What are Vowels and Consonants?

Vowels & Consonants 1

The English Language is created through the different combinations of 44 sounds (phonemes), 20 vowels and 24 consonants. In our written language we refer to the letters of the alphabet as being consonant or vowel letters depending on which type of sound they are representing.

Vowel sounds allow the air to flow freely, causing the chin to drop noticeably, whilst consonant sounds are produced by restricting the air flow.

Vowel sounds are usually (in the UK Education System) split into two main categories based on sound quality:

  • ‘Short’ vowel sounds, due to the short duration of the sound being made. The sound cannot be held onto without becoming distorted
  • ‘Long’ vowel sounds, due to the length of their pronunciation. These can often be held without distorting their sound.

The letters of the alphabet that we normally associate as being the vowel letters are: a, e, i, o and u. The letter ‘y’ is sometimes referred to as an honorary vowel as it is used to replace one of the other vowel letters in words such as: fly or my.

All words in the English language have at least one vowel sound in them so the written version must have at least one vowel letter in it.

Consonant sounds are made (produced) when the air flow is being restricted in some way, for example, changes in tongue position resulting in the mouth not opening as wide. This means that the jaw doesn’t drop noticeably, which is different to vowel sounds.

The letters of the alphabet that usually represent the consonant sounds are: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z.

What are Graphemes & Phonemes?

phoneme chart

grapheme chart keyboard

Last week we started to explain some of the technical language associated with the teaching of phonics, which some new parents may have little or no knowledge of. So, we thought it would be a good idea to continue with this over next couple of weeks to further support you in helping your child.

Graphemes are the alphabet letters, or letter combinations, that represent a single sound (phoneme) in a written word.

An example of a single letter (grapheme) representing a single sound (a phoneme) can be seen in the following words: sat, pat and dog.

Some sounds are represented by two letters and are called digraphs such as the ‘ch’ in ‘chip’ or ‘sh’ in ‘shop’ or ‘ea’ in ‘head’ and the ‘ai’ in ‘rain’.

Other sounds can be represented by 3 (trigraphs) or 4 (quadgraphs) letter combinations such as ‘igh’ in ‘light’ and ‘eigh’ in ‘eight’.

Phonemes are the smallest units of sound of a language; which we blend together to form words.

The English Language has 44 phonemes, 24 consonants and 20 vowels, represented by the unique symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

The 44 phonemes of English (UK) are represented by more than 280 letter or letter combinations. Most letters therefore never make just one sound and that sound can be made by more than one letter or letter combination.

We have created over 1,000 videos that split words into their individual phonemes, showing which letters are making which sound in each word. You can access these videos in two ways:

  1. If you want to know which letter or letter combination represents a sound, click on the relevant phoneme button on the English Phoneme Chart;
  2. If you want to know what sound a letter or letter combination makes and see supporting animations, click on the relevant letter or letter combination on the Alphabet Keyboard.

We hope you find these useful.

What is the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness?

Phonic & Phonemeic 1

With the new school year well under way many new parents are being introduced to the world of phonics and the all the technical language associated with it. So we thought we would take this opportunity to demystify some of that technical language.

Phonics is the association of sounds (phonemes) to written alphabet letters (graphemes). For reading (decoding) the phonics coding system is used to convert the written word into sounds. For spelling (encoding) the same phonic coding system is used to covert sounds heard into letters to form written words.

Phonemic awareness is our ability to split words into their smallest sound units (individual phonemes) and to manipulate these sounds through segmentation, blending, substitution, re-ordering and deletion. This is based on what we hear and say, not the written word.

These are developed further later on when phonics is introduced, sound to letter association.

  • Segmentation – being able to split words into their individual sounds, for example ‘cat’ into c-a-t.
  • Blending – being able to blend individual sounds together to say a word, for example d-o-g into dog.
  • Substitution – being able to swap one sound/letter association for another in a word, for example swapping the /k,(k)/ sound in the word ‘cat’ with a /h,(h)/ sound to say the word ‘hat’.
  • Reordering – being able to swap the sounds/letter association around to create a new word, for example changing the order of the letters in the word ‘cat’ to form the new word ‘act’.
  • Deletion (omission) – being able to remove a sound/letter association from a word to create a new word, for example removing the /t,(t)/ sound from the word ‘cart’ to say the new word ‘car’.

Good phonemic awareness is the vital skill required before phonics can be introduced successfully as a tool for learning to read and spell.

Watch our ‘Single Word Reading’ animation to see these manipulation skills in action: bit.ly/20JAHSa

Letter & Sound Relationships That Break the Phonics Rules

Back in September we explained that Phonics is very useful as a decoding tool used for developing reading skills and an encoding tool for spelling. It is the simple process of linking sounds to letters, its complexity comes from how many sound (phonemes) to letter combinations (graphemes) there are.

Some letter and sound associations just don’t follow the normal phonics rule of a single sound being associated to a letter or letter combination. A few letters represent two sounds, such as the letter ‘u’ which in the word ‘cupid’ represents the two sounds /y,(j)/ and /oo,(uː)/.

A more common one letter two sound relation is that of the letter ‘x’ representing the two sounds /k,(k)/ and /s,(s)/ as in the words: six and box.

Here are some other examples of single letters and split digraphs making two sounds instead of the usual phonics rule of only making one sound:

More than 1 sound 1

Developing and Supporting Your Child’s Reading Journey – Week 6

Letter Knowledge

Phonics Assessment Pages

Letter knowledge is understanding;

  • That the same letter can look different, for example, a lower-case letter ‘b’ looks different from a capital letter ‘B’. Letters will also look different depending on which font type is being used or if it is handwritten, for example, an Arial font letter ‘g’ looks different from a Calibri font ‘g’.
  • That letters have names and the same name is used for that letter even when they look different, so the lower-case letter ‘a’ and its capital letter form ‘A’ are both called ‘ay’.
  • That letters (graphemes) are used to represent sounds (phonemes) in words. Teaching the unique letter names of the alphabet is an important pre-phonics skill. A letter or combination of letters can represent more than one sound and so the only way of identifying alphabet letters when we talk about them is to use their unique names.

Developing Letter Knowledge:

Through Play:

  • Sorting and Matching Games – use plastic or wooden letters, alphabet letter flash cards; can they group all the lower-case letters together, or all the capital letters or all the different letter ‘ay’s’ together.
  • Kim’s Games – use plastic or wooden letters, alphabet letter flash cards. Using a few letters at a time, place 5 to 10 on a tray and let your child look at them and talk through which letters are there. Cover with a tea towel and ask your child to look away, then remove 1 or 2 of the letters. Then ask your child to look back and remove the tea towel. Can they spot which letters are missing.
  • Detective Games – focus on identifying individual letters of the alphabet and naming them, this can be played at home or when out and about.
  • Leap Frog – use the letters of the alphabet on home-made paper lily pads. Use the letter names to identify the target lily pad for your child to either jump onto or to throw a bean bag/soft toy on to.
  • Skittles and Throwing Games – use letters of the alphabet on the targets and use the letter names as a way of identifying which of the targets your child is aiming for.

Through Drawing/Writing:

  • Making lists of things to do, or a shopping list. Their version of the list may be just squiggles and dots (so don’t rely on this for your shopping trip) but it is the beginning. I would keep the list and get them to tick off things done or items purchased as part of the experience so that it has a genuine purpose (children really like this).
  • Making and drawing their own story book.
  • Learning to write letters correctly (see our Teach handwriting Website: http://bit.ly/2F9P7cI)

Through Songs/Nursery Rhymes:

  • Singing Alphabet Song, try singing it to different tunes.
  • Make up Your Own Rap – point to the letters as the rap is said.

Through Talk:

  • Talk about letters as being shapes made up of straight, curves and diagonal lines.
  • Look at the letters in your child’s name, talk about the fact that the first letter in their name is always a capital letter and that normally the other letters are lower-case letters.
  • Point out, especially for slightly older children, that lower-case letters are about half the size of the capital letters.
  • Compare letters looking at what is the same and different about them.
  • When taking about letters use the letter name as well as the sound it is making in the word, remember a letter is often used to represent more than one sound. The letter ‘a’ can be used to represent different sounds in the following words: ant, apron, was, and any (just 4 of the eight sounds it is used to represent).

Through Book Sharing:

What Books to choose?

  • Books with shapes
  • Books where you have to find things (like I spy)
  • Alphabet books
  • Books which use different font styles in the pictures and text.

Book Sharing Tips:

  • Alphabet books do not need to be read from cover to cover. Let your child choose which letters they want to look at.
  • Trace the letters with your finger or let your child trace it (make sure you trace the letter using the correct formation orientation, encourage your child to do the same).
  • Talk about the pictures in alphabet books before focusing on the letter, its name and the sound it can make.
  • Show your child the first letter in their name and then look for that letter in the book.
  • Show and talk about how some letters are in their capital form and others in their lower-case form. Can they find other examples of the letters?
  • Choose two letters to talk about: How do they look alike? How do they look different? What shapes/line styles are they made up of?

Developing and Supporting Your Child’s Reading Journey – Week 2

Word Awareness

Phonological Awareness Games and Book Sharing Ideas

Phonological awareness relates to our sensitivity and understanding of the sound structures of our oral language. It enables us to progress from our awareness of large sound units (words in sentences) to smaller sound units (phonemes in words).

Our phonological awareness develops over time and the depth of that awareness is based on the range of experiences we have. Research suggests that our phonological awareness begins in the womb at about 24 weeks and is continually built upon throughout our lives. We tend to think of children going through ten distinct phonological stages; the later stages being related to phonics.

Children are taught to read in schools through phonics; the association between sounds (phonemes) to written alphabet letters (graphemes).

Phonics reading is the process of firstly segmenting the written word into letters, or letter combinations, then associating known sounds to those letters and finally blending the sounds together to form words (decoding). If a child is weak in any of the phonological awareness stages before those relating to phonics then they will struggle with learning to read.

Because of the nature of how we develop our phonological awareness games and activities cannot easily be split into categories. Playing, drawing, writing, singing and book sharing all require you to talk with your child highlighting sounds, words and rhythms of language.

Here are some games and activities to help you:

  • Singing and sharing nursery rhymes is a great way to help children hear sounds in words because the words are drawn out and the sounds highlighted or exaggerated.
  • Clapping, bouncing or tapping to songs and rhymes helps to highlight the syllables of the words. A syllable is the largest phonological unit (one or a group of sounds) of a word and is like the rhythmic beat of the word.
  • Pointing out the sounds you hear, such as animal or environmental noises, and explaining what is making that noise.
  • Playing games or sing songs where you and your child can make noises such as animal sounds (Old MacDonald had a farm) or vehicle noises (The Wheels on the Bus).
  • Drawing animals or other everyday objects that have a distinct sound, name them and make the sound they produce.

Book Sharing

What books should you choose?

  • Books with sounds of animals and other objects that make sounds
  • Nursery Rhymes
  • Books formatted from songs
  • Books with rhyme and alliteration
  • Poetry books
  • Any book really, remember your local library can help you to choose a good range of books to share with your child if you are not sure.

Book Sharing Tips

  • Don’t be shy, make animal and object noises. If you are self-conscious about it your child will pick up on this. No one thinks twice about an adult making what may appear to be strange noises if they are sharing them with a child (it’s when you forget they are not with you and you do it that they tend to look at a you a bit funny).
  • Talk about whether the words in a book rhyme or not. Point out the rhyming words, make up other rhyming words for any of the words in the book. Remember they do not have to be real words they can be silly funny words that pick up the rhyming sounds in the original word.
  • It is important to remember for some children saying a word that rhymes with one you have given that can be very difficult, if not impossible. So, don’t stress them out with this, it is often easier for them to recognise a rhyme than to make one. You could ask them to tell you if two words you give rhyme or not. If they find this easy try giving them three words with only two that rhyme and ask them to identify the rhyming words.
  • After sharing the book pick out words that you can clap out the syllables for. You could make this into a jumping or hopping game instead. With older children ask then to tell you how many syllables the word has and then to check their answer by counting the number of claps or jumps they make.
  • Play an ‘I Spy’ game using the pictures in the book looking for rhyming words for instance by giving clues such as; “It is red and rhymes with the word sock.” The answer is clock.

Accents and Phonics

Bath - phonics section

Because the English language is so rich and diverse it is very difficult to create a phonics system that caters for all. Every region that speaks the English language has its own accent which means there are always variations in the way that a word is pronounced.

Across England we all spell words the same but we certainly do not say them all the same, even though we all use the same 44 sounds. In the English language the 44 sounds can be represented by over 280 letter combinations.

So accents have arisen from regions applying different phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (letters) when they pronounce words. The regions still use the same sounds and letters, they just associate them differently.

For example, in the South of England the letter ‘a’ can be pronounced as the ‘long ’R’ controlled’ vowel sound /ar,(ɑː)/ in words such as ‘grass’ and ‘bath’ whereas in the North of England it will be pronounced as the ‘short’ vowel /a,(æ)/ sound in these two words.

Click here scroll down the page to see the animations of the different pronunciations of the word ‘bath’.

Both pronunciations are correct, which can make teaching phonics a little tricky; the key is to teach the sound to letter relationships which best suit the children being taught in relation to their regional accent. It is important to remember that children’s knowledge of the sounds that make words is based on how you speak to them naturally and not a strict standardized set of sounds.

However, for general educational and learning purposes the English language’s phonics system has been standardized, this is known as the ‘Received Pronounced’ (RP) English, and is used in comprehensive English dictionaries and translation dictionaries. The RP is based on a southern accent sound to letter relationship basis.