Letter Sounds and Letter-Sound Correspondences

What are Letter-Sound Correspondences?

Letter-sound correspondences can be defined as the relationships between letters in the alphabet and the sounds in a spoken language.  Each letter in the alphabet is associated with one or more of the speech sounds (phonemes) that make up vocalised words. 

The term GPC, which stands for grapheme-phoneme correspondence is sometimes used as an alternative to letter-sound correspondence.

Letter-sound correspondences are sometimes collectively described as the alphabetic code.

Examples of Letter sound Correspondences

The simplest examples involve the associations between individual letters of the alphabet and spoken sounds.

For instance, the letter b represents a particular sound in words such as big or cab that is distinct from the sounds represented by the other letters in these words.

Letter sounds are indicated by forward slashes in some phonics programmes.  For example, the sound represented by the letter b in the above words would be written as /b/. 

The international phonetic alphabet has specific symbols for spoken sounds which are sometimes the same as the printed letters and sometimes different. 

For example, the sound associated with the letter b in the above examples is written as b, but the sound represented by the letter a in the words ant and cap is written as æ.  

The ‘long a’ sound represented by the letter a in words such as apron and baby is represented by /ai/ in many phonics programmes and by in the international phonetic alphabet.

Some letter-sound correspondences are more complicated because groups of letters are used to represent individual sounds.  These are called digraphs, trigraphs or quadgraphs depending on the number of letters used to represent the sound. 

See our section below on the Letter-Sound Correspondences in English for a comprehensive list of examples. 

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Letter Sounds

It’s common for educators to talk about teaching ‘letter sounds’, but letters don’t actually make sounds – they represent sounds. 

However, since most 4 and 5-year-olds don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘correspondence’, many teachers find it easier to tell their children that letters have sounds.  Some phonics purists are scornful of anyone who teaches this idea, but we haven’t seen any evidence that it’s harmful. 

Nevertheless, it is possible to give children a more accurate and child-friendly explanation of the connection between letters and sounds. Just tell them that letters ‘stand for’ sounds. 

For example, hold up a card with the letter ‘a’ on it and say, “This letter stands for the /a/ sound we hear at the start of ‘apple’ or ‘ant’”.  And “This letter stands for the /b/ sound we hear at the start of ‘bug’ or ‘bat’”.

The Importance of Letter-sound Correspondences

Understanding letter-sound correspondences is essential for reading and spelling words in all writing systems that are based on an alphabetic code.

    • The ability to recognise letters and link them to spoken sounds allows children to decode written words. This strategy can help children read words even if they’ve never encountered them in print before. 
    • The ability to segment spoken words into individual sounds and then recall the letters used to represent those sounds is one of the most important skills needed for accurate spelling.

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How to Teach Letter Letter-sound Correspondences

Research suggests that explicit phonics instruction is the most effective way to teach letter-sound correspondences. 

Some children can ‘pick up’ letter-sound relationships without formal instruction if they spend a lot of time reading books with a supportive adult.  However, all children are likely to learn more quickly with some direct instruction.

We explain how you can teach your child the letter sounds in our phonics article.  

One of the most effective activities for helping children grasp letter-sound correspondences is segmenting spoken words and then writing them or constructing them with letters.  See spelling with magnetic letters or alphabet cards in our article on spelling.

Electronic games can also be helpful.  Use the following link to access a variety of free online games for letter sounds

See also ‘What Order Should Letters of the Alphabet and Phonemes Be Taught?’ and ‘Key Principles for Teaching Letter-Sound Correspondences‘ later in this article.

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Phonemic Awareness vs Letter-sound Correspondence

    • Phonemic awareness is an auditory skill that involves identifying sounds in spoken words. It can be practised verbally without any reference to printed words. 
    • Learning letter-sound correspondences involves linking the sounds in spoken words to letters in written words.

Some educators believe that it’s important for children to develop phonemic awareness skills before they are taught about letters and the sounds they are associated with. 

However, research suggests that teaching letter-sound correspondences improves phonemic awareness.  

In fact, there is no real benefit in developing phonemic awareness in the absence of letters.  For children to become proficient at reading and spelling, they need to see the connection between phonemes and letters in our alphabetic writing system.

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The Letter-Sound Correspondences in English

In some languages, the relationships between letters and sounds are very simple and consistent.  For example, in Finnish, there is a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence in most words.

However, the letter-sound correspondences in English aren’t straightforward.  Some sounds are represented by combinations of 2 or 3 letters (see digraphs and trigraphs) and individual letters don’t always represent the same sound.

For example, the sounds represented by vowel letters can vary in different words…

Compare the sound represented by the letter a in ‘angel’ to the sound in ‘ant’ or ‘apple’. 

Some consonants can also represent different sounds.  For example, the letter s in ‘frogs’ represents a different sound from the letter s in ‘snake’.  And the letter y in gym represents a vowel sound, which is quite different from the sound it represents in yellow. 

In fact, it isn’t strictly correct to say that some letters are vowels, and some letters are consonants because combinations of various letters can represent vowels (such as ‘igh’), and some ‘vowel’ letters can also represent consonants in a few words.  

We’ve made a reasonably comprehensive list of the letter-sound correspondences in English in the table below which could also be described as an Alphabetic/Phonemic Code Chart.  You can download this chart as a free pdf.

The letters between forward slashes / / are used in the UK Government’s ‘Letters and Sounds’ phonics programme.  The green symbols in round brackets are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Alphabetic Code Chart
Click on the image to download the chart as a pdf.

For an even more comprehensive list see the Spelfabet site.

To listen to the phonemes represented with the International Phonetic Alphabet Chart, you can download a free phonemic pronunciation chart app from the British Council.

You can listen to the phonemes represented by ordinary letters on Oxford Owls Phonics Audio Guide.

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Common Questions:

What Order Should Letters of the Alphabet and Phonemes Be Taught?

No specific order for teaching letters and sounds in phonics has been proven to be better than all the alternatives.  And it’s unlikely that anyone will ever find the best order because there are so many different sequences that could be used it would be impossible to investigate them all.

For instance, if we chose to teach just the first 4 letters from the alphabet, these could be arranged or introduced in 24 different ways:

{a,b,c,d} {a,b,d,c} {a,c,b,d} {a,c,d,b} {a,d,b,c} {a,d,c,b} {b,a,c,d} {b,a,d,c} {b,c,a,d} {b,c,d,a} {b,d,a,c} {b,d,c,a} {c,a,b,d} {c,a,d,b} {c,b,a,d} {c,b,d,a} {c,d,a,b} {c,d,b,a} {d,a,b,c} {d,a,c,b} {d,b,a,c} {d,b,c,a} {d,c,a,b} {d,c,b,a}

With 8 letters, the number of permutations jumps to 40,320, and with 26 letters there are a staggering 4.0 x 1026 possible arrangements! 

Nevertheless, despite the huge number of alternative sequences, we can still glean some useful guidelines for teaching letters and phonemes from research.  And insights can also be obtained by looking at the order phonemes are taught in successful phonics programmes…

The Carnine order shown below is probably one of the most well-thought-out approaches to teaching letters and sounds.  It’s based on the research and teaching experience of a group of American educators, and it was popularised in their book, ‘Direct Instruction Reading’*.  It’s also recommended by the University of Oregon

*Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui and Tarver (2009), Direct Instruction Reading, Pearson

Carnine Order:

a m t s i f d r o g l h u c b n k v e w j p y T L M F D I N A R H G B x q z J E Q

At first glance, the Carnine order looks quite random, but the researchers had specific reasons for using this sequence of letters:

    • Letters that occur frequently in words are taught earlier in the sequence because these can be used to make a greater variety of words for early blending practice.
    • They avoided teaching letters with similar appearances together. For example, the letters d, b and p all have the same basic shape (but different orientations).  The fear is that children could be confused if they were to meet all these letters in the same session.
    • They also avoided teaching letters together that are pronounced in a similar way.
    • Some letters that represent continuous sounds are taught early in the sequence because children can find it easier to blend words containing these sounds. Examples of continuous sounds include those represented by the vowel letters and the consonants ‘m’, ‘s’ and ‘f’.
    • Lower case letters are mostly taught before capital letters because they occur more frequently in words. However, some capital letters are taught alongside the lowercase versions if they look similar.  For example, the letters s, and u look very similar in lower case an upper case (s, S and u, U) so these are taught together.  Capital letters that look different from the lowercase versions (such as A and B) are taught later.

The direct instruction reading strategy followed by Carnine and the other researchers has been shown to be very effective with a diverse range of student populations and it was the most successful programme in the extensive Project Follow Through experiment.

Although they don’t use the exact same sequence, several other successful phonics programmes follow similar principles to those used in the Carnine order. 

For example, Jolly Phonics also teach lower case letters first and the first letters introduced include: s, a, t, i, p and n.  All these letters occur quite frequently in English words, and some represent continuous sounds, so they can be used to make a variety of suitable words for early blending and segmenting practice.  Most of the letters introduced early by Jolly Phonics also appear early in the Carnine Order.

The letters in ‘satpin’ are also taught first in Letters and Sounds, the UK Government’s phonics programme.  We suspect the Letters and Sounds team borrowed the sequence from Jolly Phonics. The programme suggests using the following words made from the letters in ‘satpin’ for early blending practice:

at, a, sat, pat, tap, sap, it, sit, sat, pit, tip, pip, sip, an, in, nip, pan, pin, tin, tan, and nap.

Some of the other letters that are introduced early in Letters and Sounds, such m and d, also appear early in the Carnine Order.

The Sounds-Write programme, another successful course that’s popular in the UK, begins with the letters a, i, m, s, t, n, o and p.  Again, most of these letters appear early in the Carnine order.

We’ve included the full sequences of letters and sounds for these phonics programmes below.  Notice that some ‘digraph sounds’ are taught before the less common individual letter-sound correspondences in some programmes.

Jolly Phonics

s, a, t, i, p, n, ck, e, h, r, m, d, g, o, u, l, f, b, ai, j, oa, ie, ee, or, z, w, ng, v, oo, oo, y, x, ch, sh, th, th, qu, ou, oi, ue, er, ar. 

Some alternative spellings for vowel sounds are taught after these letter combinations.

Letters and Sounds

s, a, t, p, i, n, m, d, g, o, c, k, ck, e, u, r, h, b, f, ff, l, ll, ss, j, v, w, x, y, z, zz, qu, ch, sh, th, ng, ai, ee, igh, oa, oo, ar, or, ur, ow, oi, ear, air, ure, er.

Some alternative spellings for vowel sounds are taught after these letter combinations – see our digraphs article for details.

Sounds-Write

a, I, m, s, t, n, o, p, b, c, g, h, d, e, f, v, k, l, r, u, j, w, z, x, y, ff, ll, ss, zz, sh, ch, th, th, ck, wh, ng, qu.

Alternative spellings for vowel sounds are taught after these letter combinations.

As you can see from the examples we’ve shown above, different programmes can use slightly different letter and sound sequences and still get good results.  So, the exact order of instruction probably doesn’t make much difference as long as it’s based on sound principles.

Other Considerations

While the principles used in the examples above are certainly well-considered and logical, they aren’t set in stone.  Children enter preschool, Kindergarten and reception classes with different abilities and experiences, so it’s also worth considering alternative approaches.

In the academic paper, Enhancing Alphabetic Knowledge Instruction*, Professor Cindy Jones and her colleagues advocate flexible distributed instructional cycles based on what they describe as ‘Alphabetic Knowledge Learning Advantages’.

*Cindy D. Jones, Sarah K. Clark and D. Ray Reutzel (2012), Enhancing Alphabet Knowledge instruction. Early Childhood Education Journal.

The idea is to spend a cycle of around 5 weeks focussing on one learning advantage before switching to another 5-week cycle that focuses on a different learning advantage, then another, and so on.

The guidelines for the approach encourage flexibility.  So, a teacher can assess student progress in a cycle and identify which letters they are finding most difficult to learn.  The teacher can then select the most appropriate instructional cycle to use next that will best deal with the students’ needs.

The approach can be used in whole-class settings or in small groups.

The ‘learning advantages’ described in the paper have been identified by research and include:

Own name advantage: Many children find it easier to learn how to name and print the initial letter of their own name compared to other letters in the alphabet.  This is probably because kids are more motivated to learn letters that have a strong connection with their own identity. 

Also, mentioning someone’s name is one of the best ways to get their attention, and, according to the neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, attention is one of the four pillars of learning*.

* Dehaene, S. (2020) How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, Penguin Books.

The name advantage could be extended further by looking at the letters in words for other things that children might have a significant emotional connection to.  Anything that’s likely to get their attention and make them more motivated to learn could be suitable.  For example, words like Mum/Mom, Dad, names of siblings, pets, favourite sports teams or where they live.

Alphabetic order advantage: Some educators argue that the normal alphabetic order isn’t ideal for learning letter sounds.  However, it might have some benefit for children who’ve already learned the names and shapes of the letters from alphabet songs or books. 

For example, some letter names (such as ‘bee’, ‘dee’, ‘ef’ and ‘em’) begin or end with sounds represented by the letters and studies have shown that children can learn these letter-sound relationships more easily if they already know the letter names*.

*Treiman, R., Weatherston, S., & Berch, D. (1994).  The role of letter names in children’s learning of phoneme-grapheme relations.

Lots of children learn the alphabet song and alphabet books are very popular – we found over 80,000 results in a search for alphabet books on the UK Amazon site alone.  Consequently, for kids who can already recognise the letters of the alphabet, some of the principles used in the Carnine Order might not be so important.

One disadvantage of teaching letter-sound relationships in alphabetic order is that kids tend to remember letters at the beginning and end of the alphabet, but struggle to recall the letters in the middle.  This is probably due to primacy and recency effects.

Letter frequency advantage: Children find it easier to learn letters that appear more often in print.  The researchers suggest teaching the less common letters first in this cycle so there is a greater focus on them before moving on to the more common letters.  This approach contrasts with the Carnine order where the most frequently occurring letters are taught first.

    • The consonant letters from most to least frequent are r, t, n, s, l, c, d, p, m, b, f, v, g, h, k, w, x, z, j, q and y.
    • The vowel letters from most to least frequent are i, a, e, o and u. 

Distinctive visual features letter writing advantage: Children find it relatively easy to distinguish between letters that have distinct visual features.  For example, they can easily see the difference between the letters a and z or b and x. 

However, they can find it difficult to distinguish between letters that have similar visual features.  For example, the uppercase letters C and G are very similar, as are E and F, P and R, and O and Q.  The lowercase letters b, d, p and q are also similar in shape, and so are m, n, and u. 

In this cycle, letters with similar features might be introduced together and the teacher would highlight features that can help students recognise the differences between the similar letters. 

For instance, they would draw the students’ attention to the tail in the letter Q and compare it to O which is similar but doesn’t have a tail.  Or they might highlight the extra horizontal line at the bottom of E to help students see the difference between this and the letter F.

The idea of teaching visually similar letters together differs from the Carnine approach where they are taught separately.

The creators of the Enhancing Alphabet Knowledge (EAK) approach recommend a simple 3-stage process for teaching letters in each cycle:

    1. First children are explicitly taught to identify the name and sound of the uppercase and lowercase form of the letter introduced that day.
    2. Next, the children are provided with books and other written texts and they are asked to find examples of the day’s letter in lowercase and uppercase.
    3. Finally, they are taught how to write the letter.

Research has shown that EAK instruction produces better results than the traditional approach used in some early childhood classrooms where one letter is taught every week.

Unfortunately, we’re not aware of any studies that make direct comparisons between the effectiveness of the EAK approach and the Carnine order.

Our thoughts and conclusions…

It seems that children can be taught letters and phonemes successfully in a variety of different sequences.  Good arguments can be made for using a number of different orders of instruction including some we haven’t explored here, such as following a sequence of letters that’s good for teaching handwriting.

We’re inclined to favour the reasoning behind the Carnine order and the sequences in the popular phonics programmes.  We especially like their initial focus on learning letters that can be used to make a variety of suitable words for early blending and segmenting practice. 

Also, some of these sequences have been used for decades and they’ve been proven to work well in thousands of classrooms around the world.

However, we also think there is some merit to the flexible use of learning advantages for responding to individual student needs as described in the EAK approach.

We also think it’s important to think carefully about the order digraphs and trigraphs are introduced, but the Carnine and EAK approaches don’t really address this.  You might find it helpful to read the section ‘What Order Should I Teach Digraphs?’ in our article about teaching digraphs.

Key Principles for Teaching Letter-Sound Correspondences

Overall, we believe there are some key principles for teaching letters and phonemes that are probably more important than the order the phonemes are introduced:

    • Only Introduce a few letters and phonemes in each session.
    • Focus on the sounds represented by letters rather than letter names.
    • Review previously taught phonemes continuously.
    • Practise blending and segmenting words containing the letters that have been taught.
    • Practise handwriting individual letters and simple words.

These key principles are based on research into the alternative sequences described above and established learning theories from cognitive science.

Only Introduce a few letters and phonemes in each session…

Most academics and experienced teachers would agree that teaching the whole alphabet along with its associated phonemes in one go would be counterproductive. 

This would almost certainly result in cognitive overload and leave the children confused and demoralised.

How many letters should I teach a week?

Established and successful programmes such as Jolly Phonics, Sounds-Write and the UK Government’s Letters and Sounds programme only teach a handful of phonemes each week.

Jolly Phonics suggest teaching no more than one letter-sound correspondence each teaching day or around 4-5 per week and Sounds-Write and Letters and Sounds both introduce letters at about the same rate.

The creators of the Enhancing Alphabet Knowledge (EAK) approach also recommend introducing letters at a rate of one per teaching day.

Focus on the Sounds Represented by Letters Rather than Letter Names.

Learning letter names early doesn’t actually help children learn to read and early exposure to letter names can have a detrimental effect on spelling.   We discuss these points in more detail in our article ‘Should I Teach my Child Letter Names’.

Review previously taught phonemes continuously

There’s an old saying that ‘repetition is the mother of learning’ and there is a lot of truth in this.  Reviewing material that has been encountered before is essential for the consolidation of long-term memories. So, when you introduce a new letter, spend a few minutes reviewing some previously introduced letters at the end of the session. 

It’s been shown that spacing out reviews over a period of several days and weeks (distributed practice) is more effective than cramming a lot of content into a single session. 

To become proficient readers, children need automatic and instantaneous recall of letter-sound correspondences.  And as cognitive scientists such as Dan Willingham have pointed out, ‘for new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice, beyond the point of mastery, is necessary.

Practise Blending and Segmenting Words containing the letters that have been taught.

Letters and sounds don’t have to be reviewed in isolation; they can be presented within simple words and reviewed as part of blending practice. 

This is a more efficient use of time as the students will be improving their blending skills at the same time as consolidating their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences.

Blending practice also teaches kids why learning letters and sounds are useful and important.  Understanding the relevance of what they are doing can make them keener to learn according to the Expectancy value theory of motivation.

And as students become more proficient at blending, they can progress to reading sentences and passages and this will allow them to review their letter-sound correspondences in a more natural way.

However, if a child is constantly tripping over a particular correspondence, it would be helpful for them to spend some time reviewing this more frequently. 

Segmenting words is like blending in reverse and it can really help to embed a child’s knowledge of letter-sound correspondences.  However, it’s only really effective for this purpose if the segmented words are then spelled with magnetic letters, alphabet cards or in writing. 

Segmenting done as a purely oral exercise, or by moving tokens counters in Elkonin boxes won’t help children learn letter-sound correspondences.

Practise Handwriting Individual Letters and Simple Words.

As we mentioned in our article about handwriting, writing by hand helps to establish brain connections that are important for reading and spelling.

In order to write accurately, children need to focus on the key characteristics of each letter, and this allows them to build stronger representations of the fine details in their brains.

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Should you teach lowercase or uppercase letters first?

There is no hard and fast rule on this.  Children need to learn both lowercase and uppercase letters eventually, so it probably doesn’t make a big difference whether you teach them together or separately.

However, we think there’s some logic behind the Carnine approach where lower case letters are taught before capital letters because they occur more frequently in words. 

What Age Should a Child Know Letter Sounds?

Children should recognise some letters and know the sounds they represent by the time they are around 5 years old because this is the age when most children begin reading instruction in school. 

How many letter sounds should a kindergartener know?

This might vary with the curriculum policies of different schools and different districts, but it’s not unusual for children to be able to match all 26 letters to sounds by the time they finish kindergarten.  In the UK, children are expected to know all the letters and their associated sounds by the time they are halfway through reception.

How many letters should a 3-year-old and 4-year-old recognize?

There are no fixed expectations for knowledge of letters or letter sounds by age before children start formal schooling and there is a great deal of variation in preschool children.

How many letters a young child knows depends on the amount of input they have had at home or in preschool and also on their individual development.

When Should You Teach a Child Letter Sounds?

You don’t have to teach your child letter sounds before they start school unless you choose to.  Some children don’t know any letter sounds before they start school whereas others know them all. 

A relatively small number of children can recognise all the letters and the sounds they represent by the time they are around two years old.  However, this is only likely if they have had a lot of exposure to letters from a very young age. 

See our article ‘Should I Teach My Baby or Toddler to Read?’ for more information on the pros and cons of teaching very young children literacy skills.

Should You Teach Letter Names or Sounds First?

Opinions vary on this issue, but our own view is that a knowledge of letter sounds is much more important for learning to read and spell accurately.  See our article, ‘Should I Teach my Child Letter Names’, for a more detailed discussion of this question.

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