A Guide to the English Language System

Photo of Holly (Teach Starter)
Updated | 3 min read

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.

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.

Image of Animal Alphabet Display

teaching resource

Animal Alphabet Display

Alphabet charts with animal pictures.

Teach Starter Publishing26 pagesYears: P - 1
Image of Missing Letter Alphabet Cards

teaching resource

Missing Letter Alphabet Cards

A resource to help students identify the first letter of each word.

Teach Starter Publishing26 pagesYears: F - 2

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.

Image of Sound Families Word Wall

teaching resource

Sound Families Word Wall

A set of 45 word wall cards featuring common sound families.

Teach Starter Publishing45 pagesYears: 1 - 2Customisable
Image of Phoneme Match-Up Activity - m, mm, mb

teaching resource

Phoneme Match-Up Activity - m, mm, mb

A set of fifteen phoneme game cards focusing on m, mm and mb.

Teach Starter Publishing5 pagesYears: 1 - 3
Image of Phoneme Match-Up Activity – i, y, igh, i-e, ie

teaching resource

Phoneme Match-Up Activity – i, y, igh, i-e, ie

A set of 18 phoneme game cards focusing on i, y, igh, i-e and ie.

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: 1 - 3
Image of Phoneme Match-Up Activity - rr, r, wr

teaching resource

Phoneme Match-Up Activity - rr, r, wr

A set of fifteen phoneme game cards focusing on rr, r and wr.

Teach Starter Publishing5 pagesYears: 1 - 3

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.

Image of Word Families - 'UN'

teaching resource

Word Families - 'UN'

Rhyming words for 'un'.

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: F - 2
Image of Word Families - 'ED'

teaching resource

Word Families - 'ED'

Rhyming words for 'ed'.

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: F - 2
Image of Word Families - 'AY'

teaching resource

Word Families - 'AY'

Rhyming words for 'ay'.

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: F - 2

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).

Image of Initial Blends Match-Up Activity

teaching resource

Initial Blends Match-Up Activity

A set of initial blends game cards.

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: 1 - 2

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’.

20 Comments

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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.
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Hi Siobhan, thanks for your kind words - so glad you have found this blog to be useful.
  • 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.
    • 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!
  • Roopa Sampada
    ·
    I just have one word. Awesome.... It's simple and clear. Thank you.
    • Kristian
      ·
      Hi Roopa, Thank you for your lovely comment. I am so glad you are enjoying our resources.
  • 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.
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Hi Dania, Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you find this blog helpful.
  • 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!
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Thanks again for your comment Dania.
  • Breanna Stalker
    ·
    This is so helpful!! I am in my 5th year of teaching and I am still learning so much!
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Hi Breanna, I'm so glad that you find this information helpful.
  • Holly (Teach Starter)
    ·
    Thanks Douglas! Glad you found this information useful. Kind regards, Holly
  • 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!
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Thanks Douglas! Glad you found this information useful. Kind regards, Holly
  • 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!!!
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Hi Belinda, Thanks for your lovely comment. I am so glad you found this blog and information useful! Kind regards, Holly
  • Elise
    ·
    Ohhh this is very clear! Thank you!
  • Julie McInnes
    ·
    Such a valuable resource. Thank you!
    • Holly (Teach Starter)
      ·
      Thanks for your kind feedback Julie. We are glad this blog post is useful to you! Kind Regards, Holly

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