A Guide to the English Language System

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Holly (Teach Starter)

Written by Holly (Teach Starter)

Why is the English language system one of the hardest to teach and learn?

The English language consists of 26 letters. These letters create approximately 44 sounds (phonemes). These sounds can be written in over 120 different letter combinations (graphemes). For example, the sound /f/ can be made using the letter combinations ‘ph’, ‘f’, ‘gh’ and ‘ff’. Whether you are a new teacher, an experienced teacher or a parent, understanding the English language system can be very confusing. This blog post will outline some of the terms that are commonly used in the early years of schooling.

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The learning of phonics, and the development of phonemic awareness, is crucial in the early years of schooling. It assists in building the foundation for appropriate reading and writing development. Because of this, most schools have a specific phonics program in place. Some such programs include Jolly Phonics, THRASS and Sound Waves. All phonics programs are slightly different; however, the terms used are usually the same. Here is a list of some commonly used terms and their definitions.

Phonics – Phonics is a method used to teach beginning readers to connect the sounds of spoken language with letters, or group of letters. Phonics instruction teaches children to blend the sounds of letters together to form words. Typically, beginning readers are taught the individual letters and the sounds they make.

Phonemic awareness – Phonemic awareness is being able to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words. Phonemic awareness is auditory and does not involve letters or words in print.

Phoneme – A phoneme is a speech sound made by the mouth. It is the smallest unit of sound in a word. If we were to break the word sun into phonemes, it would have three – s/u/n. The word shut also has three phonemes – sh/u/t. Early on, children will learn phonemes represented by one letter only. As the child’s understanding develops, a phoneme may be represented by two, three or even four letters. For example, the sound /s/ may be introduced using only the letter ‘s’, then ‘ss’ and then ‘ce’.

Grapheme  – A grapheme is a letter or group of letters that represent a sound (phoneme) in a word. An alternate explanation would be that a grapheme is a letter or group of letters that spell a sound in a word. For example, the ‘s’ and ‘h’ that together make the sound ‘sh’ in the word shut is the beginning grapheme.

Onset-Rime – Onset is the part of a word the comes before the vowel. Not all words have onsets. Rime is the part of the word which includes the vowel, and whatever follows it. For example: s-un, s-unshine, s-unny. Teaching this concept to children helps develop knowledge of word families and encourages them to recognise common chunks within words.

Segmentation – Segmentation is the separation of words into phonemes. For example: c/a/t, sh/u/t, ch/ai/n.

Blends – A blend is two or more consonant letters. In letter blends, you can hear the sound of each letter (bl, fl, cr). If the letters make a single sound, they are called digraphs, not blends (sh, wh, th).

Digraph – A digraph is a two-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme/sound. For example, ‘sh’ represents one sound in the word shop and the vowel digraph ‘oa’ represents one sound in the word boat.

Trigraph – A trigraph is a three-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme/sound. For example, ‘igh’ represents one sound in the word night.

Quadgraph – A quadgraph is a four-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme/sound. For example, the ‘eigh’ representing the /ay/ sound in the word eight is a quadgraph.

Schwa – Schwa is when a vowel phoneme/sound in a word is not stressed. For example, say the word mother aloud. Hear how the ‘er’ is not pronounced; unlike how you would pronounce the ‘er’ in the word fern.

Split Digraph – A split digraph is another letter coming in between the two graphemes of a single sound. For example, the ‘k’ in make separates the digraph ‘ae’, creating the split digraph ‘a_e’.

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Comments & feedback

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Siobhan Van Emmerik

This has been such a valuable blog. I thank you so very much as I am searching for yearly years understanding of the sounds for a little humanitarian in my large class.

Siobhan Van Emmerik · Feb 15th, 2020

Holly (Teach Starter)

Hi Siobhan, thanks for your kind words – so glad you have found this blog to be useful.

Holly (Teach Starter) · Feb 18th, 2020

Elizabeth Dundler

This is wonderful, as a new teacher there is so much to remember and this makes it all clear as day. Thank you.

Elizabeth Dundler · Feb 9th, 2019

Stephanie (Teach Starter)

Thank you for your positive feedback, Elizabeth. I’m so glad our blog was able to help you navigate the complexities of the English language!

Stephanie (Teach Starter) · Feb 11th, 2019

Roopa Sampada

I just have one word. Awesome….
It’s simple and clear. Thank you.

Roopa Sampada · Dec 12th, 2018

Kristian

Hi Roopa,
Thank you for your lovely comment. I am so glad you are enjoying our resources.

Kristian · Dec 12th, 2018

Dania Al hakim

Such valuable information. I’ve been teaching year 6 for a whole year now and found this so useful, i’ll definitely be implementing this in my next guided reading lesson.

Dania Al hakim · May 19th, 2018

Holly (Teach Starter)

Hi Dania,

Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you find this blog helpful.

Holly (Teach Starter) · May 22nd, 2018

Dania Al hakim

This is so concise and helpful. I’ve been teaching year 6 now for two years and found this so useful. Will definitely be implementing throughout my next guided reading session! Thanks!

Dania Al hakim · May 19th, 2018

Holly (Teach Starter)

Thanks again for your comment Dania.

Holly (Teach Starter) · May 22nd, 2018

Breanna Stalker

This is so helpful!! I am in my 5th year of teaching and I am still learning so much!

Breanna Stalker · May 18th, 2018

Holly (Teach Starter)

Hi Breanna,
I’m so glad that you find this information helpful.

Holly (Teach Starter) · May 22nd, 2018

Holly (Teach Starter)

Thanks Douglas! Glad you found this information useful.

Kind regards,
Holly

Holly (Teach Starter) · Oct 4th, 2017

Douglas Klaffer

No-one has ever pointed out that onset is the sound before the vowel – I had always had it explained as onset-rime = first sound-rest of word! Thanks!

Douglas Klaffer · Oct 4th, 2017

Holly (Teach Starter)

Thanks Douglas! Glad you found this information useful.

Kind regards,
Holly

Holly (Teach Starter) · Oct 4th, 2017

Belinda Ladouceur

This is my first year of teaching and this is exactly what I was looking for! I wish they taught more of this (rather than the theories behind teaching) at uni!!!

Belinda Ladouceur · Aug 3rd, 2017

Holly (Teach Starter)

Hi Belinda,

Thanks for your lovely comment. I am so glad you found this blog and information useful!

Kind regards,
Holly

Holly (Teach Starter) · Aug 3rd, 2017

Elise

Ohhh this is very clear! Thank you!

Elise · Apr 21st, 2017

Julie McInnes

Such a valuable resource. Thank you!

Julie McInnes · Nov 21st, 2015

Holly (Teach Starter)

Thanks for your kind feedback Julie. We are glad this blog post is useful to you!
Kind Regards,
Holly

Holly (Teach Starter) · Nov 22nd, 2015


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