Sound-Letter Relationships

What are Sound-Letter Relationships?

Sound letter relationships can also be described as phonics, or the knowledge of the relationships between phonology (the sounds in speech) and orthography (the spelling patterns of written language), or between phonemes and graphemes (Shedd, 2008).  Students who have knowledge of sound letter relationships know the relationship between letters written down and the sounds they each produce.  By having sound-letter knowledge, a student will be able to figure out how to read and pronounce words they have not yet encountered, therefore this skill is essential to literacy.

Sound-letter knowledge includes the the knowledge of letter names and their associated sounds, knowing about how the sounds and letters are related in English, recognition of previously seen words, and the ability to figure out the pronunciation of words not previously seen (Shedd, 2008).

In English, there are 44 phonemes (44 individual sounds), but only 26 graphemes (26 letters) (Shedd, 2008).  These 44 phonemes consist of both consonants and vowels.


There are 21 consonant graphemes- b,c,d,f,g,h,j,k,l,m,n,p,q,r,s,t,v,w,x,y,z.  Each of these letters is related to at least one sound in the English language.  Some graphemes, such as “g” and “c” have more than one sound in different words, and these differences will need to be learned over time.  For example, the two g’sin garage represent two different sounds, a [g] sound and a [j] sound respectively.  The letter c represents a [k] sound in the word call, but an [s] in the word mice.  These differences can cause confusion for emergent readers, and should be addressed and taught early to avoid future problems within reading.

Conversely, as opposed to one letter that can represent two sounds, there are also two letters that represent one sound in the English language.  These are known as consonant digraphs, and there are several in English;

  • ch — chat, munch
  • sh — shape
  • th– wreath, the
  • wh — when
  • ph — elephant
  • wr — write
  • gn– gnome
  • kn– know
  • gh– rough
  • ng– ring

There are others, but these are the ones that are encountered most frequently (Dow and Baer, 2007).  These digraphs can also confuse emergent readers, and need to be taught early on, once again to avoid future problems.

Consonant blends are also combinations of two consonants, but differ from digraphs in that each consonant  retains it’s own sound.  They are sounds in a syllable or word represented by two consonants, but are blended together without losing their own identities (Dow and Baer, 2007).  For example, in the word “problem”, p and r are blended together, as well as b and l but all four sounds are still able to be distinguished when pronouncing the word.  Therefore, each letter still retains it’s identity.


In English, there are 5 (or 7) vowel graphemes.  These are a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y and w.  Like some of the consonants, all vowels represent more than one sound.  For each, there is a “long vowel sound” and a “short vowel sound” (Shedd, 2008).

  • “a” produces –> map (short) and make (long)
  • “e” produces –> fret (short) and fleet (long)
  • “i” produces –> fit (short) and fight (long)
  • “o” produces –> mop (short) and mope (long)
  • “u” produces –> cut (short) and cute (long)

Often times the long vowel is represented by two vowels or a silent “e” at the end (Shedd, 2008).

Also like consonants, there are vowel digraphs.  These are two vowel graphemes that form one sound.  There are many, but some examples of these are the “ai” combination in “fail” or “daisy”, or the “ow” combination in “know” and “flow”.

There are also vowel dipthongs.  This is where we see “w” and “y” represented as vowels as well.  A dipthong is when two vowels are combined and represent a glide from on vowel sound to the next.  For example, the “ow” in ”plow” represents a dipthong, as does the “ia” combination in “dialect”.  Since these don’t follow the rules of long orshort vowle pronunciation, and sometimes the same letter combination can represent either a digraph or a dipthong (flow vs. plow), most students will have to learn these by sight (Shedd, 2008). 

The pronunciation of vowels can be affected if they are followed by the letter “r”.  These are called r-controlled vowels.  For example, in the word bar, the short a sound is pronounced differently; it is affected by the r that follows it.  Other examples are poor, more, fear, fair, etc. 

Sound-letter Development / Ways to read words

There are many different ways that readers read words.  These strategies are not mutually exclusive, we can use all of them at once while reading.

  • Begins with learning the 26 letters of the alphabet, and then the sounds associated with them.
  • Decoding- Identifying the sounds of the letters in a word and putting them together.
  • Analogy- Recognizing a new word based on a known word ( for example recognizing “factual” based on the known word ”fact”) 
  • Prediction- guessing what the word might be based on initial letters, words before and after the text, or contextual clues.
  • Sight- reading words automatically that have already been committed to memory.                           

                                                                                                                       (Shedd, 2008)

Stages of Sight Word Reading

Readers get a stage when reading certain words where they’re no longer using the other strategies listed above, but are reading those certain words by sight  These are any words that can be read automatically.  Some may be high frequency words such as she, can, and the, but don’t necessarily have to be. For example, “developmentally” could be a sight word for a lot of people, but isn’t necessarily a high frequency word.  Obviously, sight words are developed over time, and there are stages to the process.

Pre-alphabetic phase:

  • This phase is typical in pre-school and kindergarten.
  • Knowledge of sound-letter relationships or the alphabet is not used when reading words.
  • Limited to reading words from memory of their appearance alone (words that appear in the child’s environment, for example Wal-Mart or Dora).
  • Guess words simply from context (such as seeing the illustration of a tiger and associating it with “kitty”)

(Ehri, McCormick, 2006)

Partial-alphabetic phase:

  • This phase is typically seen in kindergartners, novice first graders, and older problem readers.
  • Readers remember words by sight using partial alphabetic cues.
  • Evidenced by:
    • Using partial letters combined with context cues to guess the word. For example seeing an illustration of a “house” and seeing the letter “h” and guessing “home”, but the reader may often misread words.
    • May overlook some letters in words. For example, overlooking the “re” in “tree”, only seeing the “t” and “e” and reading “the”.
    • Often know the sounds of letters whose names are informative, for example the letter b makes a /b/ sound, but not the second sounds of letters or the sounds of letters whose names are not informative. For example, they may not know the h makes a /h/, or the two sounds of a letter g, /g/ and /j/.
    • Don’t decode unfamiliar words.

(Ehri, McCormick, 2006)

Full-alphabetic phase

  • Readers use well organized relationships for matching sounds to letters they see in words.
  • Behaviors in full-alphabetic phase.. 
    • Working knowledge of the major grapheme-phoneme relationships and can match phonemes to graphemes whichleads to decoding
    • Decoding is slow, but gradually increases as the reader becomes more advanced
    • Increase sight word “bank” as they encounter more words and successfully decode them.
    • May combine strategies(such as decoding and analogy) to read and then store words in sight word bank

(Ehri, McCormick, 2006)

Consolidated-Alphabetic Phase

  • Focus is more on spelling chunks.
  • What is seen in consolidated alphabetic phase…
    • Learning chinks of letters that recur in different words and their pronunciations, such as affixes, root words, onsets, rimes, and syllables.
    • Continue depositing into sight word bank but can also remember multi-letter combinations in addition to single graphemes (and is less likely to confuse words).
    • Use hierarchical decoding which allows the reader to think about the influence of certain letters or groups of letters on the word, such as cutter vs. cuter.

(Ehri, McCormick, 2006)

Automatic-alphabetic phase

  • Proficient reading
  • highly developed automaticity andspeed in identifying new words.
  • Most words encountered are in the readers’ sight vocabulary
  • Unfamiliar words are able to be decoded using a variety of strategies

(Ehri, McCormick, 2006)

Cueing Systems

There are cueing systemsthat readers use when while reading to determine the meaning of words in a text.  These are phonological cues, syntactic cues, semantic cues, and pragmatic cues. 

  1. Phonological cues- This is where sounds letter knowledge contributes to reading and deriving meaning.  Readers use their knowledge of the grapheme-phoneme relationship to be able to read words.  For example, knowing that the “o” in “hot” is the same as the “o” in “box”.
  2. Syntactic cues- These are the structures that govern how words are combined in sentences.  Readers who use syntactic cues recognize how word order and grammatical function are clues to identify a word.  For example, knowing that the word “run” is a verb will help a reader understand the meaning of the words in ”I run every morning before work”.
  3. Semantic cues- This cueing system refers to the meaning of language.  This could be looked at as context; a reader can guess at the meaning of an individual word based on the context the word appears in. For a student reading the sentence “I went to Wimpy’s to buy chips and dip for my party”, even if they don’t know what “Wimpy’s” may mean, they can gather from the context that it is a place to go to buy food, maybe a grocery store or mini-mart.  Usingclues like this is incredibly useful while reading unknown words.
  4. Pragmatic Cues- This refers to language variations according to social and cultural uses.  This cueing system is often not recognized, however it is still important to reading.  This is the understanding that people use different languages in different social and cultural uses, and usingthis knowledge to help derive meaning from words.

(Shedd, 2008; Fox, 2006; Hughes, 2007).

Approaches to Decoding

Decoding is the process of determining the pronunciation of an unknown word (Dow and Baer, 2007).   Readers try to use many different ways to decode words.  Some identify the individual sounds in words and try blend them together (for example, seeing the word “shop”, and identifying the sounds /sh/ /o/ and /p/ and then blending them together to pronounce it).   This doesn’t always work however, because often times you need more than just letter-sound knowledge to decode.  Decoding involves both phonological and phonemic awareness, not just one or the other.  For example, for the word “engage”, a student needs to not only have knowledge of the letter sound relationships, but also phonological awareness skills such as separating syllables and rhyming words to successfully decode the word.

Stages of Spelling Development

When students are learning to write words, there are different stages that they go through with their spelling.

  1. Pre-phonemic- Stringing of letters together without attempting to represent speech sounds in any systematic way.  This is typical with young children before they enter into any formal schooling.  They may understand that writing represents a message, but don’t yet have the knowledge of letter-sound relationships to be able to spell words.  A student in the this phase may use on letter per syllable, or come up with some other kind of relationship between words and writing. 
  2. Early Phonemic- Students have begun to develop some knowledge of phonemes and use letters to represent sounds.  However, letters are often only written for one or two sounds in words and may not be the correct letters for the sounds.
  3. Letter Name- Letters are chosen to represent phonemes based on the similarities between the sound of the letter names and the respective phonemes.  For example, choosing to spell the word “ball” as “BLL” could show a student in the letter name stage who recognizes the similarities between the name of the letters “b” and “l” and the sounds /b/ and /l/.
  4. Transitional- Words look like English, yet are often spelled incorrectly.  This is young elementary grades, where students have developed a knowledge of letter-sound relationships and have had more exposure to words and spelling, so are able to come up with spellings for words even if they are incorrect.
  5. Correct- Majority of words are spelled correctly. 

(Temple, Temple, and Burris, 1993).

Issues for Second Language Learners (SLL’s)

SLL students may have issues withthe concepts above.  This could happen for many reasons.  A student could have an entirely different alphabet in their native language, therefore could have issues learning the alphabet and the grapheme-phoneme relationships in English. 

If a student’s language does have the same alphabet, there could still be issues if the relationships between the sounds and letters are different.  For example, in English the letter v corresponds to the /v/ sound, but in Spanish the letter v corresponds to the /b/ sound.  This could become problematic when decoding words such as “bent” and “vent”.

Grammar and punctuation rules may be completely different in a students native language, so using syntactic and semantic cues to read may be much more difficult, if not impossible for some students to do at first.



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