## The Borrowers: Part Three – The Letter G

After a student has learned Borrower C, we introduce Borrower G. The visual aid for this rule is also a train track. During the introduction, the tutor should point out the similarities and differences between the diagrams for ‘C’ and ‘G’.

Tutor: Believe it or not, there is another borrower rule that is related to Borrower C.  It is Borrower G.

Student: Don’t we already have a sound for ‘G’?

Tutor: You’re right, we do. ‘G’ is unlike the other borrowers because it DOES have a sound of its own – /g/. But, ‘G’ is greedy.  Not only does ‘G’ like to say his own sound, he also likes to take the sound of another letter.  Do you know what other sound ‘G’ can make?

Student: /j/?

Tutor: That’s right! Just like in giraffe or page.  So our job is to predict when ‘G’ will make its own sound, or when it could borrow the sound of ‘J’ instead.  To do this, we need another train!

Tutor: Let’s take a look at the Borrower C picture so you can see how these two trains are the same and the important ways they’re different. Just like the ‘C’-train, it is the same three magic letters that make ‘G’ change – ‘I’ ‘E’ and ‘Y.’ However, what difference do you see when the ‘G’-train comes to the sign post?

Student: It looks like the train has a choice.

Tutor: Exactly! Because ‘G’ has a sound of its own, it always has a choice of keeping it.  The problem is that there is no way to predict whether the ‘G’ will say /g/ or /j/.  It is up to us to decide which way is correct.  Take for instance the word gem.  There are actually two ways of saying this word.  If I make the ‘G’ say /g/, it would sound almost like saying gum: gem.  Does that sound like a word to you?

Student: No way!

Tutor: Right. So we would say in this case that the ‘G’ is going to say /j/ instead: jem.  Now that is a word I know!  Any time ‘G’ has an ‘I,’ ‘E,’ or ‘Y’ behind it the ‘G’ has a CHOICE of whether it says /g/ or /j/ and it always up to the reader to decide which way is correct.

Student: I think I get it!

Tutor: But, there is one time we take ‘G’s choice away. When we have the letters ‘–ge’ at the END of a word, we force the ‘G’ to say /j/.  Why do you think that is?

Student: Hmmm. I don’t know.

Tutor: Believe it or not, if I went through the entire dictionary, I wouldn’t be able to find one word that ends with the letter ‘J.’  We just don’t use ‘J’s at the end of a word.  So, if I can’t use the letter ‘J’ at the end, what is the only other way to spell that sound?

Student: ‘-ge.’

Tutor:  Yes!  And that is why ‘–ge’ at the end can’t have a choice.  There just isn’t any other way to spell that sound at the end of a word.  Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use BorrowerG.

## The Borrowers: Part Two – The Letter C

Because the English language is based upon many different languages from different times and places, some letters and sounds overlap. We call these letters “borrowers” and we seek to teach them to our students in memorable ways. The letter ‘C’ is the first of 5 borrowers in our program. It can be pronounced two different ways. The most common is the /k/ sound, as in “cat.” It can also be pronounced /s/, as in “cent.”  This concept is introduced using the visual memory aid of train tracks.

Tutor: Borrower C makes different sounds based on what letter comes after it. We will use a picture of a train to help us remember the rule. Trains run on tracks, but the ‘C’-train runs on tracks with letters.  What sound do you think ‘C’ makes most of the time?

Student: /k/!

Tutor: You’re correct!  (point to ‘K’s on main track.) But just like any other train, the ‘C’-train can change tracks.  When it does this, it has to borrow a new sound.  What other sound can ‘C’ make?

Student: /s/

Tutor: Super job!  (point to ‘S’s on track)  Now, whenever a train changes tracks, there needs to be a sign that tells the engineer where they’re going.  Most sign posts have numbers, but as you’ve probably guessed, the ‘C’-train’s track has letters!  There are three magic letters that allow ‘C’ to change tracks.  They are ‘I,’ ‘E,’ and ‘Y’. Whenever one of the magic letters is behind ’C,’ the ‘C’ changes from the /k/ track to the /s/ track.  (Demonstrate a few sample words, such as city, cycle, cent.)

Tutor: In each case, the ‘C’ made the /s/ sound because it had one of the three magic letters behind it.  Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use Borrower C.

## The Borrowers: Part One -The Letter Y

There are several letters used in English that have no consistent sound association, which we call ‘Borrowers.’ This helps to convey the idea that they are ‘borrowing’ sounds from other letters.

The first of these is the infamous ‘Y.’ The ‘Y’ makes different sounds depending on where it is in a word. Contrary to popular opinion, the ‘Y’ does not say “yuh” (/ee-uh/) all the time. Like many superheroes, the ‘Y’ has an elaborate origin story dating back to Greek to Latin, and then Old English to our modern usage. Because of this, it wears many hats.

The ‘Y’ can reside in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. In the beginning of a word, the ‘Y’ is functioning as a consonant making the lightly voiced /ee/ sound, like in ‘yes’ or ‘yams’. This sound can be found in the German name Johann. Because English already had a hard ‘J’ sound (/jay/ like in John) represented by the letter j, another letter needed to be introduced for this sound. Since the ‘y’ was available on typeset, do to its function as a vowel in the middle and end of words, voila!

Its function as a vowel can be traced back to Greek and Latin. The letter Y in Spanish (as descended form Latin) is ‘I griega,” which translates to ‘Greek I’ or the Greek letter upsilon. From there its use spread from Greek to Latin an on.

In the middle of words, the ‘Y’ functions basically as the vowel ‘i’ as in “myth” or “system.” However, just like the letter ‘i’ it must follow the ‘final e’ long vowel rule as in words such as “type” and “byte.”

At the ends of words, the ‘Y’ plays double duty. If ‘Y’ is functioning as the only vowel at the end of a one syllable word, it will make the /ie/ sound, as in “sky” or “fly.” However, if ‘Y’ ends a multi-syllable word (if there is another vowel), then the ‘Y’ makes the /ee/ long vowel sound, such as in “happy” or “identity.” An easy way to visually represent this concept to a student is demonstrated below.

Before introducing borrower Y, it is helpful to discuss the concept of “borrowing” with the student.  This helps the student understand that Y is taking the sound of other letters because it doesn’t have a sound of its own.

Tutor: “You may have noticed that when we talked about the vowels we left a letter out.  That letter is Y.  You may remember that your teacher said the vowels were A, E, I, O, U and SOMETIMES Y.  The truth is that Y doesn’t have a sound of its own and has to use the sounds of other letters instead.  The way we figure out what sound Y will make is by looking at where it is in the word.  What are the three places Y could be at in a word?”

Student: “Beginning, middle and end.”

Tutor: “You’re right!  Now, can you think of any words that begin with ‘y’?”

Student: “Yell, yowl and Y am I here?”

Tutor: “Let’s use the first two.  Now, what sound to you hear the Y making in the beginning of “yell” or “yowl?”

Student: “/ee/”

Tutor: “You’re right.  That’s because Y says ‘ee’ at the beginning of words.”

The tutor will now repeat this process for Y at the middle and ends of words.  Using example words will assist the student in discovering the sound that Y borrows in each instance.

Tutor: “Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use borrower Y.”

## Two Vowels Go Walking

As we develop as readers, we begin to notice the various ways that vowels can combine to make new sounds. The next concept to introduce to students is the rule for “Two Vowels Go Walking” (TVGW). This rule allows us to introduce the vowel digraphs: ai, ea, oa. It always helps to begin with a review of the long vowel sound, and the rules we already know for making it (vowel+e, and final e). Next, we can establish that there are three additional ways to make long vowel sounds. The way we can remember these is with the saying: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” The talking in this instance is the first vowel making its long vowel sound. Be sure to touch on the fact that the ‘i’ and ‘u’ do not have a walking partner to help them say their name.

The following is an example dialogue for introducing the “Two Vowels Go Walking” rule:

When introducing Two Vowels Go Walking, it can be helpful to look at the limitations of the final e rule (that is, it can only jump over one sound).  This primes the student for considering other ways that we can make a vowel say its name (without the use of the letter e).

Tutor: “Final E is a great way to make a vowel say its name, but it has a problem.  The e can only jump over one consonant sound.  So what do we do if we have two consonant sounds after the vowel?”

Student:  “I’m not sure, but Final E won’t work.”

Tutor:  “Today, we are going to learn about Two Vowels Go Walking.  The great part about this rule is that it has a rhyme to help us remember the rule.  It goes, “Two Vowels Go Walking and the first one does the talking.”  To further help us remember the rule, we will draw a picture of a sailboat floating in the sea.  Why do you think a picture would help us with this rule?

Student:  “Because our brain thinks in images?”

Tutor:  “You’re right! Anytime we can associate a picture with something, it makes it easier to remember.  (The instructor draws TVGW card )  Let’s look at what we have here.  I have three words in this picture: sail, boat, and sea.  What vowel is saying its name in sail?

Student: “a”

Tutor: “Good.  Now can you think of what vowel helps ‘a’ say its name in sail?”

Student: “i”

Tutor: “Fantastic!  So now you can see how the rhyme works.  Two Vowels Go Walking (A and I), and the first one does the talking.  The ‘a’ gets to say its name.”  Now, what vowel is saying its name in boat?

The tutor should repeat this process for the letters O and E (boat and sea.)

Tutor: “So now you can see that Two Vowels Go Walking helps us make vowels say their names when final e doesn’t work.  But……Two Vowels Go Walking has a problem also.

Student: “Just what I need.  MORE problems.”

Tutor: “The problem is that Two Vowels Go Walking doesn’t work for all of the vowels.  ‘I’ and ‘U’ don’t get to say their names with TVGW.  This is why the picture is so important.  It helps us remember what vowels DO work with TVGW.  So let’s show that by having the ‘i’ and ‘u’ floating in the sea.”

## Final ‘e’ Rule

Before introducing this concept, it is helpful to quickly review the difference between the long and short vowel sounds (or when the vowel says its sound versus it name). We can recall that a vowel can make its long sound, or name, when it is followed directly by an ‘e,’ such as in frae*, see, pie, toe, due.

We can now draw our attention to the rule itself, which allows the ‘e’ to influence the vowel by jumping over one sound; for example, in words such as “game,” “here,” “time,” “home,” or “mute.” It is important to discuss the fact that the ‘e’ can influence the vowel over one sound, as in “clothe” or “bathe.” This can sometimes be challenging for some students to grasp due to the tricky nature of digraphs.

The final e rule is a remnant of the Great Vowel Shift in the English language. Long ago it was pronounced. However, over time, and for efficiency, it became silent. This makes for some unusual problems when explaining this rule that some students may pick up on.

In some cases, the ‘e’ will influence the vowel over two consonant sounds, such as in “taste,” or “paste.”

In other cases, the ‘e’ will be truly silent and its purpose is to aid us in spelling and recognizing homophones. This shows up in words such as: “lapse v. laps” or “tease v. teas.”

The concept can be presented as simply or as complexly as you like. With some reading and spelling practice, anyone can master the final ‘e’ rule.

#### The following is an example dialogue for introducing the final ‘e’ rule:

Tutor: “An ‘E’ can make any vowel say its name.  Sometimes the E is right next to the vowel while other times it is one letter away.  This is known as the Final E rule.”

Student:  “Is this the same as magic e?”

Tutor: “Yes, this rule has several names.  Say I spelled a word like B-I-T.  It would say ‘bit.’  But look what happens when I add an ‘e’ to the end.  What does it say now?”

Student:  “BITE”

Tutor: “Good.  You will notice that it does the same job as having the E right next to the vowel, only now the E is one letter away.  There are two things we need to remember about Final E though.  First, it can only jump ONE consonant sound, and the E is SILENT.  That is why this rule is sometimes known as silent e. Also, the E with a final e, is not as common as two together (ee), like in the word feet.”

Student:  “That makes sense.”

Tutor:  “Now let’s take a look at some nonsense words and real words that use Final E……..”

*I was stretching for an example of /ae/ here. Frae is a preposition of Scottish origin meaning from.

†A page of Middle English text from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Note the presence of the final e.

## Practice with a Word Box

As emerging readers develop, they begin to add significantly to their word base. Reading consists of several skills, one of which is the memorization of many high frequency words, or sight words. These are words that occur often when we read and tend to make up the majority of the words we read when reading. There are many high frequency or sight word lists that parents and teachers can choose from. For our purposes, we us the Fry’s Instant Word List.

According to E. B. Fry, who developed the Fry’s Instant Word List, there are 300 words that are essential to developing readers. It is suggested that: “This list contains the most commonly used words in written English, ranked in frequency order. The 300 instant words and their common variants make up 65% of all the words in any textbook, any newspaper, or any writing sample in English.” (Rite Flight: A Classroom Reading Program: 2006, 169) Therefore, the faster a student is able to recognize these words, the less effort they will need to decode these words and the quicker their reading rate will be.

The Word Box is a tool designed to give students repetitive practice with orthographically inconsistent words, or high frequency sight words. It is a simple tool that, when used consistently and properly, is very powerful. Words are added that the student doesn’t know from either a high frequency word list or from words missed in their reading.

Every student will have a box, which will hold all their unknown sight words. There are several categories of sight words: slow, medium, fast, and graduates. We encourage students to pick their own labels for these categories in order to personalize their box (ex. snails, dogs, eagles, etc).

When a new word is added, it will begin in the slow category. Once the student is able to correctly read the word, it will move up to the medium category.

When the student is able to read the word within two seconds, it will move up to the fast category.

Once a word is in the fast category, the student must read it correctly 5 times in a row to move it up to “graduate.” This must be read within a second. Remember these should be instant words, and students should recognize them as quickly as they recognize their own name. We will mark each correct reading of a fast word with a check on the back of the index card to keep track. Occasionally a word may be misread, or slow, in which case it will need to move down a category.

The word is printed neatly in black marker on the blank side of an index card and added to the box. Every so often a student may need a visual “hint” to help them recognize a word. This is done lightly in pencil and is erased when the word has moved up to the fast category.

When students miss words, it is helpful to have them image or visualize the word by drawing it on the table or in the air with their finger. This will help develop their visual memory for the word so it can be easily recognized in the future.

Students should practice their box several times a week for 10-15 minutes. The word box is an effective and strategic way for students to develop their word knowledge.

## Language Isn’t Logical, But We Want It To Be

If you think back into history when you were just beginning to read and spell, there was most likely a moment when you asked yourself: “Why do we spell words the way we do?” You probably asked yourself this during a moment of frustration while trying to master a challenging word.

A student may read the word “love” as /loav/, or they may spell the word “of” u-v. In one sense these are great errors to be making, especially on their first attempt. They are demonstrating their knowledge of language up to this point and trying to work rationally from what they know. These types of errors show that they have internalized some orthographic rules (that is, the conventions of the English language) and are trying to apply them.

Another question is why are these answers wrong? Why isn’t love spelled “luv,” or enough “enuf?” English is a living language, which means it is in constant flux. For example, the word love was taken from the Latin word lubere, digested by Old German into luba, rung through Old English as lufa to emerge in our current variation: love. New words are being added all the time. In addition to that, English is a real melting pot of a language that pulls from lots of languages (many of which don’t get along with each other). A language like Latin is defined and doesn’t need to absorb or evolve over time. English in 500 years will no doubt be just as uncanny as the language of Shakespeare is to us today.

There have been attempts to create a more rational language that has fixed logical orthographic rules. Esperanto is one example of this. English has a lot of spelling challenges that relate to homophones and which mainly serve our understanding of language more than our spelling abilities.

For English speakers we are stuck having to learn a good deal of orthographically inconsistent words, or as we say: “words that just don’t play fair.” We have to learn to embrace, and possibly love, the hodgepodge that is our language.

How then should a student be corrected when they spell a word incorrectly like u-v? What should we do when they read “of” as “off?” There is an underlying skill that allows students to recognize unfair words. It is called visual memory.

Visual memory is the ability to hold an image in our mind’s eye. This could be an image of an object, a person’s face, or in the case of reading: symbols like letters. It is the ability to recognize, discriminate and reproduce mental images of symbols, and more specifically, letters and words.

Knowing now that this skill is at work when we read, we can do more than just practice the word that was an error. We can directly stimulate and develop this skill. One way to help reinforce an unfair word that a student struggles to remember is to have them create an image of the word in their mind. You can have them draw the letters from their memory on the table with their finger, or in the air in front of them. This type of visual memory practice will help to create and reinforce the neural imprint the student is making of the word. Once the student has a strong matching imprint of how the word should look in their mind, they will experience more success recognizing it, reading it, and spelling it. Little by little, they will build their word knowledge to encompass all the words needed for the English language. If you still think we should have more rational spelling rule in our language, then I encourage you to read the following.

Below is a well-known humorous example for the need for complex spelling rules:
The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short). In the first year, ‘s’ will be used instead of the soft ‘c’. Sertainly, sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also, the hard ‘c’ will be replaced with ‘k.’ Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome ‘ph’ will be replaced by ‘f’. This will make words like ‘fotograf’ 20 per sent shorter. In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent ‘e’s in the languag is disgrasful, and they would go. By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing ‘th’ by ‘z’ and ‘W’ by ‘V’. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary ‘o’ kan be dropd from vords kontaining ‘ou’, and similar changes vud of kors; be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil b no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru.

## When is Adore, Not a Door?: Homophones and Homographs

Some readers may be familiar with the riddle: when is a door not a door? If you are unfamiliar with it, well, a door is not a door when it is ajar. All joking aside, riddles and puns permeate our language. They require a strong grasp of the English language, and more specifically with homophones and homographs.

A homophone is a word that has the same pronunciation, but a different meaning. There are variations of homophones. “Here is the pen vs I hear you” is an example of a heterograph, where the spelling and the word meaning are both different, but they sound identical. The infamous “to, too, two” would also fall into this category. There are also examples of homophones where the spelling is different, but the pronunciation and meaning are the same (ex. There are many “gases” in our atmosphere, or he “gasses” up the truck with diesel).

There are two subgroups of homophones: homonyms and homographs.

Homonyms are when the meaning is different, but the word is pronounced the same (ex. I “tire” of this, or the “tire” is flat). Homonyms do not have to be spelled the same, which adds another level of confusion. One great example of this is in: their, there, they’re. (ex. Their car is over there where they’re going.) Each of these words has a distinct meaning and spelling; however, they are identical in pronunciation. If a homonym does have a different spelling and a different meaning, but the same pronunciation, it is distinguished as a heterograph. For example, I lie down and you told a lie are homonyms, but not heterographs. But “I ran laps at the track, and had a lapse in judgement” are still homonyms and more specifically, heteronyms.

What this group has in common is that they all have the same pronunciation. But what happens when we have a word that has the same spelling? This is called a homograph. A homonym can be a homograph, just like in tire/tire. But what happens if the words share the same spelling, but have a different pronunciation and meaning. Well these are called heteronyms. An example of this would be row, as in “I have to row a boat, and my family had a row at Thanksgiving.”

English, being the linguistic melting pot that it is, contains a good deal of homophones and homographs. One main reason for so much confusion of these in our language has to do with spelling. It can be frustrating for students “two no win too” use or spell certain words. Add a learning difference into the equation and it can be a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, once students have lexical knowledge of a word, the spelling piece can be reinforced with repeatedly imaging the word to make it part of their visual memory.

## The Wisdom of a Movable Walkway: why individualized instruction is so important

Imagine yourself rushing to catch a plane in the airport. Say for instance you’re at DIA, and you step onto the movable walkway to speed up your trip to the gate. You’re moving at a brisk pace now. There’s no carry on, all your bags are checked, and you’re holding a book you’ve been waiting to read on your flight. Out of the corner of your vision, you see people heading your direction, but you’re speeding past them. There’s a woman carrying a child and a diaper bag walking with a man pulling two giant rolling suitcases trying to balance both and walk at the same time. They take a few steps and stop to readjust things and move forward. Their progress to the gate is painstakingly slow. There’s also a group of school age students with instruments all casually walking together about the same rate as the walkway is moving.

You decide to pick up the pace and begin walking on the movable walkway. There’s a sense that you are rocketing through the airport now. You’re passing people standing on the walkway along for the ride. You make it to the gate in record time, and are one of the first to board the plane. You leisurely open your book and don’t give the walk to the gate a second thought. You watch the school band group get on and take their seats. The doors are almost closed when the couple carrying the baby and suitcases boards the plane breathlessly.

Let’s change this situation and make an analogy to learning to read. A lot of readers are able to pick up the skill with little help needed. They may move at a casual rate like a band group walking to catch a flight. Others go to it like a fish to water. They move briskly and seem to speed past others, like the person with no bags trotting on the movable walkway. For many, however, they move slowly and struggle the whole way. They are like the couple pulling bags behind them. They need to stop every so often and readjust. They can sometimes get help from people to carry their bags with them.

Developing the skill of reading requires a number of other skills working together. If an emerging reader is dealing with a weakness in any of the underlying skills (say for instance phonological processing, memory issues, dyslexia, and many others), then this reader has extra bags to carry on their way to the “departure gate for reading.” For many students, standard reading instruction works well. Students who have a few extra bags to carry along may need some extra help.
Focusing on the exact underlying skill that needs to be developed is central to instruction. This is what is meant by individualized instruction. The reader discovers what needs to be worked on, and they work with a specialist to develop their skills. Like a physical fitness trainer for the mind, reading specialist work out the muscles needed for reading. Every reader learns at their own pace, just like travelers moving through an airport. As the foundational skills are made stronger, readers begin to grow stronger generally, and are able to reach their potential.

## The Sound Symbol Association: what’s a sound, what’s a symbol, and how are they associated?

Of the multitudinous sounds human beings are capable of articulating, we have managed to set aside 44 of these to form the English language. 44 sounds may not seem like much, but the number of combinations possible with these sounds is potentially endless. So emerging readers need to be able to hear and make these individual sounds in words. They also need to blend these sounds together to form words. Humans are born with this ability, and spend their early childhood developing it.

So emerging readers now have the ability to articulate and identify the 44 sounds (phonemes) of English. They are now prepared to further develop this ability (their phonemic awareness) by identifying these sounds with a letter name. Many readers begin to associate a name to a sound. For instance, they may say something like “the letter ‘a’ says /a/, like in apple.” What they are doing at this point is adding a new conceptual element to what was previously only a single sound. Sounds can now be identified with a name or label.

Next there comes the added difficulty of ascribing to these sounds a symbol. Emerging readers begin to see and distinguish a symbol (for example: a), recognize is as unique, and ascribe to it the correct label and sound. At this point, readers have connected to the three parts of the sound symbol association: the phoneme (sound), the grapheme (symbol), and the letter label or name. These three associations work in tandem for readers to absorb written language.

OK…here’s where things get a bit tricky. It would be nice if we lived in a world where each sound had a letter that matched up with it perfectly. Unfortunately, our world (and our languages) are a bit messier than that. English has an alphabet of 26 characters or symbols (a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z) This means we need to use these 26 symbols to show 44 sounds. Talk about making things difficult for the emerging readers out there.

We are going to eliminate 4 of these symbols right off the bat. C, Q, X, and Y are letter symbols with no sound identity (we’ll come back to these at a later point). This leaves us with 22 symbols  to work with.

Now 5 of these symbols are going to represent vowels, so we can separate a, e, i, o, and u from the other symbols. Vowels are a special type of sound we make by opening our mouth and projecting a specific noise. Vowels use our voice to give body or force to words. The word vowel comes from the Latin word vocalis. This is where we get the English word vocal. A vowel gives voice to a words, and vocalizes it.

Once we take out the 5 vowel symbols, we’re left with 17 letters. (b d f g h j k l m n p r s t v w z) These letters are consonants. A consonant is made by articulating and stopping a sound. These sounds are made by specific mouth positions.

We take the 17 consonant sounds, and the 5 vowel sounds and we have 22 sounds. This means we’re halfway to 44. Now to get the remaining sounds in English we need to break the rules a bit and start combining letters together to make new sounds. When we do this we are making what is called a digraph. “Di” here means two, as in dihydrogen oxide (H2O), which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. So digraph just means two letters acting as one unit.

There are 7 consonant digraphs. They are: th, sh, ch, wh, ng, th, zh. The last three can be a bit tricky. The sound for “ng” is similar to the end of the word “ring.” Also, “th” actually makes two sounds. It makes the soft /th/ sound as in the word “thin.” However, it will also make the hard sound /th/, as in the word “the” or “this.” We also have another problem. There is a sound that we make that is similar to the soft /sh/ sound. This is the hard /sh/ sound like in the word “Asia” or “casual.” There is no consistent letter combination for this sound, so we will represent it as “zh.” This is our first taste of multiple spellings of a sound. This can really trip up the emerging reader. We now we have the 7 consonant digraph sounds to add to our other 22 sounds, making a total of 29.

Whew, OK…

Up to this point we have only talked about the short vowel sounds (/a/, like in /a/pple, and so on). Next we need to talk about the long vowel sounds. The long vowel sound is when a vowel says its name. For example, the letter a can say /ae/ like in ate, aim, may, vein, weight, and so on. The letter e can say /ee/ like in eke, feet, sea, piece, and so on. The letter i can say /ie/ as in ides, light, pie, etc. The letter o can say /oe/ like in ode, oat, toe, and so on. The letter u can say /ue/ like in ute, glue, or Euro. As you can see, there are a lot of combinations of symbols to make the long vowel sound, but there are only five long vowel sounds. So we can add 5 long vowel sounds to go with the 5 short vowel sounds. With these 5 long vowel sounds, our total comes to 34.

We’re on the home stretch. Next we have the R controlled vowels. This includes 5 more sounds. There is /ar/, like car, /or/ like horn or door, /er/ like in hurt, bird, or term, /ār/ like in air or care, and /ēr/ like in ear or deer. Once again, like the long vowel sounds, there are multiple spellings for these sounds adding to the emerging reader’s trouble identifying these sounds. So with these 5 R controlled vowel sounds, our total is to 39.

Finally, we have 5 more sounds. We have /oo/, as in boot or moon. We have the “oo” sound /ʊʊ/, as in foot or book. These can be especially challenging as they are two separate sounds that are spelled the same exact way. There is /oi/ as in boil or toy, /ou/ as in pout or cow, and /au/ as in haul or paw. So adding in these 5 stragglers brings us to 44.

As you can see, sound symbol association is not a straightforward process. We have to allow for several sounds to be created, or associated with different combinations of letters. Also we occasionally have letter combinations stand for different sounds entirely. If the process itself wasn’t complex enough, you add into the mix the reality that every reader develops in their own way, and you can get a good deal of diversity in how people learn to read.

Many students we see struggle to some degree with sound symbol associations. This is the ability to identify a letter name and symbol(s) with a specific phoneme or sound. For some students, the struggle may be with auditory processing, where they are not able to correctly recognize and identify sounds they are receiving. Other students may have difficulty recalling specific information, such as a letter’s name, form, or sound. Regardless of the challenge, it is important that instructors are patient, playful, and are offering lots of positive praise.