Dr. Johanna Rubba
English Department
Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo
Last updated 10/6/11

NOTICE: This page is copyrighted 2011 to Johanna Rubba. Do not use without written permission of the author.

Phonology, Phonics, and English Spelling

"... despite a far from perfect letter-to-sound correlation, English spelling nonetheless is reasonably systematic" Kaplan 1989:36

Contents of this page:
English Phonology
English Spelling
Phonograms: an example of a phonics teaching strategy
Recommended Reading


PHONETICS/PHONOLOGY: The branch of linguistics which studies the use of sound in human language. Phonetics is the study of the physical nature of speech sounds and speech production: how sounds are produced by the human body, what they are like as sound waves, and how the human ear processes speech. Phonology is the study of how sound is structured in languages -- for instance, which of all possible speech sounds a language uses to build its words, how syllables are built in a particular language, and other phenomena. Phonology & phonetics have been studied in detail for about 200 years. The mission of phonology is to understand how speech sounds and phonetic features are organized in a language so that they can be used to create CONTRAST, the differences between sounds that allow the creation of different words, which can then serve the purpose of symbolizing the thousands of concepts that constitute our mental world. The job of phonemes in language is to differentiate words from one another. For instance, the difference between the /s/ and /z/ sounds of English signals that 'sue' and 'zoo' are different words.

ENGLISH SPELLING ( = English orthography): A system using written symbols (letters and combinations of letters) to represent the spoken language. The history of English spelling begins with the origins of English in the British Isles 1500 years ago (500 A.D. onwards). This long history has led to the many oddities of English spelling. One factor in the complexity of today's system is that the pronunciation of the language has changed over the last 500 years so that the spellings do not match the sounds in the same way as in other European spelling systems, such as that of Spanish. Another complicating factor is the thousands of words English has taken from other languages -- from Greek (symphony) to Latin (peculiar) to Hindi (shampoo) to Japanese (karaoke). The spelling of the word in the source language was often maintained, leading to such inconsistencies as using <c> to spell both /s/, as in city, and /k/, as in coma. American English spelling has been pretty much fixed in its present form since the first half of the 19th century.

PHONICS:  A literacy-teaching method that trains learners to use certain regularities and signals in the English spelling system to help them DECODE words in reading (to decode a word is to match the letters in the word to sounds in the language, thereby recognizing which word the letters spell). Phonics was developed in the 19th century; it has gone in and out of fashion in schools. It is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest; it is being combined with current knowledge about children's learning processes and included in language arts materials nationwide. Phonics is often contrasted with the approach known as 'whole language', but 'whole language' is hard to define. Phonics does include some holistic teaching strategies (see the discussion of phonograms below). Many modern literacy-training packages (including those approved by the state for use in California public schools) integrate phonics instruction with the plentiful reading and writing activities that whole-language approaches favor.

Letters are used to represent sounds in phonology, spelling, and phonics instruction (a letter is a printed or written character that represents a speech sound). However, each of these uses letters differently. The same letter may have a different value in a book on phonetics vs. a phonics book vs. the way it is used in English spelling. For instance, the vowel sound of the word seat is called 'long e' in phonics; it is spelled with /i/ in phonetics/phonology, and English spelling has a variety of ways of representing this sound: me, see, seat, receive, machine, people.

In phonetics/phonology, letters are used to represent sounds directly and uniquely: in phonetic alphabets, a letter has one and only one pronunciation (although there are numerous phonetic alphabets in use, e.g. in linguistics textbooks vs. in dictionaries). The letters have names, some of which are the same as the names in English spelling and phonics ('see' for  / c /  'kay' for / k /; some are different ('schwa' for the upside-down and backwards 'e'; 'angma' for the tailed-n symbol that represents the 'ng' sound.). In this text, I will always enclose phonological or phonetic letters in either slash brackets / / or square brackets [ ].

In phonics, letters are also used; they vary slightly from program to program. They have names such as 'long a', and there are names for classes of symbol types, e.g. 'digraphs' (a combination of two different letters used to represent a single sound, such as {sh} the first sound in the word <shoe>). Here, I enclose phonics symbols in curly brackets { }.

In English spelling, the letters have names ('ay', 'bee', 'see'). They are used in certain conventional ways to signal certain information about pronunciation. For example, consonant letters appear single, as in fill, and double, as in stuff. (there is some more detail on this below). English spelling is much more systematic than most people realize. We will enclose English orthographic symbols in angle brackets < >.

 / /, [ ] = phonology/phonetics symbols

{ } = phonics symbols

< > = English spelling letters

English Phonology

For complete discussions of phonetics and phonology, consult an introductory linguistics book, or visit my page on English phonetic symbols. The component of English phonology most important to spelling is the English phoneme inventory: the letters in our alphabet are used to represent these phonemes. Phonemes are the individual sounds that words are composed of in our mental lexicon (our mental inventory of English vocabulary).

Morphophonemic rules (different ways of pronouncing suffixes such as past tense <-ed>, for example) are also important: a particular morpheme may have fewer spellings than it has pronunciations (for example, the <-s> suffix for plural nouns is sometimes pronounced /s/ and sometimes /z/; the <-ed> suffix is pronounced three ways: /d/, /t/, and /(schwa)d/. In some cases, there is more than one spelling for a particular morpheme (for example, the past tense marker, usually spelled <ed>, is spelled <t> in such words as <slept>, <dreamt>, accurately reflecting its pronunciation). Processes (such as the change in pronunciation of /t/ in waiter) are not shown in English spelling; in most spelling systems throughout the world, the letters represent phonemes, not allophones.

Because processes often destroy the contrast between phonemes (for instance, making /t/ and /d/ indistinguishable in word pairs such as <metal>, <medal>), they can cause spelling errors. For instance, the Canadian city-name <Ottowa> has been spelled <Oddowa>; the phrase <wrought iron> has been rendered as <rod iron>. In such cases, the speller has to guess which of two possible phonemes /t/ or /d/ has been replaced by the new sound, and makes the wrong guess.

English Spelling

English spelling should not be confused with the English language. English spelling is our traditional way of representing the English language in written form; there is no necessary connection between the spelling system and the language system. We spell English as we do because of a long history of decisions made by writers and printers. If the history of English-speaking society had been different, its spelling system would be different. The spelling of a sound is used to bring to mind the sound of a word. When one sees <ee> in print in the word three, the sound /i/ comes to mind. Learning to read, in the earliest stages, means learning to associate particular spellings with particular sounds. (Note that I say particular spellings rather than particular letters; this is because not all sounds are spelled with single letters.

The English spelling system is an alphabet. An alphabet is a writing system in which the written symbols represent the phonemes (the word-building sounds) of the language, rather than, say, its syllables. For instance, the symbol <p> in English spelling represents the sound /p/, not a syllable such as /pa/ or /po/ (the main writing system of Japanese uses symbols to represent syllables like 'ma' or 'ko' rather than individual phonemes. Such a system is called a syllabary, not an alphabet. To see different writing systems, click here).

Every writing system consists of an inventory of graphemes. A grapheme is a one of the set of symbols used to represent sounds -- it is a spelling of a particular sound. Each grapheme of a writing system is used to represent a unit of the language being written. In a syllabary, the graphemes stand for syllables; in an alphabet, the graphemes stand for phonemes. As seen above, English has numerous graphemes for the /i/ sound: me, see, seat, receive, machine, people.

The 26 letters of the English alphabet are the raw material used to create graphemes, which in turn are used to represent the phonemes of the language. For instance, the two letters <s> and <h> are combined into a digraph <sh> to represent a single phoneme, the first sound of shoe, the middle sound of washer, etc. Letters themselves are not graphemes; they are the raw material for making graphemes. Don't let the fact that many English graphemes consist of one letter mislead you on this point. English has several grapheme types that go by traditional names in, for example, phonics instruction. These grapheme types are:

Silent letters, such as the <e> of time, the <k> of knee, and the <gh> of sight, are letters which appear in a word, but do not in themselves represent a sound. Most silent letters were pronounced at an earlier stage of the history of English, but then, though the sound was lost from the word, the spelling did not change. Many critics of English spelling decry the retention of these letters, but they do serve a purpose. In some cases, they differentiate one word from another in spelling, for instance knot vs. not. Other silent letters participate in what are called spelling patterns: they make up for the shortage of vowel symbols we suffer (English has about 16 vowel phonemes, but we use only 5 letters to represent these). This value of silent letters is discussed below.

People often speak of the frustrations and seeming chaos of English spelling, but it is in fact more systematic than meets the eye. English spelling does have many irregularities that are the product of history, but sometimes these help us see the meaning relation between words (as between sign and signature). The following paragraphs present just a few examples of subregularities in English spelling.

<c> represents two sounds: /s/ and /k/ (both are present in <accent>). <c> represents /s/ when it precedes <e>, <i>, or <y>; usually it represents /k/ in other positions, e.g.: <cent>, <city>, <cyst> vs. <cat>, <cut>, <close>, <cream>.

The /k/ sound can be spelled in various ways: <k> as in <kid>, <c> as in <cat>, <ck> as in <back>, <ch> as in <ache>, <q> as in <quite>. One regularity in this variety of spellings is that <ck> cannot be used at the beginning of a word, but only in the middle or at the end. We find words such as <tackle> and <back>, but not *ckat. (The asterisk * means that the word it precedes violates a rule and is impossible within the system.)

A double consonant is most often a cue to the pronunciation of a preceding vowel, especially in words of more than one syllable. Consider the pair <comma>, <coma>. The double <m> in the first word tells you that the <o> is pronounced /a/; the single <m> of the second tells you it is pronounced /o/. The pair <tapping>, <taping> illustrates the same principle, as do <super>, <supper> and <biter>, <bitter>. Also, double consonants preserve the pronunciation of the vowel of a base word when a suffix is added: doubling the <p> of <tap> when -ing is added to produce <tapping> preserves the pronunciation /æ/; if <p> were not doubled, we would read <taping>.

Another regularity about double consonants is that, while they often appear in the middle or at the end of a word, they never appear at the beginning; compare staff, bass, tall, hammer, apple with fine, soap, late, must, pole. Spellings such as *mmust or *ppole do not occur.

Single consonants also provide cues to vowel pronunciation when contrasted with the use of a single consonant followed by silent <e>. Consider these pairs:

tap vs. tape
mat vs. mate
pip vs. pipe
grim vs. grime
met vs. mete
mop vs. mope

Although the final <e> is not pronounced and therefore might seem useless, it is actually an important cue that tells us how to pronounce the preceding vowel.

Silent <gh>  and <g> also signal how to pronounce the vowel in a word; compare <fit>, <fight>, <mit>, <might>, <sit>, <sight>, <sin>, <sign>.

This is a very brief description of how English spelling works. More can be found in Dechant (1969) and other books on phonics.


Phonics is a method for teaching English spelling which exploits various factors: (a) what regularities there are in the English spelling system; (b) what is known about how children handle reading and writing cognitively (for instance, that children may not have mastered certain sounds upon beginning reading instruction, and that they focus more strongly on the beginnings of words than the ends). Phonics proceeds in a sequence intended to make the complex subregularities of English spelling easier to handle for both student and teacher. Phonics must be distinguished from phonetics/phonology, which are scientific attempts to analyze the English sound system, not its spelling system. Phonics does not strive so much for scientific accuracy as it does for finding regularity in the system for representing sounds with letters, and presenting those regularities in a scope and sequence that make it easier for a learner to master. Therefore many of its practices, such as distinguishing long from short vowels, are not phonologically accurate (length does not differentiate English vowel phonemes from one another; tongue height does). There was a time in the English language (ca. A.D. 500 to around A.D. 1500) when length did differentiate vowel phonemes, and the spelling system indicated this. But because English pronunciation continued to change after its spelling system became relatively fixed between 1200-1500 A.D., the spelling reflects the earlier period of English pronunciation. The phonics description of English spelling is reflects the pronunciation of English in 1300 CE more accurately than it does today's pronunciation.

The main reason people confuse phonics with phonetics is that phonetic is used in ordinary language (not linguistics jargon) in talking about spelling. People will say, for instance, that the spelling system of Spanish is more phonetic than that of English; what they really mean is that it is more regular: it conforms much better to the ideal of having only one spelling for each sound. People will also attribute many misspellings, such as idenidy for identity, to the person spelling phonetically. This is an accurate use of the term phonetic, because the misspeller is in fact spelling according to the sounds produced by certain phonological processes of English.

The overall plan of phonics is to find whatever regularities there are in English spelling and teach these to learners in a sequence, at a pace, and with teaching techniques which respect the learner's cognitive abilities, whether these be the developing abilities of young children or the full mastery of the sound system found in illiterate adults. Phonics is considered essential in teaching English spelling because of its many different ways of spelling words: learners benefit more from being taught the patterns (such as the consonant doubling patterns mentioned above) than from being left to discover the patterns on their own (which many will not, remaining poor spellers for a lifetime).

Phonograms: an example of a phonics teaching strategy

There are many regularities of English spelling that phonics presents to the learner; for detail, the reader may want to look at the books on phonics listed at the end of this text. One interesting regularity that phonics exploits is the notion phonogram, that is, a sequence of letters at the end of a word that occurs with high frequency and relatively consistent pronunciation. Two examples are <ill> and <ack>. Many words contain these letter sequences with the same pronunciation as in these words: <bill, pill, dill, till, gill, kill, chill, Jill, fill, sill, shill, hill, mill, rill, will, quill, spill, skill, still>, etc.; <back, pack, tack, Jack, sack, shack, hack, Zack, lack, knack, rack, wack, stack, flack, smack, snack, black>, etc. Teaching phonograms as wholes to children makes sense: children have more difficulty with individual sounds at the middle and especially ends of words than at the beginning; but children do have the capability to learn and process holistically, that is, treating the phonogram as an undivided 'chunk' rather than a sequence of several letters. Combining this holistic ability to learn phonograms with their facility in recognizing individual sounds at the beginnings of words should ease children's mastery in spelling and recognizing large numbers of words. Games in which children supply different beginning sounds for given phonograms, for example, will allow them to use their knowledge of the spoken word to 'create' and then spell and recognize many commonly occurring words.

Recommended Reading

You will find the following books useful sources of information about phonics and English spelling:

Lehr, Fran, and Jean Osborn. 1994. Reading, language, and literacy: instruction for the twenty-first century. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. Kennedy Library call # LB 1573 R2795 1994. Up-to-date, with sections on phonemic awareness and current teaching methodology.

Dechant, Emerald. 1969. Linguistics, phonics, and the teaching of reading. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher. Kennedy Library call # LB 1573 D346. Teaching methods and some linguistics observations may be out of date, but much useful information on how the English spelling system works.

Durkin, Dolores. 1972. Phonics, Linguistics, and Reading. NY: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University. Kennedy Library call # LB 1573 D835. Rather confusing presentation, but good information on the English spelling system.


Part I. Using a list of English consonant phonemes, make lists of English words that occur with some consonant at the beginning followed by each of the phonograms listed below. Go down the list of consonant phonemes in the table (/b/, /p/, /t/, /d/ etc.), and try each phoneme as a beginning sound with the phonogram as the rest of the word. Remember, consonant spellings vary, so cob would be an example of the phonogram <ob> for the sound /k/. The phonetic symbol /c/ is used for a sound that does not occur in English. Try to find at least ten words for each phonogram.

Example: phonogram <ig>:
/p/ <pig>
/b/ <big>
/d/ <dig>
/g/ <gig>
/f/ <fig>, etc.


1. <ob> (pronounced as in <job>)
2. <uff> (pronounced as in <stuff>)
3. <ell> (pronounced as in <sell>)

Part II. After trying single consonant sounds, try to find five words that begin with two or even three consonant sounds and end with the phonogram. Example: phonogram <end>: /bl/ <blend>, /sp/ <spend>. Work with the same phonograms given in Part I.

Answers will vary, but some possible answers  are given further down this page.


Working alone or with one or two fellow students, make up a short lesson using phonograms (or research another regularity of English spelling from the sources above, and create a lesson based on it). Be creative! Phonograms lend themselves to rhyming poetry, for example, and it can also be fun for children to make up new words that don't exist (like <shig>) and assign meanings to them.



Sample answers for Exercise 1:

1. <ob>: lob, sob; -- two sounds: throb
2. <uff>: buff, cuff; three sounds: scruff
3. <ell>: cell, yell; -- two sounds: spell

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