Continuous and stop sounds explained with examples and lists. Continuous sounds and blending…
What Are Continuous Sounds?
Continuous sounds in phonics are spoken sounds that we make with a continuous flow of air from our mouth or nose. This means the sounds can be extended or ‘stretched out’ without being distorted.
For example, the /s/ sound that comes at the start of the word ‘snake’ is classed as continuous sound because we can pronounce it as ‘ssssssssss…’ and extend it for several seconds or until we run out of breath.
The sounds /f/ and /m/ can be extended in a similar way, so these are also continuous sounds, as are all the vowel sounds.
Some phonics instructors describe continuous sounds as continuants. However, the term continuant has a slightly different meaning for linguists who study speech sounds.
For example, the sound /m/ would not be classed as continuant by linguists because we say it with our mouths closed. The mouth is never completely closed for continuants according to the definition used in linguistics.
However, in phonics, /m/ is classed as a continuous sound because we can extend it to make a drawn out – ‘mmmmmm…’ sound.
Continuous Sounds List
There’s some variation in the continuous sounds listed in different sources, but most seem to agree that all the vowels and the following consonant sounds are continuous:
- /f/ as in ‘fish’,
- /l/ as in ‘leg’,
- /m/ as in ‘man’,
- /n/ as in ‘nose’,
- /r/ as in ‘rat’,
- /s/ as in ‘sit’,
- /v/ as in ‘van’, and
- /z/ as in ‘zip’.
Some other consonant sounds which are represented by digraphs could also be included:
- /ng/ (ŋ) as in ‘sing’,
- /sh/ (ʃ) as in ‘ship’,
- /th/ (θ) as in ‘thin’,
- /th/ (ð) as in ‘this’, and
- /zh/ (ʒ) as in ‘vision’. This isn’t quite the same as the /z/ sound in ‘zip’.
Note that the symbols highlighted in green are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
And some people consider the following sounds to be continuous:
- /h/ as in ‘hat’,
- /w/ as in ‘wet’, and
- /y/ (j) as in ‘yes’.
These sounds can all be extended, but it’s trickier to do this without distorting the sound by adding ‘uh’ at the end.
Linguists describe /w/ and /y/ as semivowels, and it’s actually quite difficult to pronounce these sounds in isolation because they are always blended into the vowel that follows them in real spoken words – and this affects the way they sound…
When we say /w/ in a word it really starts with an /oo/ (uː) sound (as in too) but we don’t usually notice this. If you’re not convinced, read the following ‘words’ out loud: ‘ooee’, ‘ooet’, and ‘ooag’.
You should find they sound very much like ‘we’, ‘wet’ and ‘wag’.
Saying /oo/ in isolation doesn’t sound much like /w/, but you can hear the familiar /w/ sound in the transition when you join it to the vowel in each word.
Similarly, when we say /y/ in words such as ‘yak’ or ‘yuck’, the initial sound is /ee/ (i:) as in ‘bee’. If you say ‘eeak’ and ‘eeuck’ you should notice the familiar /y/ sound appears in the transition as you blend /ee/ into the following vowel.
In the few words where the letter y isn’t followed by a vowel, such as the name ‘Yvette’, we only say the /ee/ sound because the transition into a consonant sound is different.
When most people say /w/ or /y/ in isolation, they sound more like ‘wuh’ or ‘yuh’. You can only really say them properly as continuous sounds (without the ‘uh’) if you blend each sound in the word smoothly without pausing.
A few phonics instructors also include /j/ (dʒ), /ch/ (tʃ), /qu/ and /x/ as continuous sounds, but these aren’t straightforward either…
/j/ is made up of 2 consonant sounds merged together: /d/ as in ‘dog’ + /zh/ as in ‘vision’. Similarly, the /ch/ sound is made up of the consonant sounds /t/ as in tiger + /sh/ as in ‘ship’.
They’re actually combinations of stop sounds and continuous sounds and linguists call them ‘affricates’
/qu/ contains two distinct sounds – /k/ + /w/ (notice that ‘Kween’ sounds the same as ‘Queen’).
/x/ is also comprised of 2 sounds: mostly /k/ + /s/ as in ‘fox’ (‘foks’) and sometimes /g/ + /z/ as in ‘exam’ (‘egzam’).
So /x/ and /qu/ are also combinations of stop sounds and continuous sounds.
You can hear all the sounds used in English if you click on this link for the Oxford Owls Phonics Audio Guide.
And there’s a video below discussing some of the sounds in more detail:
What Are Stop Sounds in Phonics?
Stop sounds are spoken sounds where the flow of air from the mouth is first blocked and then released. The sounds are short, and they cannot be extended unless you distort them by adding an ‘uh’ at the end.
Stop sounds are described as ‘bouncy sounds’ in some phonics programmes because you say them quickly and then ‘jump’ onto the next sound.
According to linguists, the six English stop sounds are:
- /b/ as in ‘bat’,
- /d/ as in dog,
- /g/ as in gorilla,
- /k/ as in kite or cat,
- /p/ as in pencil, and
- /t/ as in tiger.
/h/, /j/ and /ch/ are sometimes described as stop sounds in phonics programmes even though they aren’t classed as stop sounds in linguistics. We discuss these in the section on continuous sounds above.
There’s a very informative video about stop sounds below. It’s intended for people learning or teaching English as a second language, but is also relevant for phonics instructors.
Why Should Teachers of Phonics Know the Difference Between Continuous and Stop Sounds?
There’s some evidence that beginning readers can grasp blending more easily when words start with continuous sounds.
We discuss this in our passage on smooth/continuous blending.
Some experienced teachers have also reported that children who’ve been struggling with blending often improve when the process is demonstrated using words that begin with continuous sounds.
For example, John Walker, director of the popular ‘Sounds-Write’ phonics programme in the UK made the following comment about continuous sounds:
“… the sounds… are all sounds we can ‘hang on to’ and give the pupil we are teaching plenty of opportunity to hear and identify the sound. If stretch out the sounds in ‘sit’ or ‘mat’, for example, you can easily hear what the word is.”
Walker, J. (2017), Can’t Blend, Won’t Blend, The Literacy Blog.
Teachers need to be aware that they shouldn’t try to extend stop sounds when they are teaching blending because this adds the schwa (‘uh’) sound which makes it more difficult for children to identify the words. The following short video explains this well…
We’ve also compiled a useful guide that provides a variety of phonological/phonemic awareness activities for parents and teachers.