Spoken words can be split up into smaller sounds, of which the smallest units of identifiable sounds in a word are called phonemes. For example, the word ‘peach’ can be split into the phonemes /p//ee//ch/. (A phoneme is expressed within slash marks /-/). The phonemes are then represented by written symbols to create an alphabetic code writing system.
In the English spoken language around 44 phonemes can be identified but there are only 26 letters in the alphabet with which to represent the phonemes in the written code. Thus, not only single letters but also groups of letters are used to represent the 44+ phonemes for the English written code – known as The Alphabetic Code. A letter or letter group can be referred to as a grapheme.
If only the code was as simple as a letter, or a group of letters, representing any one particular phoneme, then the teaching and learning of the code would be speedy and straightforward – that is, one grapheme for each of the 44 phonemes. Unfortunately, in the English Alphabetic Code over 180 main graphemes are used to represent the 44+ phonemes. For example, nine different graphemes represent the /ai/ phoneme in common words: ‘a’ as in table, ‘ai’ as in train, ‘ay’ as in tray, ‘ae’ as in sundae, ‘a-e’ as in plane, ‘ey’ as in survey, ‘eigh’ as in eight, ‘ea’ as in great and ‘aigh’ as in straight. Whilst some of these variations are very rare, none of the words themselves are rare.
Our job as teachers is to make this complicated Alphabetic Code as simple and straightforward as possible – working from the simple to the complex in systematic steps with direct teaching methods and materials. To do this, we need good subject knowledge and we need to be organised with how we understand The Alphabetic Code ourselves; how we teach it and how we support learners in learning it. If we are teaching in a school situation we also need to be able to work in partnership with parents, sharing the information and the teaching steps with them.
The image above is part of an English Alphabetic Code chart available to download for free from www.alphabeticcodecharts.com They have a huge variety available in different formats - with pictures, without pictures, with teaching notes, large versions for wall displays, small versions for desktop references.
Abigail Steel is an Education Consultant for Early Years (EYFS) and Primary (KS1 & 2) Language and Literacy. Her specialist area is Synthetic Phonics.
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