What is the Alphabetic Code?
English has a complex writing system. It has 26 letters but roughly 44 sounds (this depends on pronunciation). There are roughly 160+ different spellings for these 44 sounds. In order to teach them in a methodical way, they have been organised according to the 44 sounds they spell. This organisation is called the Alphabetic or Phonic Code. Research has shown that kids who are taught these sound/letter correspondences will learn to decode words more successfully. Decoding unpins fluency and fluency underpins reading comprehension.
Unlike ‘transparent’ writing systems, e.g. Italian and Spanish, where letters spell sounds in a simple and consistent way, English has an ‘opaque’ writing system. This is a result of layers of adopted words from different languages (Saxon, French, Latin, Greek and more) and shifts in pronunciation over many years. While it takes an Italian student three months to learn to read – it will take most English students three years!
Where do we start?
All phonics programs start with the sounds of the letters of the alphabet. We start with the simple principle of a 1 letter corresponding to 1 sound. So, the beginner readers will learn a few letters at a time learning, building simple words as they progress.. While Italian kids will continue at this point to read longer words with the letters of the alphabet the poor kids learning English haven’t even begun the difficult part of learning the Alphabetic Code.
Too many sounds – not enough letters!
Because of this disparity between the number of letters in our alphabet and the number of speech sounds in our language – letters are re-used to spell the extra sounds. For example the letters ‘s’ and ‘h’ together spell a completely new sound /sh/ as in the word ‘ship’. This is a consonant ‘team’. That wouldn’t be such a problem if our Alphabetic Code were simple and consistent – but it isn’t!
1-4 letters can spell a sound
The next complication is that sounds in English can be spelled by 1-4 letters. In the word ‘c–a–t‘ each letter spells one sound. In the word ‘ch-i-p’ the consonant team ‘ch’ spells the sound /ch/. Here 2 letters spell one sound. In the word ‘n-igh-t’, the vowel team ‘igh’ spells one sound /ie/. Finally, in the word ‘d-ough‘, the 4-letter spelling ‘ough’ spells just one sound, /oe/.
One sound different spellings
To make matters worse, a sound can be spelled in different ways. The sound /ae/ can be spelled in numerous ways: rain, may, came, they, weigh, veil, great, etc (see chart below). Students need to learn these alternatives so that when they see them within words they know how to sound them out.
One spelling – spelling different sounds
Not only are there different ways to spell these sounds, but once learned, students find that some spellings can be pronounced in different ways: The spelling ‘ea’ spelling the sound /e/ in ‘head’, /ee/ in ‘meat’ and /ae/ in ‘great’! These are difficult concepts to teach and students need a structured system to learn them. This is why it is so important that reading instruction is taught in a systematic and structured way. When taught well, the Alphabetic Code is unlocked and students learn to decode and encode any word. Below is a chart of the Phonic (Alphabetic) Code – and its complicated!
To download this chart visit https://www.phonicbooks.com/my-role/parents/phonic-code-table/