+ Teaching Phonics: Some Terminology

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At a COBIDA conference this weekend, I found Isabel L. Beck’sMaking Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys.”

The introductory chapter provides an explanation of some terms.

  • Decoding:  using the letters on a page to retrieve the sounds associated with those letters
  • Word recognition, sight word recognition:  decoding by applying  letter-sound knowledge immediately, without any apparent  attention.  Also called automaticity.
  • Word attack:  decoding by the conscious and deliberate application of letter-sound knowledge to produce a plausible pronunciation of a word.  Self-aware “figuring-out” of a word.
  • Encoding:  sometimes called spelling, encoding is the opposite of decoding.  It involves the application of letter-sound relationships to identify which letters will be needed to create a specific written word.
  • Alphabetic principle:  the ground rule that written words are composed of letters, and those letters correspond to segments of written words.  In this alphabetic language, a letter (grapheme) is associated with a unit of speech (phoneme). 
  • Grapheme:  a letter associated with a unit of speech; the smallest written representation of speech sounds.  For example, in the word “mop” (the m , the o  and the p ).  Or the three representations in the word “chain” (ch and ai  and n.)
  • Phoneme:  A unit of speech; the smallest speech sound into which a spoken word can be divided.  For example, the sound /m/in the word “mop.”
  • Great Debate:  a term coined by Jeanne Chall in 1967 to describe the argument in the reading world about whether to teach beginning readers with a code-oriented approach (these days associated with phonics) or a meaning-oriented (often referred to as “whole language”)  approach .Also called “the reading wars.”
  • Explicit, systematic phonics:  the instructional strategy by which the relationship between letters and sounds are directly  (explicitly) taught in a pre-established (systematic) sequence.  In most reading programs (but not all) the consonants and short vowels are presented before long vowels, vowel teams and r-controlled vowels.
  • Orthography:  a language’s writing (spelling) system.
  • Orthographic knowledge:  what an individual knows about the writing system of a language.
  • Invented spelling:  children’s initial attempts to represent oral language, such as CU for “see you” or bak for “back.”
  • Consonants:  the English letters whose sounds are produced in the mouth and throat by blocking or controlling the air in some way; they may be voiced or unvoiced.   
  • Consonant blend (or clusters):  two or three contiguous consonant letters in which each letter maintains its sound (the b and r in “brush”).
  • Consonant digraph:  contiguous consonants in which the letters do not maintain their sounds  ( sh in “ship”) but produce a unique sound.
  • Vowel:  in English, the vowels are a ;  e ;  i ;  o ;  u ;  and sometimes y  (as in “my).  They are letters whose sounds are always unblocked and voiced.
  • Short vowel:  the sound of a vowel in a “closed” (CVC)syllable: the sound of o  in the word “hot,” for example.
  • Long vowel:  the sound of a vowel when it “says its name.”  For example, the sound of o in the word “no” or “note.”
  • Vowel digraphs or “teams”:  two contiguous vowels in which they stand for a long vowel sound (ai  in “sail,” for example) or a sliding vowel sound ( ou  as in “out,” for example).  The spelling for a “sliding” vowel sound is sometimes referred to as a …
  • Diphthong:  the vowel digraph representing a sliding sound (the ou  in “out,” or the  oi   in “join”). In a sliding vowel sound, the speech sound begins with one vowel sound and moves to another.
  • R-controlled vowel:  a vowel followed by r  no longer has its short sound.  Notice that the sound of  a  in “car” is not the sound of   a  in “cat.”
  • Grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) correspondences:  expression used to name the correspondence between a grapheme and a phoneme.  How letters map onto the sounds of a word, and vice versa.
  • Spelling-sound relationships:  the concept that a reader knows to use various sub-word units which are often beyond the grapheme-phoneme relationship, such as ous   or    tion    in “nervous” or “action.”
  • Phonological awareness:  an umbrella term for a person’s ability to understand spoken words, or recognize rhymes, or to identify that “at” and “it” are different or to notice different words in a spoken list (“cat,” “mat,” “fat” for example).
  • Phonemic awareness:  an understanding of the individual phonemes in a word (for example that “ran” and “rain” both have three sounds.


  • The Alphabetic Principle and Phonics
  • Letter-Sound Instruction
  • Blending
  • Word Building
  • Multisyllabic Words
  • Epilogue  


  • CVC Pattern
  • Long Vowels of the CVCe Pattern
  • Long Vowel Digraph Patterns 
  • rControlled Digraph Patterns 
  • Word and Syllable Matrices for Syllasearch
  • The Word Pocket

There are also References, and an Index.

The definitions above are from the “Introduction” chapter of Isabel L. Beck’s book, “Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys,” published by Guilford Press (http://www.guilford.com).   134 pages. ISBN 1-59385-257-6 (paper).

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


One response to “+ Teaching Phonics: Some Terminology

  1. Pingback: How Phonics saved my life « girlstraveltoo