The Alphabetic Code Made Easy
Updated: Aug 2, 2020
The alphabetic code is the set of correspondences that exist between the most basic sounds of English (called phonemes) and the letters that symbolize those basic sounds (called graphemes).
[Note: The terms “phoneme” and “grapheme” are defined in more detail in the glossary at the beginning of my blog on Sight Words, found here.]
To deal with phonemes, we’ll need a simple notation. That notation is decidedly not the notation used in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):
IPA Symbols for Phonemes
These symbols are confusing and difficult to remember. They may work well for professional linguists, but they're not particularly helpful for teachers and parents.
A Simplified Notation for Phonemes
Below, in Tables 1 and 2, is a simplified notation for the 44 phonemes in the English language. Note: The number of phonemes in English is usually cited to be in the range 41 to 44. The number is not precise due to slight differences in dialects.
20 Vowel Sounds
24 Consonant Sounds
As you can see, all 44 phonemes can easily be represented by a few letters surrounded by slash marks. Phonemes should always be spoken aloud rather than read silently. The phoneme /a/ is the first sound you produce when you say the word APPLE (before you close your mouth to articulate the P sound).
Once you are familiar with Tables 1 and 2, the following should make sense to you. It indicates how the word on the left side of each equation is simply the blended sum of the phonemes on the right:
HAT = /h/ + /a/ + /t/
HATE = /h/ + /A/ + /t/
WAG = /w/ + /a/ + /g/
WAGE = /w/ + /A/ + /j/
THROWN = THRONE = /th/ + /r/ + /O/ + /n/
TO = TOO = TWO = /t/ + /ew/
You may be wondering why /c/, /q/, and /x/ are missing in Table 2 and why /U/ (long U) is missing in Table 1. That’s because these symbols would add nothing new. Look at these examples:
CAT = /k/ + /a/ + /t/ The grapheme C, in this case, spells /k/
CITY = /s/ + /i/ + /t/ + /E/ The grapheme C, in this case, spells /s/
QUEEN = /k/ + /w/ + /E/ + /n/ The letters QU always spell /k/ + /w/
BOX = /b/ + /o/ + /k/ + /s/ The letter X always spells /k/ + /s/
CUTE = /k/ + /y/ + /ew/ + /t/ Long U is easily symbolized as /y/ + /ew/
You may also be wondering why the other two r-controlled vowels, /ir/ and /ur/, are missing from Table 1. That's because words that use the spellings IR, UR, and ER all represent the same phoneme: /er/. Notice how BIRCH, CHURCH, and PERCH all rhyme. Also: DIRT, HURT, and BERT.
You may be confused about the difference between the phonemes /sh/ and /SH/ or between the phonemes /th/ and /TH/ in Table 2.
There are eight "voiced/voiceless" phoneme pairs in English listed in the table to the left. Notice that for each of them, the mouth and tongue are in the same configuration; the only difference is voicing versus air alone. In most cases, English uses different letters for the voiced and unvoiced version of a given sound. It is only in the case of TH and SH that English does not have a unique spelling for the voiced and voiceless versions of the sound.
The Schwa Sound
Some readers may be wondering why the “schwa” sound is not included in the above phoneme tables. Schwa is a default vowel sound that often occurs in the unaccented syllable(s) of multi-syllable words – and it occurs no matter what the vowel happens to be. To my ear, schwa is not a unique sound. Depending on the word, the schwa (default) sound is usually /i/, /u/, or /er/. Look at these examples:
schwa default sound is /i/:
LEMON = /l/ + /e/ + /m/ + /i/ + /n/
MOUNTAIN = /m/ + /ow/ + /n/ + /t/ + /i/ + /n/
KITCHEN = /k/ + /i/ + /ch/ + /i/ + /n/ (I can’t hear a T in KITCHEN.)
schwa default sound is /u/:
VANILLA = /v/ + /u/ + /n/ + /i/ + /l/ + /u/
AFRAID = /u/ + /f/ + /r/ + /A/ + /d/
AFRICA = /a/ + /f/ + /r/ + /i/ + /k/ + /u/
schwa default sound is /er/:
MOTOR = /m/ + /O/ + /t/ + /er/
DOLLAR = /d/ + /o/ + /l/ + /er/
BLIZZARD = /b/ + /l/ + /i/ + /z/ + /er/ + /d/
You’re now at the point where you can do one of two things:
1) Move on to the following (optional) section which I've headed “Test Yourself.” There you can test your own ability to hear sounds and to use phonemic notation to symbolize those sounds (as I did above).
2) Skip over the test, and go right to my presentation of the alphabetic code which follows “Test Yourself.”
This section contains a short warm-up quiz followed by a longer exercise. All answers are provided at the end of this blog.
Directions: Provide phonemic notation for each of the following words (as I did above with HAT and HATE):
1) ZOO =
2) NEW =
3) BLUE =
4) FRUIT =
5) THROUGH =
6) SIT =
7) SITE = SIGHT = CITE =
8) SET =
9) SEAT =
10) SAT =
11) SATE =
12) SUIT =
13) SOT =
14) SOOT =
15) SOUGHT =
Directions: Convert each of the words (or word pairs) into their component sounds. I didn’t include any of the vast majority of words where the spelling exactly matches the notation, for example, NEST = /n/ + /e/ + /s/ + /t/. That would be too easy. The words in the following quiz are trickier. Say the word slowly, and then write the sounds you actually hear, regardless of the word’s spelling. This is not an easy quiz if you’ve never before consciously tried to hear all of a word’s phonemes. You can use only the 44 phonemes listed in Tables 1 and 2.
1) MOON versus LOOK
2) GOT versus GOAT
4) BEEN (UK pronunciation) versus BEEN (US pronunciation)
5) BOY versus BOIL
6) COW versus COUCH
7) PAWS versus PAUSE
8) JAW versus JAUNT
11) NECK versus UNIQUE
12) BALL versus BAWL
15) CHEESE PIZZA
16) HARVARD COLLEGE
17) MARRIAGE versus MARRIED
18) NEWS versus NOOSE
20) PATIENT versus PATIENCE
28) LORE versus LOWER
29) KNOWN versus NOUN versus NONE
31) MUCH versus HUTCH versus TOUCH
The English Alphabetic Code
Because there are about 44 phonemes – and about 125 graphemes that can symbolize those phonemes – the code is rather complex. I present it here two ways:
Table 3: phoneme-to-grapheme (useful for spelling) and
Table 4: grapheme-to-phoneme (useful for reading)
The two tables clearly show how spelling and reading (encoding and decoding) are reverse processes.
Note: Some of the more obscure parts of the code are not listed below because they're not needed to get a child to independent reading. Examples are the grapheme MB (which symbolizes the phoneme /m/ in words like COMB and DUMB) and the grapheme NGUE (which symbolizes /ng/ in a word like TONGUE).
The Code: Spelling (Encoding)
* The hyphen stands for any consonant.
* Voiced version of the sound.
The Code: Reading (Decoding)
* These are not graphemes because they symbolize more than a single phoneme.
* Not a grapheme because it represents 2 phonemes
* The hyphen stands for any consonant.
© Stephen Parker (2019)
All the above tables can be found in my free phonics books for reading teachers and parents. Just click here and then decide which book will best fit your needs.
Answers to the Quizzes
Note: Because regional accents differ, there is room for minor disagreement with some of these answers.
1) ZOO = /z/ + /ew/
2) NEW = /n/ + /ew/
3) BLUE = /b/ + /l/ + /ew/
4) FRUIT = /f/ + /r/ + /ew/ + /t/
5) THROUGH = /th/ + /r/ + /ew/
[The above demonstrates how OO, EW, UE, UI, and OUGH are all graphemes that can represent the phoneme /ew/.]
6) SIT = /s/ + /i/ + /t/
7) SITE = SIGHT = CITE = /s/ + /I/ + /t/
8) SET = /s/ + /e/ + /t/
9) SEAT = /s/ + /E/ + /t/
10) SAT = /s/ + /a/ + /t/
11) SATE = /s/ + /A/ + /t/
12) SUIT = /s/ + /ew/ + /t/
13) SOT = /s/ + /o/ + /t/
14) SOOT = /s/ + /oo/ + /t/
15) SOUGHT = /s/ + /aw/ + /t/
1) /m/ + /ew/ + /n/ and /l/ + /oo/ + /k/ Even though both words are spelled with a double O, that double O symbolizes different sounds in these words.
2) /g/ + /o/ + /t/ and /g/ + /O/ + /t/
3) /p/ + /i/ + /k/ + /t/
4) /b/ + /E/ + /n/ (UK) and /b/ + /i/ + /n/ (US)
5) /b/ + /oy/ and /b/ + /oy/ + /l/ OY and OI are both spellings for /oy/.
6) /k/ + /ow/ and /k/ + /ow/ + /ch/ OW and OU are both spellings for /ow/.
7) These words are homophones. Both are pronounced /p/ + /aw/ + /z/
8) /j/ + /aw/ and /j/ + /aw/ + /n/ + /t/ AW and AU both spell /aw/.
9) /d/ + /E/ + /O/ + /d/ + /er/ + /i/ + /n/ + /t/ Schwa default sound happens twice.
10) /s/ + /I/ + /k/ + /l/ + /O/ + /n/ Unfortunately, uppercase I and lowercase L look almost the same using this font.
11) /n/ + /e/ + /k/ and /y/ + /ew/ + /n/ + /E/ + /k/
12) These are also homophones. /b/ + /aw/ + /l/
13) /s/ + /t/ + /A/ + /sh/ + /i/ + /n/ Schwa default.
14) /k/ + /u/ + /m/ + /p/ + /l/ + /A/ + /s/ + /i/ + /n/ + /t/ Schwa default.
15) /ch/ +/E/ + /z/ and /p/ + /E/ + /t/ + /s/ + /u/ Schwa default.
16) /h/ + /ar/ + /v/ + /er/ + /d/ and /k/ + /o/ + /l/ + /i/ + /j/ Native Bostonians would probably disagree, pronouncing HARVARD as /h/ + /a/ + /v/ + /i/ + /d/.
17) /m/ + /a/ + /r/ + /i/ + /j/ and /m/ + /a/ + /r/ + /E/ + /d/
18) /n/ + /ew/ + /z/ and /n/ + /ew/ + /s/ The letter S often has a Z sound.
19) /A/ + /j/ + /i/ + /n/ + /s/ + /E/
20) /p/ + /A/ + /sh/ + /i/ + /n/ + /t/ and /p/ + /A/ + /sh/ + /i/ + /n/ + /s/
21) /k/ + /or/ + /A/ + /j/ + /i/ + /s/
22) /r/ + /e/ + /k/ + /r/ + /E/ + /A/ + /sh/ + /i/ + /n/
23) /a/ + /m/ + /b/ + /y/ + /ew/ + /l/ + /i/ + /n/ + /s/
24) /k/ + /r/ + /ew/ + /sh/ + /u/ + /l/
25) A homograph. It has 2 correct pronunciations: /y/ + /ew/ + /z/ and /y/ + /ew/ + /s/
26) Another homograph: /k/ + /l/ + /O/ + /z/ and /k/ + /l/ + /O/ + /s/
27) /k/ + /r/ + /O/ + /sh/ + /A/
28) /l/ + /or/ and /l/ + /O/ + /er/
29) /n/ + /O/ + /n/ and /n/ + /ow/ + /n/ and /n/ + /u/ + /n/
30) /k/ + /o/ + /n/ + /f/ + /y/ + /ew/ + /SH/ + /u/ + /n/ The voiced version of the sound /sh/ occurs in this word. The final vowel sound could be /i/ rather than /u/, depending on your pronunciation. Vowels in unaccented syllables, no matter what they are, usually default to /u/ or /i/. This default sound is often referred to as the schwa sound.
31) /m/ + /u/ + /ch/ and /h/ + /u/ + /ch/ and /t/ + /u/ + /ch/
32) /TH/ + /E/ + /z/ The voiced version of the sound /th/ occurs in this word.