Spell and Sound English: A cognitive approach to English phonics

head with cogsSpeak to anyone learning English as a second language and you will discover that it’s the spelling that causes the most headaches.

Confirming these testimonies are the appalling literacy rates of English speaking countries as children struggle to grasp English phonetics.

This glaring issue opens the doors for numerous “learn English phonics” programs, driven through schools, ESL centres and the web.

The problem: The teaching of English phonics hasn’t changed significantly for around, half a century. Let us demonstrate by asking one question;

What is A for?

If you said “apple” than you’ve learned some rather old fashioned phonics rules.

Why is “A for apple” no longer enough?

Many English students have been taught that each letter of the alphabet only makes one sound, for example;

While the above examples are true, the letter A can make a variety of sounds not just the one in the word apple.

Take a look at all the sounds the single letter A can represent in the table below. Did you think there were so many?

Example IPA sound
Father ɑː
bat æ
any ɛ
call ɔː
watch ɔ
above ə
orange ɪ

Sure these words don’t start with the letter “a” but you get the point; The letter “a” can make a number of sounds in the English language.

And as part of a combination of letters like the digraph “ai”, the letter “a” can make even more sounds! Just take a look at our Spell and Sound English Charts to see for yourself.

In fact, the 26 letters of the alphabet represent only 8.5% of the total number of letter/letter combinations (as shown on the Spell and Sound English Charts) that make the 44 sounds of English!

Our English phonics charts show around 307 graphemes (spelling options comprised of single, double, treble and quadruple letters) representing 44 sounds.

English equals 307 plus spelling choices, 26 letters and 44 sounds

New English phonics

English is a modern, composite language that has evolved in it’s own right over time. Many phonics systems teach;

  • word origins and etymology, but English is highly evolving at both global and regional levels,
  • that each letter of the alphabet makes one English sound only,
  • ways to memorise the numerous spelling exceptions.

Many ESL students find that they spend most of their time memorising how to spell English words rather than being able to figure out spellings and pronunciations, just like the image below.

memorise 3 for one situation

Ideally, what we’d like to see is one English phonetic rule that can be applied to a number of words or situations, so that students can figure out how to spell and pronounce words they have not seen or heard before.

learn 1 rule cognitive approach

The reality is that not everything can be explained with rules, some memory work is needed.

So we might have one rule that can be applied to a number of situations but not everything. There might be 1 or 2 exceptions to the rule that need to be memorised but for the most part the power is back in the hands of the student.

learn 1 rule with exceptions cognitive approach

Applying learned knowledge to new situations empowers any student and this is what we work hard to achieve here at Spell and Sound English.

The Spell and Sound Approach

As a second or other language student, you already have skills and knowledge about language.

Spellandsound.com builds on your knowledge and learning skills to help you “figure out” English phonics.

By taking a little time to learn and practice the rules, applying them will become second nature and you will spend less time needing to memorise, memorise, memorise!

You will notice that lessons are not presented in a linear fashion, for example, there is no lesson 1, lesson 2, lesson 3 and so forth.


Because, we believe that learning English phonics is not a linear process.

Other phonics programs might focus on the letter A and it’s sounds and spellings in lesson 1, for example but when you come across a word during your studies that does not involve the letter A what do you do? Lesson 2 might not cover it either.

All of our lessons are presented by either the letter of the alphabet or by particular sounds. So most of the information you need will be in our English Spelling section or Best Ways to Say section.

The English Audio Lounge is a great place to practice and fine tune your skills.

Take some time to browse through each section of this site and check in with us from time-to-time or subscribe to our Newsletter to hear about our new tutorials, articles and free learn English phonics products.

A note for Teachers
Your input is highly regarded here at Spell and Sound English. If you see anything that needs improvement or would like to offer your support and feedback, please contact us.
And don’t forget to check in on a regular basis, we’ll be adding various tools and classroom games just for you!

Image of “gears in silhouette head” courtesy of Master Isolated Images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Try our…

English Audio Lounge
English Spelling Tutorials
Getting Started with English phonics charts
Phonics Inventory
Download Free English Phonics Charts
English Short Vowels

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