Spelling: The Alphabetic Code

This article follows the previous column regarding the spelling rules. In this you will learn: the simple Code; the advanced Code; and the six syllable types to assist you in improving reading, spelling, and writing.

Too often schools, if they teach any Code at all, teach only an incidental version of the simple Code. But to be a skilled speller, writer, and reader, one needs to methodically learn the entire Code and the rules for its usage. We use the letters of the alphabet, often alone; often in two’s: in some instances in groups of three or four, to represent the speech sounds. These pieces of the Code are called phonograms — a word containing the Greek roots for ‘sound’ and ‘written down’. So…we use phonograms to record sound…i.e. to spell. When a phonogram represents two or more sounds, the sounds are in the descending order of frequency in the English language.



Forget the old lessons that taught, “The vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w.” I teach my students that y is frequently a vowel. We list the vowels as: a, e, i/y, o, u. Here are the vowels and representative words to aid pronunciation.

Vowels – descending order of frequency








na vy










si lent

po lice

on ion




ba by

yo yo (as a consonant)



o pen





mu sic




b represents /b/ — Do not say ba, or bu. Just say a pure /b/ voiced in your throat. We say that this sound is “voiced.”

c represents /k/ or /s/ — That is the order of frequency in the English language. Recall: c followed by e, i, or y says /s/; by any other letter it says /k/. These are voiceless sounds; do not say ka.

d represents /d/ — Voiced without a vowel attached to it. Say /d/.

f represents /f/ — Unvoiced without a vowel attached to it. /f/

g represents /g/ or /j/ — That is the order of frequency in the English language. Recall: g followed by e i, or y, may say /j/ but not always. A g followed by any other letter says /g/.

h represents /h/ — Unvoiced.

j represents /j/ — Voiced.

k represents /k/ — Unvoiced.

l represents /l/ — Voiced, ‘liquid.’

m represents /m/ — Voiced, nasal.

n represents /n/ — Voiced, nasal.

p represents /p/ — Unvoiced. Don’t say “pa”. Say the puff-like /p/.

qu represents /kw/ and infrequently says /k/ (mosquito). Unvoiced.

r represents /r/ — Voiced. Don’t pronounce with a vowel like “ru.”

s represents /s/ or /z/ — The /s/ is Voiceless; the /z/ is Voiced.

t represents /t/ — Voiceless. Not ‘ta’ — just /t/.

v represents /v/ — Voiced.

w represents /w/ — Voiced. Be careful not to attach a vowel.

x represents /ks/ — Voiceless. Never, never write an s after an x.

y represents /y/, /i/, /long i/, /ee/ — See vowel chart.

z represents /z/ — Voiced

ADVANCED CODE -with rules for usage:

er represents /er/as in Her – 2,063 words (of 20,000 most commonly used)

ur represents /er/ as in nurse – 247 words (out of 20,000)

ir represents /er/ as in first – 114 words (out of 20,000)

wor represents /wer/ as in works – 51 words (out of 20,000)

ear represents /er/ as in early. – 31words (out of 20,000)

sh represents /sh/ — Unvoiced

ee represents /ee/ — “The ‘two-letter e’.” (seem, reel)

th represents /th/, /th/ — With the first one being voiceless (thin) and the second being voiced (then)

ay represents /long a/ — “Two-letter a that may be used at the end of a word.” (day, way, say)

ai represents /long a/ — “Two-letter a that may never be used at the end of a word.” (air, fair)

ow represents /ow/, /oh/ — (cow, low)

ou represents /ow/, /oh/, /oo/, /schwa/ — I teach this by drawing stair steps with a person falling down as they say, “Ow! Oh! OO! u.” (found, four, you, country) My students named the last sound the “Country 4” since it is the sound we hear in the word, country, and the 4th sound of ou.

oy represents /oy/ — May be used at the end of a word. (boy, toy)

oi represents /oy/ — May never be used at the end of a word. (boil)

aw represents /aw/ — May be used at the end of a word. (law)

au represents /aw/ — May never be used at the end of a word. (autumn)

ew represents /oo/ (grew) and /u/ (new) — May be used at the end of a word.

ui represents /oo/ (fruit) and /long u/ (suit) — May never be used at the end of a word.

oo represents /oo/ (boot), /short oo/ (book), /long o/ (floor).

ch represents /ch/, /k/, /sh/ — /ch/ comes from English (church); /k/ comes from the Greek (chorus); /sh/ comes from the French (chivalry).

ng represents /ng/ — Nasal (sing, sang, sung).

ea represents /ee/ (eat), /e/ (bread), /long a/ (break).

ar represents /ar/ — (car, mar, far).

ck represents /k/ — “Two-letter /k/ that can only be used after a short vowel (Rule 25).”

ed represents /ed/, /d/, /t/ — See rule 28. (wanted, loved, wrecked).

or represents /or/ — (for, or, fore).

wh represents /hw/ — Voiceless. Blow softly in palm of hand; air should be felt when saying wh. The difference between /w/ and /hw/ should be taught and practiced or we will lose thissound. Already, Americans are saying “Wen will you arrive? Ware will you spend the night? Wy don’t you stay here?”

oa represents /long o/ — “O as in boat”.

ey represents /long a/, /ee/, /i/ — (they, key, valley — in the Midwest we say “vallee.”).

ei represents /ee/, /long a/, /i/ — (con ceit, veil, for feit).

ie represents /ee/, /long i/, /i/ — (field, pie, lilies).

igh represents /long i/ — “Three-letter I”.

eigh represents /long a/ — “Four-letter A”.

kn represents /n/ — “Two-letter N that we can only use to begin words.”

gn represents /n/ — “Two-letter N that we can use to begin or end base words.”

wr represents /r/ — “Two-letter R that we can only use to begin words” Note: Most words will in some way refer to the concept of “twisting.”

ph represents /f/ — “Two-letter F” from the Greeks. (telephone, physician, phonogram, philosophy).

dge represents /j/ “Three-letter J.” May only be used after a single vowel that says its short sound. (Rule 23)

oe represents /o/ — “O as in toe.”

gh represents /g/ — “Two-letter g.” Used at the beginning of a word.

ti represents /sh/ — “The /sh/ that begins with a tall letter.” Used to say /sh/ at the beginning of a second or subsequent syllable. (Rule 11)

si represents /sh/, /zh/ — (ses sion, vi sion).

ci represents /sh/ — “The /sh/ that begins with a short letter.” (fa cial)

ough represents: /o/ though; /oo/ through; uf rough; off cough; aw thought; ow bough (Deck the Halls with…)


tch represents /tch/ — (catch, butch er, kitch en)

eo represents /eo/ — (peo ple)

eau represents eau in beau ty

gu represents /g/, /gw/ — (guest, lan guage)

augh represents /aw/, /af/ — (daugh ter, laugh ter)

gi represents /j/ — (re gion)

our represents /er/ — (jour ney)

di represents /j/ — (sol dier)

xi represents /ksh/ — (an xious)

cu represents /k/ — (bis cuits)

aigh represents /long a/ — (straight)

sc represents /s/, /sk/ — (scene, sceptic)

ge represents /j/ — (pi geons)

ah represents /ah/ — (hal le lu jahs)


OPEN SYLLABLES:If a short syllable ends with a vowel, the vowel will probably say its name, although i’s and y’s are not as dependable as a, e, o, u. (Consider: our mouths are open when we say vowels; we sing the vowels, not the consonants.)

si lent, o pen, my, ba con, va ca tion, he, re port

CLOSED SYLLABLES: If a syllable ends with a consonant — so mouth has to close or change shape in order to restrict air flow in some way — the vowel in that syllable will usually say its short sound.

bat, fin, con cen trate, un der stand, Lat in

E-CONTROLLED SYLLABLES: These are the Silent E type #1. The silent E forces the vowel two sounds back to say its name.

cake, time, con cen trate, e val u ate, cute, choke

R-CONTROLLED SYLLABLES: In these syllables, a /r/ modifies the sound that we would expect a vowel to represent.

Her nurse first works early. Also: mar, for, jour ney

CONSONANT-LE SYLLABLES: These are the Silent E type #4. The silent final e is necessary so that we have a vowel in each syllable.

lit tle, bot tle, ket tle, han dle

VOWEL PAIR SYLLABLES: In these syllables, it takes more than one letter to represent a vowel sound.

pain, suit, grew, joy, boil, prey, coun try

Use these syllables to check your spelling; to see if what you have spelled fits these forms. Use them to aide you in mentally dividing words for correct pronunciation and thus accurate reading. When you better understand how the language is represented in print, ease and speed of usage will improve. I often help students sound out words by simply saying something like: “Open Closed Closed E-Controlled.” The mind will then look for those types of syllables and pronounce the word with accuracy and increasing automaticity.

English is written in a Code. Remember that! Think in terms of how to read a code; how to write in a code. Soon you will find yourself becoming stronger and more confident in the use of this wonderfully rich language.

The Code — phonics — is the only way to become an excellent user of the language, because we have an alphabetic language that is represented by phonograms designated to represent specific sounds. Good readers who think that they do not need phonics are only fooling themselves. They simply saw the Code, learned it, and use it subconsciously. Even very good readers look at each word long enough to decode and recognize it, then their eyes leap to the next word. Decoding need not be painful and should not be slow. The more that readers understand the Code, the more automaticity they will develop.

One cannot read music unless they learn the code in which music is represented. One cannot dance a complex piece of choreography unless they learn the code in which dance movements are represented. There are many examples of codes that users must learn, but the Code for English is the one that represents speech in print…and without it, spelling, and therefore reading, remain at middle elementary levels.