Our brains are wired for speech, not for reading. Humans have not been reading and writing long enough for our brains to have evolved to be wired for learning how to read. Children are born with their brains wired for speech. Think about it. No one has to “teach” a child to speak. If surrounded by people speaking in their first years of life, they just begin to speak. If we want children to learn to read, we all need to understand why speech sounds in English are the key to reading!
Some children seem to naturally learn to read. Most children do not. Far too many children struggle with learning how to read. Far too many children unnecessarily struggle with learning how to read.
Learning how to read is not, and should not be some deep dark mystery! English is an alphabetic language. That just means that the alphabetic symbols used in writing correspond to the speech sounds we say in words. It was designed that way on purpose. So why aren’t we teaching teachers and students how to map what we say to the letters on the page?
Speech Sounds in English
Why would I start with speech sounds in a blog post about reading? Well, reading is just speech written down or printed. That is the whole point of reading, isn’t it? We want to write down and preserve our thoughts and our words for someone to access at a later time. So if a child struggles with spoken language, it may follow that they may have trouble with written language.
I am going to be simplifying to make this quickly and easily accessible to the largest possible audience. Not everyone has the time or the desire to dive deep into theory and research. However, I believe this information can still be useful and accessible to teachers without a long-drawn-out process.
There is a reference list at the end of this post for further reading and research on this topic on your own if you want to know more.
So, if English is an alphabetic writing system that matches the sounds we say to the letters we read and write, we need to have a better understanding of the speech sounds in English.
If I could go back in time and teach myself as a beginning teacher, this would be one of the first things I would want to know. It was missing in my understanding as a reading teacher for too long. It has made a huge difference in the learning I am seeing in the students I work with today.
What is a Phoneme?
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. There are three phonemes in the word “bed”. The difference between the word “bed” and “bet” is the last phoneme.
Let me give another example so that we don’t confuse letters with sounds. There are also three phonemes in the word “catch”. The last sound in “catch” is spelled with the letters “tch”.
It is helpful to temporarily forget what you know about spelling when listening to and counting the sounds in words. How about another example?
There are three phonemes in the word “love”. So what about that letter “e” at the end? Well, no word in English ends with the letter “v” so the “e” is there as a placeholder, but I am getting ahead of myself.
How Many Speech Sounds are there in the English Language?
There are approximately 44 sounds (or phonemes) in the English language. You will find differences in the number depending on the source.
You can quickly see the problem in writing those 44 sounds with only 26 letters. We use combinations of letters (graphemes) to spell the 44 sounds. Some letters and letter combinations represent more than one sound. Remember the word “catch”? The /ch/ sound is spelled with “tch”. Three letters represent one sound. How about the word “read”. Does it rhyme with “bread” or “seed”?
That is where things start to get a little tricky. This is why you may hear or read that English has a deep orthography or a deep writing system. There can’t be a one-to-one match of sounds and letters.
Consonant Phonemes (Sounds)
Consonant phonemes (sounds) are considered closed sounds because our airflow is obstructed by our lips, teeth, and tongue when we produce the sounds.
The 25 consonant sounds of English can be classified by their place and manner of articulation. The place in the mouth where sounds are produced (in relation to the tongue and teeth) is called “the place of articulation”. The manner of articulation refers to the airflow.
The most useful way to organize all of this information is in a chart. If some of the terms seem a little technical, to begin with, you will soon understand how they can be very helpful to both teachers and students.
The top row across lists the place of articulation.
The first column down lists the manner of articulation.
Place of Articulation of Speech Sounds in English
The place of articulation is quite easy to understand so let’s start there. This is going to require some active participation so get ready to say the sounds out loud!
In the second column are sounds we produce with our lips together. (See the chart above.)
When you say the word “pet”, the first sound you say is /p/. Say the sound represented by the letter or letters when written between the two lines (called virgules). Your lips go together when you say /p/, /b/, and /m/. Your lips are rounded and together when you say /w/. The unvoiced /wh/ like in the word whale has nearly disappeared from American English.
Teeth on Lip
In the third column, there are two sounds we produce with our upper teeth on our lower lip: /f/ and /v/. You try it! Say the sounds out loud as we go along.
Tongue Between Teeth
In the next column, we have two sounds we produce with our tongues protruding out slightly between our teeth. The first sound /th/ is the unvoiced sound as in the word “think”. The second sound /th/ is the voiced sound as in the word “the”. The underline indicates the voiced sound.
Tongue Behind Teeth
There are six sounds we produce with our tongue behind our teeth. Say the sounds represented by the letters between the virgules. Was your tongue behind your teeth? It should be!
Tongue on Roof of Mouth
We continue to move back in our mouths in the next column with our tongues on the roof of our mouths. The /zh/ may be a new sound or a sound you haven’t thought much about. It is the sound we hear in the middle of the word “measure” or at the beginning of the word “genre”. It is easy to confuse sounds produced in the same place in our mouths.
Back of Mouth
There are three sounds we produce in the back of our mouths. The one that may be unfamiliar or new to you is the /ng/ sound as in the words “ring” and “think”. Don’t let the spelling confuse you! That /ng/ sound in “think” is spelled with the letter “n”.
In the Throat
There is one sound we produce in our throats: /h/.
Manner of Articulation of Speech Sounds in English
I want to go through the chart again analyzing the rows. If you stick with it and go slowly, saying the sounds out loud, you will be deepening your understanding of the consonant sounds of English and clarifying what confusions your students may have.
The first row includes sounds called stop sounds. When we say stop sounds, the airflow is abruptly stopped. You can’t “hold” these sounds or continue to make the sound without distorting the sound. Be careful to say these crisply and clearly without adding an “uh” sound to the end. We want /p/ not /puh/. It may be more difficult to do than you thought. That’s okay. It takes practice!
The other thing I want you to notice is that the sounds are in pairs. We put our lips together to produce /p/ and /b/. We do not use our voice to produce the /p/ sound and we use our voice to produce the /b/ sound. Put your hand gently on your throat as you make both sounds so you can feel the difference.
Do the same for the rest of the sounds in the first row.
The next row includes three nasal sounds. All three sounds require our voice to produce. Rather than the sound coming out of our mouth, it travels through our nose. Try pinching your nose gently while trying to say the sound. You can’t do it! The sound gets “stuck”. When we have a cold and our noses are plugged up, we sound funny!
Then we have the fricatives. Think “friction”. The airflow meets resistance with our teeth, tongue, and lips when we produce these sounds. If you put your hand in front of your mouth you can feel the continuous airflow when saying these sounds. You can “hold” or continue to produce these sounds as long as you have breath.
Next are the consonant sounds classified as affricates. Affricates are stop sounds followed by a quick puff of air. There are only two affricates. They are the /ch/ we say and hear at the end of the word “hatch” and the /j/ we say and hear at the end of the word “fudge”. That’s my favorite example because I can’t pass up a hot fudge sundae!
Then you will see the glides. Glides are consonant sounds that have vowel-like qualities. Vowels always come after glides. Examples would be the /w/ in water and the /y/ in yellow. Another consonant will never come after a glide in the same syllable. They also will not appear at the end of a word. Spelling gets tricky here again. If the letters “y” and “w” are at the end of a word, as in “toy” and “snow”, they are not representing consonant sounds, they are part of a vowel team.
Finally, the liquids are at the bottom of the chart. The troublesome /r/ and /l/ sounds! If you have taught in the early grades for any length of time you have probably had a student or two that has had difficulty in saying these sounds and may even be working with the speech and language pathologist. (I love the SLPs I have worked with!)
The sounds around liquids alter their pronunciation. There isn’t a clear beginning or endpoint in articulation. In most cases, liquids are voiced, but not always. They could be the definition of ambiguous!
Other Speech Sounds in English
You probably noticed we haven’t discussed the vowel sounds in English. Vowels require their own discussion. Watch for that post coming soon!
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