Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English

Looking for connections between spelling and sounds in English

[Taken from this FREE PowerPoint presentation – download it now!]

A note about the phonemic spellings in this text:

I have used Clear Alphabet to spell words phonemically (as sounds) in this text. If you are unfamiliar with this phonemic alphabet, you can find out more here and download the FREE Clear Alphabet Dictionary here. (PDF 11 MB)

6.6.1  The Problem: because English is not a phonetic language, spelling and sounds do not usually match. This can lead to many difficulties for students who want to pronounce a word correctly by reading it.

The Solution: however, the spelling of a word can often help us to predict the pronunciation. I have identified 5 Spelling & Sounds Rules that work. In studying the 1000 most common words in English, 75% of them followed these 5 rules. That means there were 25% of words which did not match the rules. We will look at them later. Despite being exceptions, we can still find patterns that help us to accurately predict pronunciation.

6.6.2  The Stressed Vowel Sound: the stressed vowel sound is the most important sound in the word. Usually content words are stressed, while function words are not, so we will focus on content words only in this lesson. We identify a word by its stressed vowel sound. If this sound is pronounced incorrectly, the listener is likely to misunderstand. The speaker may say a completely different word to what they intended. When looking at the spelling of a word to see which rule it follows, we need to focus on the stressed syllable – specifically, the spelling of the vowel sound.

So, we need to find:

  • Content words
  • The stressed syllable in each one
  • The spelling of the vowel sound in each one

About words longer than one syllable:

We focus on the vowel sound in the stressed syllable. If the word has a suffix, the vowel sound in the suffix will generally be one of three short sounds:

uh (schwa)            e.g. person, teacher, student

i                              e.g. meeting, tennis, finish

ii                             e.g. very, happy, ladies

[Find out more about the schwa sound here]

6.6.3  3 Kinds of Vowel Sound Become 2:

There are 3 kinds of vowel sounds in English:

  • Short
  • Long
  • Diphthongs (double sounds)

For the sake of simplicity, I have condensed these groups into 2:

  • Short
  • Long (including diphthongs, which are long)

6.6.4  Fry 1000 Instant Words:

For this study I have used the Fry 1000 Instant Words, which is a list of the 1000 most common words in written and spoken English today. You can download the list at the links below. Here are some teacher recommendations:

“The Fry word list or ‘instant words’ are widely accepted to contain the most-used words in reading and writing.”

http://www.k12reader.com/subject/sight-words/fry-words/

“The Fry 1000 Instant Words are a list of the most common words used for teaching reading, writing, and spelling. These high frequency words should be recognized instantly by readers. Dr Edward B. Fry’s Instant Words (which are often referred to as the ‘Fry Words’) are the most common words used in English ranked in order of frequency.

“In 1996, Dr Fry expanded on Dolch’s sight word lists and research and published a book titled Fry 1000 Instant Words. In his research, Dr Fry found the following results:

  • 25 words make up approximately 1/3 of all items published
  • 100 words comprise approximately 1/2 of all of the words found in publications
  • 300 words make up approximately 65% of all written material

“Over half of every newspaper article, textbook, children’s story, and novel is composed of these 300 words. It is difficult to write a sentence without using several of the first 300 words in the Fry 1000 Instant Words List. Consequently, students need to be able to read the first 300 Instant Words without a moment’s hesitation.”

http://www.uniqueteachingresources.com/Fry-1000-Instant-Words.html

6.6.5  My 5 Spelling & Sounds Rules:

  1. If there is one vowel letter in the vowel sound spelling, the vowel sound will be short
  2. If there are two vowel letters together (a digraph) in the vowel sound spelling, the vowel sound will be long
  3. If there is the letter “r” in the vowel sound spelling, the vowel sound will be long
  4. If there is vowel + consonant + vowel in the vowel sound spelling, the first vowel letter will be pronounced like its alphabet name
  5. Sometimes we find other consonant letters (w, y, g, h) in the vowel sound spelling, which are not pronounced

Fry 1000 Instant Words and My 5 Rules:

57 of the 1000 words were not included in this study because they were function words, which are not usually stressed, for example: the, of, and, a, to, etc.

Of the remaining 943 content words:

706 (75%) matched one of the 5 rules

237 (25%) were exceptions – they did not match the rules

706 Fry Words (Content Words) and My 5 Rules:

Of the remaining 943 content words:

706 (75%)  matched one of the 5 rules:

Rule: No. Matching: % Matching:
Short 284 40%
Long (with digraph) 123 17%
V + C + V 118 17%
Long (with “r”) 104 15%
Other Consonant Letters 77 11%
TOTAL: 706 100%

Apart from rule 1, the rules are fairly evenly represented:

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English - Image 1

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English – Image 1

Let’s look at each rule in more detail:

6.6.6  Rule 1:

If there is one vowel letter in the vowel sound spelling, the vowel sound will be short.

284 words from the Fry 1000 Instant Words match this rule, making it the most followed rule.

There are five possible sounds in this group.

  • If the vowel letter is “a”, the vowel sound will be   a
  • If the vowel letter is “e”, the vowel sound will be   e
  • If the vowel letter is “i”, the vowel sound will be   i
  • If the vowel letter is “o”, the vowel sound will be   o
  • If the vowel letter is “u”, the vowel sound will be   u

If the word has one syllable, it is normally phonetic – spelling and sounds match, e.g. big, sad, fed, etc. In words of more than one syllable, the vowel letter will be pronounced as a short vowel sound if there are two or more consonant letters following, e.g. “better”. If vowel-consonant-vowel, rule 4 will apply (see below).

Of these 284 words:

“e” =      e      28%

“i” =      i      28%

“a” =      a      18%

“o” =      o      17%

“u” =      u      9%

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English - Image 2

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English – Image 2

Note: the example words below are taken from the Fry 1000 Instant Words . Can you think of any more examples that match each rule?

If the letter is “a” the sound will be  a, for example:

act hand
apple happy
bad pattern
catch perhaps
flat practice

If the letter is “e” the sound will be  e, for example:

bed fresh
better get
centre method
effect remember
electric together

If the letter is “i” the sound will be  i, for example:

begin interest
dictionary little
didn’t middle
difficul picture
fingers window

If the letter is “o” the sound will be  o, for example:

copy long
doctor office
dollars possible
follow shop
got top

If the letter is “u” the sound will be  u, for example:

current study
hundred subject
jumped suddenly
just summer
result truck

6.6.7  Rule 2:

If there are two vowel letters together (a digraph) in the vowel sound spelling, the vowel sound will be long.

123 words from the Fry 1000 Instant Words match this rule. Two vowel letters together in the spelling is called a digraph. Students should learn which digraphs represent which vowel sounds. Some are easy because they occur very often, for example, “ea” and “ee” both usually represent the long vowel sound: ee.

Note common exception: “ea” can sound like the short  e, for example in: head, read, lead, etc.

The largest matching spelling and sound groups are as follows. Interestingly, just 5 digraphs represent 83 out of the 123 words (67%):

“ea” =  ee       “ee” =  ee       “ou” =  au       “oo” =  oo       “ai” =  ei

The conclusion would be to learn these 5 digraphs and the sounds they represent, as well as other digraph and sound combinations.

Common Digraph #1: “ea” =  ee, for example:

clean please
each reached
eat sea
leave speak
meat team

Common Digraph #2: “ee” =  ee, for example:

agreed need
feeling see
free sleep
green street
keep week

Common Digraph #3: “ou” =  au, for example:

found noun
ground out
house round
loud thousands
mountains without

Common Digraph #4: “oo” =  oo, for example:

choose root
cool school
food soon
moon too
room tools

Common Digraph #5: “ai” =  ei, for example:

afraid rain
explain raised
main remain
paint train
plains wait

Other matching digraphs and sounds:

“ie” = ee believe, chief, piece
“ea” = ei break, great
“oi” = oy joined, oil, point, soil, voice
“oa” = eu boat, coast, road

As you continue to study this topic, you will be able to notice other common patterns with digraphs and sounds outside of the Fry 1000 Instant Words.

6.6.8  Rule 3:

If there is the letter “r” in the vowel sound spelling, the vowel sound will be long.

104 words from the Fry 1000 Instant Words match this rule.

Only certain long vowel sounds in English can be spelt with “r” spelling. We should learn which spelling patterns represent each vowel sound. In the Fry 1000 Instant Words, 3 long vowel sounds and 5 diphthongs are represented by various spelling patterns with “r”:

3 long vowel sounds:

ar            are; car, farmer, garden, hard, start; heart

er            first, girl; work, world; earth, heard; were; surface; certain, person

or           more, store; horse, order; course, four; door; toward, warm; board

5 diphthongs:

aiy          entire, fire

auw        our, hours; flowers, power

eir           bear, wear; there, where; hair, pair; carefully, compare

iy            ears, years; here

uuw        you’re

Can you think of any more examples that match these patterns?

6.6.9  Rule 4:

If there is vowel + consonant + vowel in the vowel sound spelling, the first vowel letter will be pronounced like its alphabet name. 118 words from the Fry 1000 Instant Words match this rule.

There are five possible sounds in this rule:

  • The letter “a” will be pronounced  ei   like it is in the alphabet, for example:
became name
face nation
famous plane
information radio
late waves
  • The letter “e” will be pronounced  ee   like it is in the alphabet, for example:
complete evening
equals Japanese
even region
  • The letter “i” will be pronounced  ai  like it is in the alphabet, for example:
arrived provide
beside quite
decided silent
exciting smiled
finally write
  • The letter “o” will be pronounced  eu   like it is in the alphabet, for example:
bones ocean
close open
hole total
moment whole
note wrote
  • If the first vowel letter is “u”, it will be pronounced  oo, for example:

include     produce       rule       solution

or  yoo  like it is in the alphabet, for example:

huge students
human tube
mule unit
music use
numeral usually

Note: the example words above are taken from the Fry 1000 Instant Words . Can you think of any more examples that match each rule?

6.6.10  Rule 5:

Sometimes we find other consonant letters (w, y, g, h) in the vowel sound spelling, which are not pronounced. 77 words from the Fry 1000 Instant Words match this rule, making it the least followed rule. It can be a surprise that these consonant letters are part of the vowel sound, and therefore not pronounced in their normal way, but we have to accept it and learn which spelling patterns represent which vowel sound.

(Note: there can be other consonant letters in a spelling which are not pronounced, e.g. “b” in “lamb”, “l” in “could”, or “s” in “aisle”, but they are not included here because they are not part of the vowel sound spelling. They are just oddities – pure silent letters.)

Note: the example words below are taken from the Fry 1000 Instant Words . Can you think of any more examples that match each rule?

The largest matching spelling and sound groups were:

“ow” = eu grow, blow, flow, know, show, snow
“ow” = au brown, allow, cows, down, town, now
“ay” = ei day, away, maybe, say, stay, today
“igh” = ai right, night, might, high, light, bright
final “y” = ai dry, sky, try, fly, why, supply
“y” = i system, rhythm, symbol, syllable

Other matching spelling patterns/sounds were:

Sound: Spelling Patterns: Examples:
eu

ough

oh

although

oh

or

aw

ough

augh

draw

ought

caught

oy oy enjoy
ei

eigh

aigh

eight

straight

oo

ew

ough

iew

too

through

view

ai

ig

uy

eye

sign

buy

eye

ee ey key

6.6.11  Exceptions:

237 out of 943 Content Words = 25% Exceptions:

As stated earlier, there are 237 words in the Fry 1000 Instant Words which do not fit in any of these categories. That is 25%.

But even if 25% of the most common words in English are exceptions, there are still 75% of words that follow the rules.

A 75% chance of pronouncing a word correctly from its spelling is still well worth having!

Not to mention the fact that there are many repeating patterns within this group of exceptions that students can learn, as we will find out below.

When students come across vocabulary words that do not follow these 5 rules, they should note them down and learn them. They could start by learning the most common, i.e. the exceptions from the Fry 1000 Instant Words:

Direct download: https://purlandtraining.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/237-exceptions-to-the-five-rules.pdf

237 words in the Fry 1000 Instant Words which do not fit in any of these categories

6.6.12  Repeating Patterns in the Group of Exceptions:

For each group below, can you find any more examples in the list of exceptions?

Examples of spelling patterns that break Rule 1:

It’s a long sound but it should be short, according to the spelling and our spelling rules:

Sound No. Words: Spelling Pattern Example:
ar 21 a last
eu 8 o go
ei 4 a table
ee 3 e be
ai 2 i island
oo 2 o who

Examples of spelling patterns that break Rule 2:

It’s a short sound but it should be long, according to the spelling and our spelling rules:

Sound No. Words: Spelling Pattern Example:
e 11 ea head
uu 8 oo look
u 4 ou touch
e 3 ai against
i 3 ui build
e 1 ie friends
u 1 oe does
u 1 oo blood
e 1 ue guess

Examples of spelling patterns that break Rule 4:

The vowel sound is short when it should say its alphabet name,  according to the spelling and our spelling rules (24 words), for example:

Exception: Sounds:
have a  not  ei
machine ee  not  ai
river i  not  ai
gone o  not  eu
move oo  not  eu
done u  not  eu

Other words which break rule 4. They have a short vowel sound, but the spelling is vcv:

  • with “a”: animal, capital, family, paragraph, planets, travel
  • with “e”: everything (and all words with every-), general, present, seven, special
  • with “i”: British, finished, minutes, position (and all words with -ition), visit
  • with “o”: column, forest, modern, probably, products
  • with “u”: no examples of this in Fry 1000 Instant Words

Vowel sounds which we do not expect from looking at the spelling:

Sound No. Words: Spelling Pattern Example: Breaks Rule:
uu 5 u put 1
i 3 e English 1
or 3 a water 4
iy 3 e period 4
eir 2 a area 4
uuw 1 u plural 4
uuw 1 eu Europe 2
i 1 u business 4
aiy 1 ie quiet 2

Note: in some accents in the UK the exception is the norm, e.g. ar in class would be short a in many parts of northern England and in Scotland. For these speakers it is not incorrect, although it is different from Standard Pronunciation.

6.6.13  Conclusion:

  1. Remember that spelling can help you predict the correct vowel sound in a word – even up to 75% of the time.
  2. Learn the five rules and practise recognising words that follow them, e.g. take a page of text and look for words that match each rule – plus exceptions.
  3. Learn spelling patterns and what sounds they make – starting with the most common, e.g. “ee” and “ea” usually represent the long vowel sound ee, while “ar” usually makes the long vowel sound ar in car, star, bar, etc.
  4. Learn the list of 237 words which are exceptions. Learn to spell them and how to pronounce each one. Focus on the patterns within this group, e.g. “-all” is usually pronounced orl, and “oo” is sometimes pronounced as the short vowel sound uu, for example in very common words like “book”, “look”, and “good”.
  5. Don’t give up! You are doing fine! If you think you cannot master spelling and sounds in English, remember the 5 rules and how 75% of the most common words in English follow them. That should be encouraging!

6.6.14  Appendix 1: A Sample Lesson Outline for Teaching the 5 Rules:

Before you begin: make sure SS understand the 48 sounds of English with Clear Alphabet. This is a different lesson, but it is vital for learning the 5 rules.

  1. SS discuss (in pairs or small groups) the problem of trying to predict the sound of English words from their spellings. SS find examples of difficult words, e.g. “quiet”. Consider that some words are phonetic, e.g. “big”, but that these are not the norm.
  2. Try to elicit the 5 rules from SS using examples; if not tell SS the rules and discuss each one with examples.
  3. SS put some words from the Fry 1000 Instant Words into the 6 groups (including exceptions). This could be done with cards on a table or on the board.
  4. Give some examples of made-up words that match each of the 5 rules, e.g. “giffle” matches rule 1 (see below). Ask SS to pronounce them , according to the rules. They should be easy to pronounce from sight, even though the meaning is unknown. SS work in pairs or groups to think up more made-up words in each group. SS should think about how suffixes are not usually stressed. T monitors, checks and corrects. This activity helps T to make sure that SS understand each rule correctly. For fun – SS could think up definitions for each new word, e.g. a “giffle” could be a noun, a kind of fast long-legged animal.
  5. Give out a short text – or SS find one randomly. SS have to underline all the content words, then match these words into the 6 groups, including exceptions (see next slides). Or this could be given for homework. Assure SS that any English text will do. This is not a trick! The 5 rules can be clearly seen in any English text.
  6. Finish with a short test on the board or on paper.
  7. Follow up with a test at the beginning of the next lesson.
  8. Refer back to the 5 rules often. Whenever you present new vocabulary, ask your SS which rule some (or all) of the words follow – or are they exceptions? If they are exceptions, do they fit into any of the noted categories, e.g. “-all” words, and so on? Or when SS are reading aloud and they mispronounce a word, look at the spelling – do the spelling rules help? Is it an exception?

6.6.15  Appendix 2: Content Words in a Random Text that Follow the 5 Rules (74%)

KEY: words that follow the 5 rules (red); words that are exceptions (black); function words (grey)

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English - Image 3

Lesson 6.6 Predicting Sounds from Spelling in English – Image 3

Analysis of Exceptions in the Random Text:

In line with the Fry Words, above, 74% of content words follow the rules, while 26% of content words are exceptions:

Words that break Rule 1: Words that break Rule 2 Words that break Rule 4:

was (repeated 7 times)

wanted

full (repeated 2 times)

once

be

so

go

small

mother

father

clothes

foot

looked

being

couldn’t

breakfast

parents (repeated 3 times)

special

several

visiting

never

one

come

6.6.16  Appendix 3: Examples of made-up words that match each rule:

Made-Up Words that Match Rule 1: 1 vowel letter = short vowel sound:

giffle

shruv

fam

sog

dresh

lattern

brob

hildred

kedd

tunny

Made-Up Words that Match Rule 2: vowel digraph = long vowel sound:

floo

plean

aseek

sounted

waig

kained

groating

bround

greef

soiked

Made-Up Words that Match Rule 3: “r” in the vowel spelling = long vowel sound:

chowers

bertin

horgle

abire

larb

florping

bou’re

shear

sair

jeargule

Made-Up Words that Match Rule 4: v + c + v = the first vowel says its alphabet name:

dete

klape

strene

paded

tiver

proclide

sone

bobent

chule

briging

Made-Up Words that Match Rule 5: other consonant letters – w, y, g, h – are included in the vowel sound spelling:

yown

plowness

chay

flayly

jight

tly

bight

hymtion

prough

kleight

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