The Key Sounds of English: 44 Phonemes and 4 Blends

Lately, I’ve been interested in how Montessori schools teach reading and writing. One promising approach is outlined in a NAMTA (North American Montessori Teachers’ Association) Journal article by Muriel I. Dwyer called “A Path for the Exploration of Any Language Leading to Writing and Reading”. The article can be purchased from NAMTA for $7.00 plus shipping here. Also, a good summary of this approach can be found for free at the Kingdom of the Pink Princesses blog here.

At the core of the Dwyer approach is phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the smallest units of sound. In her article, Dwyer provides 40 key sounds for English and suggests exposing children first to just one graphical representation for each sound. For example, her approach would start children off using the letter ‘a’ to represent the sound of short a and the letter team ‘ai’ to represent the sound of long a. This allows children to form any word, even before they can read. For example, a child could form the word ‘play’ with ‘plai’. They can also participate in word formation even without any knowledge of handwriting by using sandpaper letters or some other type of movable alphabet.

Thus, the approach does a lot to encourage the encoding of words, even among pre-readers. By focusing on phonemes first, it reduces the set of information to memorize to just the phonemes and a single graphical representation for each. At later stages of the Dwyer approach, children learn alternate graphic symbols for each sound and begin to receive spelling corrections for their written work.

Although Dwyer spoke of 40 phonemes in her article, the approach should also work with a slightly larger set of the key sounds of English. I propose working with 44 phonemes consisting of 18 consonant phonemes, 5 consonant digraph phonemes, 16 vowel phonemes and 5 r-controlled phonemes. Plus, 4 blends. In the charts below, I’ve listed out these phonemes and blends. To align with the Dwyer approach, the charts include a primary graphic symbol that could be used for each phoneme or blend. Plus, the charts include the alternate graphic symbol or symbols that would eventually need to be covered.

18 Consonant Phonemes:

Phoneme Primary Graphic Symbol Alternate Graphic Symbol(s)
B – /b/ b as in bat bu as in build
Hard C – /k/ c as in cat k as in kit, ch as in chorus, ck as in rock, cu as in biscuit, qu as in bouquet
D – /d/ d as in dim ed as in named
F – /f/ f as in fan ph as in phone
Hard G – /g/ g as in gum gh as in ghost, gue as in league
H – /h/ h as in hut j as in fajita, wh as in who
J – /j/ j as a jam dge as in edge, g as in gerbil, ge as in surgeon, gi as in religion
L – /l/ l as in lot  
M – /m/ m as in man mb as in limb, mn as in hymn
N – /n/ n as in nut gn as in gnome, kn as in knit, pn as in pneumonia
P – /p/ p as in pin  
R – /r/ r as in rat rh as in rhyme, wr as in write
Soft S – /s/ s as in sat c as in city, ps as in psalm
T – /t/ t as in tap ed as in sniffed, pt as in pterodactyl, bt as in doubt
V – /v/ v as in van  
W – /w/ w as in win wh as in whale
Consonant Y – /y/ y as in yet i as in onion
Z – /z/ z as in zip s as in is, x as in xylophone

5 Consonant Digraph Phonemes:

Phoneme Primary Graphic Symbol Alternate Graphic Symbol(s)
NG – /ng/ ng as in king n as in pink
ZH – /zh/ zh as in zhlub ge as in mirage, si as in division, z as in azure
CH – /ch/ ch as in much cc as in bocci, tch as in witch
SH – /sh/ sh as in push ce as in ocean, ch as in chef, ci as in social, si as in session, ti as in motion
TH unvoiced and voiced – /th/ th as in moth or the  

16 Vowel Phonemes:

Phoneme Primary Graphic Symbol Alternate Graphic Symbol(s)
Short A – /ă/ a as in am ai as in plaid, au as in aunt
Short E – /ĕ/ e as in egg ae as in aesthetic, ai as in said, ay as in says, ea as in deaf, ei as in heifer, ie as in friend
Short I – /ĭ/ i as in if ee as in been, ei as in foreit, ie as in kerchief, ui as in build, y as in gym
Short O – /ŏ/ o as in on eau as in bueaucracy, ough as in bought
Short U – /ŭ/ u as in up o as in son, oe as in does, oo as in blood, ou as in touch
Short OO – (/ŏŏ/) oo as in book ou as in could, u as in put
Long A – /ā/ ai as in aim a as in ape, aigh as in straight, au as in gauge, ay as in day, ea as in great, ei as in veil, eigh as in weigh, et as in ballet, ey as in they
Long E – /ē/ ee as in see ae as in algae, ay as in quay, ea as in sea, ei as in seize, ey as in turkey, i as in radio, ie as in movie, y as in puppy
Long I – /ī/ ie as in pie i as in ice, ai as in aisle, ay as in cayenne, ei as in feisty, eigh as in height, ey as in geyser, igh as in light, ui as in guide, uy as in buy, y as in cry
Long O – /ō/ oa as in oat o as in oval, au as in chauffeur, eau as in bureau, ew as in sew, oe as in toe, oo as in brooch, ou as in soul, ough as in dough, ot as in depot, ow as in snow
Long OO – (/ōō/) ew as in grew ue as in blue, eu as in neutral, o as in womb, oe as in canoe, oo as in boo, ou as in you, ough as in through, u as in brutal, ui as in fruit
OU – /ou/ ou as in out au as in sauerkraut, ough as in plow, ow as in how
OY – /oy/ oy as in toy oi as in boil
Broad A – /ä/ ah as in blah a as in father
AU – /au/ au as in auto augh as in caught, aw as in paw
Schwa – /ə/ ə a as in about, ai as in mountain, e as in oven, i as in pencil, o as in carrot, u as in supply, y as in vinyl

5 R-Controlled Phonemes:

Phoneme Primary Graphic Symbol Alternate Graphic Symbol(s)
ER er as in her ear as in heard, ir as in first, or as in color, wor as in work, our as in courage, ur as in blur, yr as in syrup
AR ar as in car er as in sergeant
OR or as in for aur as in aura, oar as in roar, oor as in door, our as in four
AIR air as in hair er as in concerto, ear as in bear, eir as in their
EAR ear as in hear eer as in cheer, eir as in weird, ir as in mirror, ier as in pier, yr as in lyric

4 Blends:

Blend Primary Graphic Symbol Alternate Graphic Symbol(s)
EUR – /yr/ eur as in euro  
QU – /kw/ qu as in queen  
Long U – /yōō/ yew as in yew u as in unicorn, eu as in feud, eau as in beauty, ew as in few, ut as in debut, iew as in view
X – /ks/ and /gz/ x as in box and exit