One of the first challenges faced when one sets out to design a phonics program for English or, if a parent, to pick an appropriate phonics program for your child, is to come to grips with terms like grapheme, phoneme, digraph, phonogram, sound, etc. This article focuses on the sounds, or phonemes, that should be taught in a phonics curriculum

Phonemes Versus Sounds

There are literally hundreds of English sounds, even before you begin to consider the influence of various English dialects.

I've avoided the word "phoneme" when discussing any of the phonics information here on the OnTrack Reading website, preferring to use the more kid-friendly term "sound" instead. In the various OnTrack Reading materials, reference is made to the 43 sounds of English, but it would be more accurate to say the 43 phonemes. There are literally hundreds of English sounds, even before you begin to consider the influence of various English dialects. For instance, a linguist will detect a difference between the /k/ sound of "cool" and the /k/ sound of "keep," a difference caused by the vowel sound that follows.

However, it makes absolutely no sense to try to differentiate between the /k/ of "cool" or "keep" when teaching English phonics because the differences are so minor that, even as adults, we need them explained to us. So instead of differentiating them, we include both in the category of the /k/ phoneme. We do this with all of those hundreds of linguistic variations and end up with around 43 to 45 phonemes in total. With that set of 44 or so we can construct every word in English. And it is that more limited set of sounds, called phonemes, that we use in phonics instruction.

The page on my site, Notation for the 43 Sounds, lists the set of 43 sounds, or phonemes, that are included in the OnTrack Reading phonics curricula.

Choices Made in the Ontrack Reading Phonics Programs

As you will see when you examine the list of phonemes, most of the phonemes in our program are the same as in other programs. All teach a /b/ sound, a /t/ sound, a /sh/ sound, and so on. Here are the cases where our program might differ from others:

The /hw/ Sound: This is the "blowing out a candle sound" described in The Digraphs "wh" and "th" found in words like when, where, and what, and represented by the digraph wh. Some reading curricula don't include it, preferring to teach the digraph wh as representing a /w/ sound in when and a /h/ sound in words like who. But if you teach the /hw/ sound properly, words like who, whom and whose become decodable, and then the digraph wh has just one sound, the /hw/ sound, that needs teaching.

The /er/ Sound: Some phonics curricula teach that the /er/ sound in words like her and shirt is actually two sounds, a combination of a schwa (see below) and an /r/ sound. But the best choice for a phoneme to be taught to a young child is just a single vowel sound, /er/.

The Schwa Sound: This is the little /u/ sound that we say in many unaccented syllables in multisyllable words. We don't say silent, we say silunt. We don't say pronounce along as ah-long; we say u-long instead. Here, I followed Romalda Spalding's advice and never include the schwa sound as an acceptable phoneme when decoding a word. That pays large dividends when it comes to spelling words with schwas later on. So, you won't find the schwa in the OnTrack Reading list of sounds.

The Consonant "yuh" Sound for "y": This is the one that you'll find included in nearly all phonics programs, but I never teach it as "yuh". Instead, a child is taught that the letter y has three sounds, /ee/ (happy), /ie/ (shy), and /i/ (gym), and that's it. But if you just tell him to say a real quick /ee/ sound (which is fortunately the first sound he's taught to associate with y) when he sees the letter y at the start of a word, that word becomes decodable. Try it first with yard (/ee/.../ar/.../d/) to see what I mean. Then try it with a few more words, including yes (/ee/.../e/.../s/), and you'll soon realize you're efficiently decoding the letter y in each of them.

So, no consonant "yuh" phoneme appears on the OnTrack Reading list of sounds. Hence, 43 sounds, not 44. Instead, when a child first encounters a word like yard in print, he is instructed to say a quick /ee/ sound, then /ar/, then /d/. Technically, that sound is not exactly an /ee/ sound, but the method works. So, actually, I do teach 44 sounds because that "not quite /ee/ sound" is actually a consonant sound.

The /ar/ (car), /or/ (for), and /err/ (cherry) Sounds: Each of these three sounds is taught in the OnTrack Reading programs. The reasons are involved, but I think justify their inclusion. The reasoning for the first two are discussed here. The /err/ sound is taught only when the words marry, merry, Mary all sound the same in the regional dialect. When they are pronounced distinctly different from one another, it need not be taught and would probably even be confusing to do so.

The /th/ and /the/ Sounds: The digraph th should always be taught as representing two sounds, the /th/ sound in thin, and the /the/ sound in that. I believe that failure to do so, when combined with teaching two incorrect sounds for the digraph wh (/w/ and /h/), is one of the prime reasons so many children have difficulty confusing the common words what/that, when/then, and where/there.

That sums up the main choices made in selecting the phoneme (sound) set that is covered in all the OnTrack Reading programs. The companion article to this one, What Are the English Graphemes, explains how those 43 phonemes are represented in print.