Phonics instruction teaches the connection between word sounds and written letters. It’s a key part of learning to read. But phonics instruction also teaches spelling patterns. For success in both reading and spelling, here are some important phonics rules to know.
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Short and long vowels
When a vowel is followed by one consonant, that vowel is usually short. A vowel is usually short when there is only one vowel in a word or syllable as in on, red and fantastic.
A vowel is long when it says its own name. When a single vowel is at the end of a word or syllable, it usually makes the long vowel sound, as in go and paper.
Vowels also have long sounds when they’re paired with a silent e or when they are vowel digraphs (two vowels paired together).
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Vowels in syllables
Every syllable of every word must have at least one vowel. A vowel can stand alone in a syllable, as in unit and animal. It can also be surrounded by consonants, as in jet, shut and fantastic.
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When e is the last letter in a word, and there’s only one other vowel in that word, the first vowel usually says its own name and the e is silent, as in cake.
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Consonant digraphs and blends
In a consonant digraph, two consonants work together to form one sound that isn’t like either of the letters it’s made from. Examples include chap, ship, think and photo.
Consonant blends are groups of two or three consonants whose individual sounds can be heard as they blend together. Examples of that are clam, scrub and grasp.
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Vowel digraphs and diphthongs
In a vowel digraph, when two vowels are paired together, the first one is long and the other is silent, as in boat, paint and beach.
In a diphthong, a new speech sound is formed when two vowels are paired together, as in cloud or boil.
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When a vowel is followed by an r in the same syllable, that vowel is “r-controlled” and is no longer short. Sometimes we refer to the r as “bossy r” because the r “bosses” the vowel to make a new sound, as in spark, cork, germ, birthday and burn.
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The ‘schwa’ sound
Any vowel can make the schwa sound; it sounds like uh. Words like banana, vitamin, item, and another have the schwa sound.
The schwa is only found in words with more than one syllable, but never in the “accented” syllable. The schwa is the most common sound in the English language!
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Soft ‘c’ and hard ‘c’ and soft ‘g’ and hard ‘g’
When the letter c is followed by the vowels e, i or y, it usually makes its soft sound. Examples of that are cent, circus and cytoplasm. The letter c also makes a hard sound, as in cat and cocoa.
When the letter g is followed by the vowels e, i or y, it usually makes its soft sound. Examples of that are gel, giant and gym. The letter g also makes a hard sound, as in gas, gorilla and yogurt.
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The ‘fszl’ (fizzle) rule
When f, s, z and l follow a vowel at the end of a one-syllable word, they’re usually doubled, as in stuff, grass, fuzz and shell.
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Using ‘k’ or ‘ck’
We use ck at the end of one-syllable word when it follows a short vowel, as in duck and trick. We use k when there’s another consonant immediately following the vowel, as in task and drink.
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The /j/ sound and the /ch/ sound
When the /j/ sound follows a short vowel in a one-syllable word, it’s usually spelled dge as in badge, hedge, bridge, dodge and smudge. (The d protects the vowel from “magic e.”)
When the /ch/ sound follows a short vowel in a one-syllable word, it’s usually spelled tch as in catch, fetch, stitch, blotch and clutch. Common exceptions are the words such, much, rich and which.
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When adding ed or ing to a word, we double the consonant if the vowel before that consonant is short. Examples of that are gripped and winning. We don’t double the consonant when the vowel is long.
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When a plural noun ends with s, ss, sh, ch, x or z, we add es to make it plural, as in classes, brushes and foxes. Otherwise, we just add s, as in cats.
When a plural noun ends with y and it follows a consonant, as in pony, family and baby, we usually change the y to i before adding es to make it plural: ponies, families and babies.
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In the English language, phonics rules are often broken. Your child will frequently come across exceptions to the rule. But your child’s teacher or reading specialist will teach those, too!