The sounds of English

Guide to the Phonics tool

Use this tool to show how the sounds – or 'phonics' – of English can help with reading.

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Why focus on phonics?

English is a rich mixture of languages.

Spoken English came from Germanic languages brought by the Anglo-Saxons, mixed with other languages like Norse from the Vikings and French from the Normans.

The 40 or so sounds used in spoken English words were then written using an alphabet brought by Latin-speaking Romans, which only has 26 letters.

So in English one sound does not always match one letter.

Also sometimes the same sound may be written in more than one way in English, because words came from different languages. For instance the word ‘fern’ comes from the Anglo-Saxons and the first sound is spelt ‘f’. Whereas the word ‘phone’ comes from Greek and the same sound is spelt ‘ph’.

For each spoken sound in English, there are usually two or three common ways it is found written in different words.

So to read English, to turn written words back into spoken words, it helps to be aware of all the sounds or ‘phonics’ of spoken English and the several ways each sound may be written.

With this Phonics tool you can listen to the sounds of English and see the ways they are usually written. Click here to go to the Phonics tool.

Synthetic phonics

Synthetic phonics is a specific approach to learning to read which starts with what learners already know – the 40 or so sounds or ‘phonics’ they use to speak English. And then focuses on how spoken words are built up – or ‘synthesised’ – from these sounds.

Once learners are aware of the sounds of English and how spoken words are built up from these sounds, they can learn the ways each sound is usually written, as a letter, or group of letters.

Learners can apply this knowledge to help break down written words and read them one sound at a time. Then blend these sounds together into the spoken word.

Synthetic phonics is an approach to reading now used in most UK schools and increasingly in adult literacy classes. This Phonics tool is designed to support learners when they are using a synthetic phonics approach.

Most experts agree that there are also other useful approaches to reading which can be used alongside synthetic phonics, such as looking at the visual shapes of words, or looking at the context of the rest of the sentence to work out what a word is. So when using synthetic phonics remember to be aware of other approaches and which ways work best for learners.

Tips on using the Phonics tool

1. Break down spoken words into sounds

If you are teaching a literacy class, or helping someone with their reading one-to-one, you can use the Phonics tool on a computer or interactive whiteboard to click on and listen to each of the sounds of English.

Take spoken words and break them down into their sounds, saying each sound in turn. Then blend the sounds together again to make the word. For instance the word 'lock' when spoken has three sounds. Say the sounds separately then blend them together: 'l-o-ck', 'lock'.

You can use the Phonics tool to help visualise building up words from sounds. Break down a word into sounds using the down arrow in the top right corner. Or build up and play sets of sounds yourself by dragging sounds into the lower box.

2. Look at how each sound is written

You can use the tool to look at ways the sounds of English are written. When you click on a speech bubble to hear a sound you will see examples of ways it is written on the left.

Some sounds, like the 'h' in 'hand', are almost always written one way: 'h'.

Other sounds may be written in several ways, for instance the ‘f’ sound in ‘fish’ may be written as 'ff' or 'ph' in some words. As in ‘coffee’ or ‘dolphin’.

And the ‘oo’ sound in ‘moon’ may be written as ‘ew’ or ‘ue’ in some words. As in ‘screw’ or ‘glue’.

You can discuss examples with learners of simple words from Stage 1 of the tool. Start with the spoken words, break them down into their sounds and then talk about how the sounds are written.

3. Try reading along

You can also use the tool to break down written words and sentences into sounds. Then listen to the sounds being read out.

Learners can click on the video image to listen to the sounds of the words as they read along. Or pause the audio, to read the word themselves before hearing the sounds.

Getting started on the Phonics tool

The sounds of English vary depending on your accent. When you use the Phonics tool first choose an accent you are familiar with from the menu.

Then choose a stage, 1, 2 or 3. Higher stages typically suit more confident learners. If in doubt start with Stage 1. In all stages you can follow the tips above of listening to sounds, seeing how they are usually written and breaking words down into sounds.

Stage 1 presents a small set of simple words and sounds.

Stage 1
  • Listen to sounds the speaker uses by clicking on the speech bubbles.
  • Break down the word into sounds by clicking on the down arrow on the right.
  • Then play the sounds in the word by clicking on the speaker's picture.
  • Read the word at the top while you listen.
  • For a new word, click the button in the top corner.

 

Stage 2 presents a bigger vocabulary of words and also sentences, with a full set of sounds.

Stage 2
  • In Stage 2, you can break down both words and sentences into sounds.
  • Break the sentence down into sounds by clicking on the down arrow on the right.
  • Then play the sounds in the sentence by clicking on the speaker's picture.
  • Read the sentence at the top while you listen.
  • For a new sentence, click on the button with the four arrows.

 

Stage 3 presents a full vocabulary of words and sentences and also allows users to type or paste in their own words and sentences.

Stage 3
  • In Stage 3, you can type or paste in your own words and sentences.
  • Type or paste a word or sentence into the white box.
  • Break your sentence down into sounds by clicking on the down arrow on the right.
  • Then play the sounds in the sentence by clicking on the speaker's picture.
  • Read the sentence at the top as you listen.

 

Click here to have a play on the Phonics tool!

Frequently asked questions

Why are there different accents?

Synthetic phonics is based on the sounds of spoken English, which vary from person to person depending on your accent. For example someone with a Scottish accent may say ‘car’ with three sounds ‘c-a-r’, pronouncing the final ‘r’ sound. So they would read out the ‘a’ and the ‘r’ as separate sounds. Whereas someone with a Yorkshire accent may say ‘car’ with two sounds ‘c-ar’, reading ‘ar’ as one sound. There are many accents of spoken English. The Phonics tool does not aim to support a comprehensive range of accents, however we have chosen examples of five reference accents from nations and regions in the UK to demonstrate the principle of being aware of learners’ own accents when supporting them with reading.

Why are two different sounds sometimes labelled with the same letters, like ‘th’?

Sometimes in English different sounds are represented with the same group of letters – such as the voiced ‘th’ in ‘feather’, and the unvoiced ‘th’ in ‘thief’. To distinguish sounds like these a symbolic phonetic alphabet such as the International Phonetic Alphabet can be used. However following research we decided not to introduce a new symbolic alphabet to learners to represent sounds. Instead we have used icons of a speech bubble, labelled with common written representations of the sound in italics for quick reference. The box on the left which appears when users click on a speech bubble gives examples with pictures which should help to differentiate the sounds.

Why are some speech bubbles different shapes?

The shape of the speech bubbles is designed to give a simple visual way of distinguishing consonants and vowels, and also long and short vowels. Consonants are in round speech bubbles. Short vowels are in short oblong speech bubbles and long vowels in longer oblong speech bubbles.

Why doesn’t the speaker say the words?

The Phonics tool is primarily designed to support the breaking down of words into sounds, leaving the learner to blend the sounds into spoken words. Because of technical and budgetary implications of recording and handling the audiofiles of tens of thousands of words online, playback of recordings of words is currently outside the scope of this tool. However it is something we are looking at potential technical solutions for in future iterations.

What is the tick button for?

The tick button is a feature for advanced users who can look at the word in the top box and then try building up the spoken sounds of the word by dragging sounds into the lower box. The user can then check if they have managed to match the way the word is broken down into sounds in the tool’s phonetic dictionary by clicking on the tick button.

When I hit the down arrow why do some words appear as a red question mark?

These are words that are not in the tool’s dictionary. The phonetic dictionaries used to look up the phonetic breakdowns of words are based on pre-existing phonetic dictionaries. For online use as the dictionaries become larger they become technically more challenging to manage online and take longer for the tool to look up. We found that a dictionary of around 10,000 words met our technical performance standards and also covers most frequent everyday English words likely to be encountered by someone learning to read. However since there are several hundred thousand words in English there will occasionally be words that are not in the tool’s dictionary which when looked up will be represented by a red question mark. Tutors can if they wish drag sounds into the box to build these words themselves. If you spot any common words not in our dictionary which you feel should be for someone learning to read we would welcome your suggestions and may be able to add them – please let us know by contacting us via our contact us page.

Why are some spellings of sounds missing in the box on the left? For instance the ‘h’ sound in ‘hand’ may be written ‘wh’ in ‘who’.

In written English there are exceptions to most rules. Sounds are sometimes written in unusual ways, especially in some very common short words, like ‘who’. The Phonics tool shows the most common ways of writing a sound that come up in many words, rather than including all exceptional spellings. There may be a case for learning to read some common short English words with unusual spellings - such as ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘who’ etc - using other methods.

If I have a question about the tool or want to suggest an improvement, who do I contact?

 This Phonics tool is a pilot trial version, we are aiming to develop it in future and would welcome any comments, questions or feedback. Please contact us via our contact us page.

 

Quick tips for tutors

Factsheet: Guide to the Phonics tool

  • Use this factsheet as background information to the Phonics tool, which is linked to on the page
  • For higher level learners, this can be distributed to them so they can learn to use the tool at home