Logo Homeschool World ® Official Web Site of Practical Homeschooling Magazine Practical Homeschooling Magazine
Practical Homeschooling® :

Teaching the Alphabet Sounds

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #44, 2002.

Pin It

Sam Blumenfeld


The first step in teaching a child to read is to teach the alphabet letters. As we pointed out in our previous column, that can be done easily by teaching the alphabet song or poem.

The next step is to teach the child the sounds the letters stand for. The child doesn't have to know the alphabet perfectly before going on to the second step, for he or she will continue to master the alphabet while learning the letter sounds.

No Hieroglyphs, Please

Alphabet letters, of course, are sound symbols. They don't represent apples or elephants. They represent the irreducible sounds of our language.

The invention of alphabetic writing is the result of a great discovery made by someone about 2000 B.C. That individual discovered that all of human language really consists of only a small number of irreducible speech sounds.

Prior to that discovery, human beings used pictographs and ideographs in order to record their thoughts and stories on stone, clay, or papyrus. Pictographs limited writing to only those things that could be pictured. Ideographs were symbols or characters representing concepts and abstractions that could not be pictured. Thus, scribes created thousands of ideographs that had to be memorized if you were to become literate.

The invention of alphabetic writing created a revolution in literacy. Now all you had to do was memorize these few sound symbols to become literate.

More Sounds Than Letters

As we said, all of human language is composed of a small number of speech sounds. How many are there in English? Forty-four. But we have an alphabet of only 26 letters. How did this mismatch come about? When the Romans conquered England they imposed the Latin alphabet on the Anglo-Saxons, who then adapted the Latin alphabet to their language. Which meant that some of the letters would have to stand for more than one sound, and some of the sounds would be represented by more than one letter, as in sh, ch, th.

As for a letter standing for more than one sound, the letter a stands for the long a as in apron, the short a as in hat, the a as in all, the a as in father, and the a as in care. In other words, the letter a stands for five different sounds. How do you learn which sound to articulate when you see the letter a in a word?

You must be taught these words in their spelling families. That's how you become familiar with the different sounds and their spelling forms.

And that is the key is to mastering the English alphabetic system.

What Order Should I Teach the Sounds?

While quality phonics programs differ in which letters they teach first, most start with the short vowel sounds and the hard consonant sounds. Some simply teach all these basic letter sounds in alphabet order. Others may teach them grouped by handwriting family (the itl program, which teaches i, t, and l as the first three letters) or in some other non-alphabetic fashion. A few teach all the sounds of each "phonogram" (a sound unit consisting of one or more letters, e.g., a, sh, scr, ough) at once, but I personally am not a fan of this approach, believing the word-family system to be more memorable and easier to follow.

In my own reading program, for example, I start by teaching the child the short a with five consonant letters: m, n, s, t, and x. Thus, the child learns to read these two-letter words: am, an, as, at, ax. In lesson two, the child is taught to expand those two-letter words into three-letter words, adding h to the consonants: Sam, man, has, sat, tax. In lesson three, the child can already read two short sentences: Sam sat. Sam has an ax. We also begin to build our spelling families, such as am, Sam; an man; as has; etc. In lesson four we introduce the consonants d and w. Thus, our vocabulary expands with four new words. We then teach the rest of the consonants with the short a.

We then introduce the rest of the short vowels: e, i, o, u in contrasting spelling families, such as: bad, bed, bid, bod, bud; bag, beg, big, bog, bug; hat, hen, hit, hot, hut. We then expand the spelling families with each of the short vowels. Then we introduce the th sound and spelling forms: that, than, the, them, then, thin, this. As you can see, there is a hard th as in the and a soft th as in thin. The child will learn to articulate the correct sound by knowing the spoken word, thereby developing phonemic awareness.

Irregular words mainly consist of variant vowel sounds. For example, even though the word was is in the as, has spelling family, every child learns to say it correctly: wuz. The spoken word is the authority on how to pronounce its written form.

Next, teach the consonant blends using short vowel words. Save teaching the long vowels until last because of their many different spelling forms. For example, long a can be spelled a as in apron, a-consonant-e as in ate, ai as in main, ay as in day, ei as in vein, and eigh as in eight. This is the spelling problem we have with all of our long vowels - and that we will tackle in a future column.


Was this article helpful to you?
Subscribe to Practical Homeschooling today, and you'll get this quality of information and encouragement five times per year, delivered to your door. To start, click on the link below that describes you:

USA Individual
USA Librarian (purchasing for a library)
Outside USA Individual
Outside USA Library

Time4Learning

Articles by Sam Blumenfeld

The Whole-Language Boondoggle

High School for Freedom!

Dyslexia: The Man-Made Disease

Teach Reading to the “Learning Disabled”

Uncle Sam Wants Your Child on his National Database

Why the Internet will Never Replace Books

Teach Reading to the "Learning Disabled"

Homeschooling and Charter Schools

Homeschoolers and Vouchers

The History of Public Education

College At Home

Learning from The "Old Dead Guys"

The Meaning of Educational Freedom

The Importance of Rote Learning

The Exodus Continues

A World Without Public School

The Benefits of Teaching History at Home

How to Tell Real from Phony Phonics?

Getting Started in Arithmetic

Teaching Arithmetic

Teaching the Alphabet

Teaching the Alphabet Sounds

Teaching Blends

Teaching Long Vowels

The History of Geometry Education

Never Bored Again

Learning Greek

How and Why to Teach Shakespeare

How to Get the Most Out of Homeschool Conventions

Forgotten American History: The Barbary Wars

Forgotten American History: God's Providence in the American Revolution

Forgotten American History: The Spanish-American War

Forgotten American History: The Great Awakening

Forgotten American History: Puritan Education

Colonial Education: The Free Market in Action

America Started with Educational Freedom

How Harvard Became Liberal

The Glory of the Alphabet

19th Century Communists & the Origin of American Public Education

The Benefits of Cursive Writing

It Pays to Know Your Legislator

Intelligent by Design

Teaching Kids to Enjoy Classical Music

Before Compulsory Education: The Private Academies

What Schools Teach: Then and Now

The Real Meaning of Easter

The Truth About Independence Day

The Benefits of Reading Biographies

Why We Celebrate Veterans Day

The Purposes of Education

Why Homeschoolers Should be Book Collectors

How History Was Taught Back Then

The American Almanac: A Great Learning Tool

The Fun of Going to an Antiques Auction

Politics and Homeschoolers: A Primer

A Novel Suggestion

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Why Homeschoolers Should Learn Public Speaking

The Presidency

Party Politics in the United States

The Road to an American Independent Nation

George Washington: Our First President's First Term

George Washington: Our First President's Second Term

Celebrating Flag Day

Popular Articles

What Does My Preschooler Need to Know?

How to "Bee" a Spelling Success

Laptop Homeschool

Patriarchy, Meet Matriarchy

A Reason for Reading

I Was an Accelerated Child

How to Win the Geography Bee

Montessori Language Arts at Home, Part 1

Interview with John Taylor Gatto

Getting Organized Part 3

Can Homeschoolers Participate In Public School Programs?

Phonics the Montessori Way

Classical Education

Narration Beats Tests

Saxon Math: Facts vs. Rumors

Myth of the Teenager

Combining Work and Homeschool

The Benefits of Debate

Joyce Swann's Homeschool Tips

Columbus and the Flat Earth...

Why the Internet will Never Replace Books

Character Matters for Kids

Give Yourself a "CLEP Scholarship"

Don't Give Up on Your Late Bloomers

A Homeschooler Wins the Heisman

Whole-Language Boondoggle

Getting Organized Part 1 - Tips & Tricks

The Benefits of Cursive Writing

Start a Nature Notebook

Teaching Blends

Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers

The History of Public Education

What We Can Learn from the Homeschooled 2002 National Geography Bee Winners

Top Jobs for the College Graduate

Montessori Math

Bears in the House

Advanced Math: Trig, PreCalc, and more!

The Charlotte Mason Method

University Model Schools

Who Needs the Prom?

Art Appreciation the Charlotte Mason Way

AP Courses At Home

Teach Your Children to Work

The Charlote Mason Approach to Poetry

The Gift of a Mentor

Discover Your Child's Learning Style

The Equal Sign - Symbol, Name, Meaning

Critical Thinking and Logic

Getting Started in Homeschooling: The First Ten Steps

Shakespeare Camp