A Guide to the Phonemes

At Once, we created recordings of the sounds associated with the letters and letter combinations in English.  This resource would be helpful for anyone who is teaching a child to read, and we are making it freely available here.

In order to “sound out” a word, a person needs to see patterns of letters and think of sounds that those letters represent.  Successful readers understand a complex system of correspondences between symbols and sounds.  They see the letter m, for example, and they think the sound /m/, like the sound at the beginning of the word mine.  When they do that for each sound in a word, they are “sounding it out,” and when they blend all of those sounds together, they have decoded that word.

So, in order to teach a child to read, instructors need to teach them this system of sound-symbol correspondence.  Sometimes these correspondences are relatively straightforward, like with the letter m: it almost always makes the same sound, and other symbols only rarely make its sound.  But sometimes these correspondences are tricky.  For example, does that th digraph make the voiced sound like in the word this or the unvoiced sound as in the word think?  Does that ea letter combination make the sound like in the word seat, the word head, the word bear, or the word heart?  And what’s with the sound that a makes in cat compared with the sound it makes in fan (depending on your accent)?  The orthography of the English language does not make things easy on early readers or on those trying to teach them!

Each of these nuances of sound and spelling have important implications for how to best teach a child to read.  It is important for instructors to produce the sounds of our language (the ‘phonemes’ that make up each word) precisely and consistently.  One might think that, if one knows how to read, then one is prepared to teach at this level of precision, but, unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.  Sometimes it’s harder for fluent adult readers to discern the subtle differences in the sounds that comprise our words because it’s been so long since we first learned to decode them, because our understanding of spelling may complicate the basic foundation that students need to learn first, and because our accents may not be the same as our students’.

At Once, we provide a curriculum that is precisely scripted, and we provide regular coaching so that our instructors know exactly what phonemes to produce when.  One resource we provide for our instructors is recordings of each sound that correspond to each symbol being taught (whether that symbol is from the specialized orthography in the early stages of the curriculum, is a standard letter, or is a letter combination).  We wanted to make that resource freely available to everyone at tryonce.com/phonemes.

Do you have a question about how to pronounce the phoneme associated with a specific symbol and don't want to wade through the pronunciation of dozens of others? You can now go directly to the one you want. For example, how do you pronounce the ing letter combination as in the word sing?  It’s not as obvious as it might seem at first.  We'll show you.

Give it a try and let us know what you think.

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