel represents in bike. The terms long vowel and short vowel are misnomers in that short vowels are not pronounced noticeably faster than long vowels.
What you can do
Be up front with children, as Ms. Wilson was, about cases in which a letter represents different sounds in different words. When a child is reading aloud and is unsure of which sound to use, have the child try both sounds and ultimately decide on one based on the word that sounds right and makes sense (Scanlon, Anderson, & Sweeney 2010). With vowels, this approach is sometimes referred to as vowel flexing.
5. Sometimes sounds can be represented in more than one way.
Jelani, a first-grader, brings his writing to a conference with his teacher, Mr. Acker. He has written uv for the word of. Mr. Acker points to the word and tells Jelani that the letters he wrote do make the sounds we hear in of, but we spell this word “of.
Jelani actually has written appropriate letters for the sounds he heard. Mr. Acker does the right thing to validate that. We have seen teachers who will not recognize this and suggest that the child listen harder or try again. Listening harder would not help him spell of correctly because the two phonemes, or small sound units, in the word can reasonably be represented by the letters u and v. As with many words, the only way for Jelani to know how to spell of correctly is through experience with the correct spelling of the word.
What you can do
Don’t insist on correct spelling early on; research strongly suggests that engaging children in listening for sounds in words and inventing/estimating/approximating their spelling supports their literacy development (e.g., Ouellette & Sénéchal 2008). Over time, following the guidelines of standards documents with specific expectations for spelling at each grade level, encourage children to learn to spell a growing number of words correctly—for example, the words listed on a classroom word wall or in their personal dictionaries or word journals.
6. Sometimes pairs or groups of letters represent a single sound.
In Mr. Acker’s classroom, the first-graders engage in a guided reading lesson. They are reading a text about fish. Some students try to figure out the word by pronouncing /f/ /i/ /s/ /h/. Mr. Acker stops and explains to them that when s and h are together, they don’t make /s/ and /h/; together they make the /sh/ sound. This teacher recognizes the difference between digraphs and blends. A digraph is two letters that stand for a single phoneme. Unlike a blend, a digraph is not a combination of the sounds that the two letters represent. Sh is a digraph representing the single phoneme /sh/—it is not formed by pronouncing /s/ and /h/ consecutively.
Three other important consonant digraphs are ch as in chin, th as in thin or that, and ng as in sing. No single letter can represent the sound represented by any of these digraphs. There are many other consonant digraphs that represent a sound already represented by another letter: ph, wh, wr, kn, gn, ck, ff, gh, ll, mb, ss (Dow & Baer 2012).
There are also vowel digraphs. One is oa, as in boat. Other combinations of vowel digraphs (e.g., Dow & Baer 2012), which others call simply vowel pairs (e.g., Fox 2009) or vowel teams (NGA & CCSSO 2010), include ea (as in head or as in bead), ai, ay, ee, oe, au, aw, ew, oo (as in spook or as in book), and ow (as in slow—please see point number 7 for a discussion of ow as in cow). In some cases, we even have trigraphs in English—three letters representing a single sound.
Examples of trigraphs are sch, as in the word schwa; dge, as in judge; igh, as in high; and tch, as in watch. And there are at least two quadgraphs we can think of. We’ll put them at the end of the article to give you some time to come up with them. Digraphs are frequently confused with blends. Blends are pairs or groups of letters in which each letter is sounded, one right after the other. Unlike a digraph, the sound of each individual letter in the blend is maintained. For example, the gr in the word grape is a blend. When you say the word, you pronounce both /g/ and /r/ but in immediate succession such that they sound blended together. (See “Keeping in Mind a Word’s Sound Structure.”)
What you can do
We recommend teaching digraphs explicitly (but without using the term digraph). Some teachers take a digital photo of children showing thumbs up for th, making the quiet sign for sh, and pointing to their cheeks for ch, and they post those along with the digraphs as a reminder of the sound associated with each of these digraphs.
7. Sometimes pairs of letters represent a special kind of sound.
Another kind of letter pair to be aware of are diphthongs. We sometimes say that diphthongs make a sound-and-ahalf or that they glide—the two letters represent a single phoneme, but saying the phoneme involves substantial movement of the mouth. Try putting your fingers around your mouth as you say boy and cow. You will feel substantial movement in the second part of the words. The oi/oy, ow/ ou (as in mouse), and au/aw (caught, raw) are diphthongs. You may also notice that when writing, young children who are not yet aware of the spellings for these sounds may use any number of vowels to represent them. Sometimes they use a long string of vowels such as caoy for cow, probably because they sense considerable movement in their mouths.
What you can do
As with digraphs, we recommend providing explicit instruction in diphthongs (although that teaching needn’t— and shouldn’t—include the term diphthong). Again key words or anchor words can be very helpful for children. The high frequency word boy, for example, might serve as a key word to remind children of the oy letter–sound relationship (Ehri, Satlow, & Gaskins 2009).
Keeping in Mind a Word’s Sound Structure
Literate adults are so influenced by orthography that they sometimes lose touch with the actual sound, or phoneme, structure of words. Count the phonemes in these words and see how close you come: sheep, bright, six, each, choose (3, 4, 4, 2, 3, respectively). It is important for teachers of young children to be aware of the phoneme structure in words as they respond to children’s writing. A child who represents the word bright as BIT may at first glance seem way off, but in fact she has represented three of the four phonemes in the word, and the one she has missed is the second sound in a blend—and they are notoriously hard for young children to hear. (Also hard to hear are n and m before consonants, so you’ll see spelling such as dot for don’t and cap for camp.)
8. The letter or letters that immediately follow or precede a letter matter.
Mrs. Chan, a first-grade teacher, is eliciting words that begin with the ă sound. James offers art. Mrs. Chan explains that the word art does begin with the letter a, but in that word, it doesn’t represent the /ă/ or /ā/. Because it’s before the letter r, it makes a different sound (which she then pronounces with the children).
In this context, a is known as an r-controlled vowel—the a sound is lost to the r sound. R-control affects not only a, but any vowel that precedes the r. We pronounce neither the long nor the short sound of e in er, i in ir, o in or, or u in ur. Rather, each of these letter pairs has a special pronunciation (or pronunciations) that is not the sum of their individual sounds. In spelling, determining which r-controlled vowel represents a sound in a word can be quite difficult (Venezky 1999). For example, the words her and girl contain the same r sound but are represented by different r-controlled vowels.
R-control is just one example of a larger phenomenon in English orthography—the fact that the letters around a letter matters. We also see this with vowels preceding l versus another letter (e.g., ball versus bat) and with some letters that are unsounded when in certain contexts (e.g., b before t, as in doubt; b after m, as in comb).
What you can do
The fact that the sound made by the letter(s) that follow or precede another letter matters is one of the reasons we recommend teaching phonograms beginning in kindergarten.
Phonograms are common groups of letters that represent the same sounds, such as –ight in bright, light, sight, and so on. Teaching children phonograms, such as –er, -all, and – tch, helps avoid the problem of children trying to read these letter groups using the individual sounds associated with these letters. It also explains why word chunking is widely suggested for multisyllabic words. To explain chunking, Gaskins (Center for the Study of Reading 1991) offers the example of the word bandiferous. Although not a real word, we read this word quickly and easily. We do not do so by sounding out each individual letter—/b/ /a/ /n/ /d/ /i/ /f/ /e/ /r/ /o/ /u/ /s/. Instead, we read the word in chunks (e.g., /band/ /if/ /er/ /ous/), recognizing the chunks from words we already know. The longer and more orthographically complex words are, the more important chunking is. For example, to support a second grader who is struggling to read the word rereading, a teacher would show the child the chunks /re/ /read/ /ing/.
9. A letter’s position in a word matters.
Mrs. Chan listens as Francine, a first-grader, tries to read the word funny. When Francine gets to the y, she pronounces the sound /y/, as in yellow. The teacher who knows about English orthography recognizes this as a sign that the child has limited understanding of the letter–sound relationships of y. Although y does represent the sound /y/ at the beginning of a word, elsewhere in a word it typically represents the long i or long e sound. Indeed, this is why we say y is sometimes a vowel—when y comes at the beginning of a word, it is often a consonant, whereas if it is in the middle or end of a syllable or word, it typically acts as a vowel. Y illustrates that a letter’s position in a word and syllable matters.
What you can do
Once children have some basic letter-by-letter decoding skills, help them use knowledge of known words to solve unknown words. Sometimes called “decoding by analogy,” this strategy helps children take into account the position of letters within a word and supports word-reading development (White 2005). For example, children might use knowledge of happy to decode the end of funny or their knowledge of celebrate to decode celery (see point number 4).
10. Any vowel can be a schwa.
Tyrice, a second-grader, asks his teacher for help spelling the word envelope. Mr. Allen begins pronouncing the word as en (pronouncing the e as a short e), ve (pronouncing a short u), lope (pronouncing a long o). This teacher avoided a pitfall we have repeatedly observed both teachers and parents caught in—inaccurately pronouncing a word to help children with its spelling. Mr. Allen correctly pronounces the second e sound as short u, which is how it is pronounced naturally in this word, rather than pronouncing it with a short e sound in a misguided attempt to assist the child with the spelling.
In envelope, the second e does not represent the short (or long) e sound. Rather, it represents a sound known as schwa—the uh or short u sound common in many English words. A schwa is the sound a vowel often represents in the unstressed or unaccented syllable of a multisyllabic word, such as the o in computer, the i in pencil and the first e in select (to remember how accented syllables work, we enjoy the phrase that misplaces the accented syllables as follows: put your emphásis on the right sylláble).
The schwa is “the most difficult sound to predict in the entire orthographic system” (Venezky 1999, 62). Because the schwa sound can be represented by any vowel, it is difficult for children to know which vowel represents the sound until they have had experiences with the correct spelling of the word. We help children by showing them the correct spelling of the word rather than altering the pronunciation of the word to try to reveal that spelling. (See “Identifying Unstressed Syllables and the Schwa Sound.”)
What you can do
Directing children to similar words they already know can help them with their spelling, as it does with their word reading. For example, a child could be encouraged to use her knowledge of the spelling of invite to help determine the vowel that represents the schwa sound in the word invitation. We also suggest cautioning parents and colleagues not to mispronounce a word to help children with its spelling. For example, when helping a child spell the word amaze, refrain from pronouncing the initial a as /ā/. Rather, explain that knowing which vowel represents the schwa sound requires familiarity with the correct spelling of the word.
Identifying Unstressed Syllables and the Schwa Sound
Try identifying the unstressed syllable with schwa in these words: aware, orthography, pedagogy, syllable, consonant (first, third, second, second, second, respectively). Being aware of which syllables in words are unstressed and contain schwa can help teachers identify parts of words that may be especially difficult for children to spell, and to understand why children may be struggling with spelling a particular word. For example, if second-graders are writing about animals, the teacher might anticipate that the children will struggle with representing the two schwa sounds in animal (represented by the i and the second a) and would go ahead and teach children how to spell this word.
- blend: two or three consecutive consonants, each sounded, within a syllable. Examples: cl in the word class or spr in the word spring
- chunking: breaking a word into smaller, more manageable parts in order to figure out how to read or write the word. Example: Reading rain and then bow to figure out rainbow
- digraph: two consecutive letters that produce a single phoneme (sound). Examples: ch in child, th in this, sh in shell
- diphthong: a vowel phoneme with a glide from one sound to the other. Examples: the sound represented by oi or oy as in noise or boy
- orthography: the spelling system of a language
- morphology: the study of meaningful parts of words. Example: in reusable, the three meaningful parts are re, us(e), and able
- phonogram: a letter or combination of letters that represent a sound or series of sounds in a syllable. Examples: -er, kn-, -all
- phonology: the study of sounds in language
- r-controlled vowel: vowels that make a special sound when followed by the letter r. Examples: a in art, u in fur
- semantic: relating to meaning in language
- vowel flexing: trying the different sounds of a vowel to determine which one results in the correct word. Example: A child who is trying to figure out the word leak may try both the short e sound (as in head) and the long e sound (as in leap)
In this article we have argued that there is some fundamental knowledge about English orthography that may aid early childhood educators in responding to young children’s reading and writing in informed and effective ways. Specifically, we identified 10 understandings of English orthography that we believe are important for teachers. With this knowledge, teachers can support children in developing proficiency in reading and writing the complex and rich language we call English.
Carlisle, J.F. 2010. “Effects of Instruction in Morphological Awareness on Literacy Achievement: An Integrative Review.” Reading Research Quarterly 45 (4): 464–87.
Center for the Study of Reading (Producer). 1991. Teaching Word Identification. DVD, 30 min. In Teaching Reading: Strategies From Successful Classrooms. Set of 6 videos, a preview DVD, 6 viewer’s guides, an instructor’s guide. (Available from Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Children’s Research Center, Room 158, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, IL 61820.)
Clymer, T. 1963. “The Utility of Phonic Generalizations in the Primary Grades.” The Reading Teacher 16 (4): 252–58.
Dow, R.S., & G.T. Baer. 2012. Self-Paced Phonics: Text for Educators. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Ehri, L.C., E. Satlow, & I. Gaskins. 2009. “Grapho-Phonemic Enrichment Strengthens Keyword Analogy Instruction for Struggling Young Readers.” Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties 25 (2–3): 162–91.
Fox, B.J. 2009. Phonics and Structural Analysis for the Teacher of Reading: Programmed for Self-Instruction. 10th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Johnston, F.P. 2001. “The Utility of Phonic Generalizations: Let’s Take Another Look at Clymer’s Conclusions.” The Reading Teacher 55 (2): 132–43.
Photographs: © Getty Images; Children’s illustrations courtesy of the authors
Meghan K. Block, PhD, is an assistant professor of English language and literature at Central Michigan University. She previously has taught kindergarten and first and second grades, and she sits on the board of an NAEYC-accredited child care center.
Nell K. Duke, EdD, is professor in literacy, language, and culture in the School of Education and the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. As of September 2022, Dr. Duke serves as the executive director of the Center for Early Literacy Success at Stand for Children (www.stand.org). She earned her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and her master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. Her work focuses on early literacy development, particularly among children living in economic poverty. Dr. Duke has received the International Literacy Association’s William S. Gray Citation of Merit for outstanding contributions to research, theory, practice, and policy. Her website is www.nellkduke.org.