"As In" Key Words

Most dictionaries provide pronunciation guides, using diacritical marks over letters and marking syllables with indicators for tone and stress (prosody). Unfortunately, dictionaries do not agree on their diacritical marks.

Teachers of reading over past decades have used key words to indicate pronunciation, e.g., /c/ as in "cat," to illustrate the correspondence between phonograms and their sounds.

Examples of books published since the middle 20th century include... Monica Feltzer, Sister Mary Caroline (1960), Marilyn Adams (1994), Diane McGuinness, Denise Eide (2011), and Malia Hollowell (2023).

While there are only 44 unique phonemes in English, there are many more correspondences between letters and sounds in the English language when we include clusters of letters (e.g., ch) and combinations of sounds (e.g., diphthongs).

In her 1994 book, Beginning to Read, Marilyn Adams identified 35 single- and multi-letter grapheme-phoneme correspondences with key words (Table 11.2). She estimated that they "represent the spelling-sound mappings of a good majority (80 to 90 percent) of English words" (p.242). Adams speculated that there may a couple of hundreds of letter-sound correspondences in English plus the rules that change sounds depending on nearby letters (e.g., "silent E" and "vowel + R").

On page xiv of the preface to her 1997 book Why Our Children Can't Read, And What We Can Do About It, Diane McGuinness listed 37 single-letter and multi-letter phonograms each with a single phoneme. On page 258, she provided between two and eight sounds for the remaining 48 phonograms. She estimates these correspondences make English over 90% phonetic.

In Denise Eide's excellent 2011 study Uncovering the Logic of English, we found the most comprehensive listing yet of letter/sound correspondences for 26 single-letter and 49 multi-letter phonograms. Eide also offers 31 phonics rules which she says make English 98.5% phonetic.

And in Malia Hollowell's 2023 book, The Science of Reading in Action, we find agreement with Eide's numbers, including her 31 phonics rules. While there is no index, Hollowell has an excellent list of essential references to the literature as endnotes.

A Minimum Set of "As In" Key Words?
Can we develop a list of key words for use in sample texts that will provide English learners with the full range of letter-sound correspondences as well as the phonics rules?

We already have lists of word frequencies in English, lists of "sight words," and vocabulary sizes at various age levels.

Listening to these sample texts read by a fluent reader who clearly and slowly articulates every phoneme (ideally while the parent or child's finger moves along the words) will in just a few hours train the child's neurons to recognize sounds automatically and subconsciously.

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