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Beginning in 1989, a series of monthly articles by Sylvia Goldsmith and Emily Goldberg (the creators of the original alpha-read Kit) were published under the title Sounding Off About Spelling. Each month some aspect of the phonic code was addressed. Parents found the logical explanations for various spelling principles not only fascinating, but useful. They also appreciated the many teaching tips that were offered. Now with slight modifications to accommodate to the website as well as the recent alpha-read app, the series is being made available once again.

Short sounds, long sounds, and letter names*

It can be confusing.

Short sounds, long sounds, and letter names. Confusing? It can be. Some of the confusion can be attributed to the way we so frequently introduce the alphabet. We teach young children the ABC song which encourages them to say each letter by name. We also share with them alphabet books that draw attention to the beginning letter of words. Along the way they surmise that there is a relationship between alphabet name and letter sound. While this is true in certain instances, it is not a reliable relationship. Consider w, y, and h, for example, whose names provide no clue about their sounds. Or consider c whose sound is normally /k/, but /s/ under certain circumstances. (See the article “C is a Strange Letter”.)

Letter names present another flash point for young children. Embedded in most of the consonant names is a vowel sound; a in “k” or /e/ in “n” or u in “q”. The misunderstanding that flows from this often trips up beginning spellers; they might well mistakenly conclude that “km” spells came or “nd” spells end or “qt” spells cute.

Consonants never say their names.

While it may seem that the consonants are saying their letter names in words such as those above, when you inspect them you see that there is always a vowel adjacent to the consonant. Enemy and elephant are two additional examples.

The same is true in a word such as car, which is often misspelled cr. When hearing this word it sounds as if the r is saying its letter name, but it is the ar combination which results in this sound. Once again, note the required vowel. (Read “How Much Do You Know about the Letters of the Alphabet?” to understand the function of vowels. For more about the r controlled ar combination, stay tuned for a forthcoming article.)

And what is meant by long and short?

When we start to teach about phonic principles, we often refer to vowel sounds as either “short’ or “long”. Short and long are odd descriptive terms to apply to sounds since one can say /a/ (the short sound) as long as one says a (the long sound). “Long” and “short” when applied to vowel sounds doesn’t seem to refer to duration.

So, what is meant by “long” and “short”? An explanation that seems credible is that they derive from two common diacritical marks that dictionaries use for purposes of pronunciation, namely the macron and the breve. A macron is a straight line. A breve is a curved line. An example of each of these respectively is ā as in ate and ă as in act. The elongated straight macron placed over the vowel signals the “long” sound; the shortened curved breve signals the “short” sound.

But what exactly is the “long” sound? It is the alphabet name of the vowel. When you say a, e, i, o, u you are actually saying each vowel’s “long” sound! In the case of vowels, alphabet name and long are synonymous.

Preventing confusions for the beginning speller.

What all of the above is attempting to convey is that beginning spellers’ confusions often can be traced directly to the way the alphabet and letters are introduced. Frequently, early spelling errors reflect misunderstandings about the relationship of letter names to sounds and to terminology used to describe sounds.

We can’t exclude the terms “short” and “long” from the conversation, although they are not helpful and don’t even seem necessary. They are entrenched in the way we commonly speak about letters and students will certainly encounter them. We can, however, be alert to the possibility that the terms are confusing and be prepared to step in to clarify when needed.

Further, we can communicate from the outset that letters essentially have two descriptors, name and sound. We use the name when we want to talk about a letter and we use the sound when we want to encode a word.

Finally, we should share with our beginning spellers that while consonants never say their name when spelling a word, vowels can say thier name . . . under certain conditions. If a vowel says its alphabet name in a word, there is usually a signal, a clue.

More about vowels saying their names in the next article.


Do you have questions about letter names and letter sounds? How to introduce the letter sounds? Spelling problems you would like addressed? Contact us at

* Note: when we refer to a letter by its name in these articles, we will underline it. If we refer to a letter sound, we will enclose it between two diagonal lines.

C is a strange letter *

The sounds of c

C is a strange letter. It has no sound of its own. It can have the hard sound of /k/ or the soft sound of /s/. When c is at the end of a syllable or word, picnic, or part of a consonant blend, clap or fact, or comes directly in front of the vowels a, o, or u, as in cat, cot, or cup, it sounds like /k/. When it comes before e, i, or y, it has the soft sound of /s/ as in cent, city, or cylinder. Sometimes, both sounds are present in the very same word: cycle, accident, cancel.

The sounds of c present very little difficulty in reading. Simply keep in mind that c usually has the sound of /k/, but when followed by e, i, or y, it must sound like /s/. Follow this rule and such words as facility, accuracy, cicada, or fascinate can be decoded easily.

Time out for k

The alphabet has two letters for the sound of /k/ and it is hard to talk about c without confronting k, a much more straightforward letter. Because k is so reliable, it is called in when c cannot function as /k/, namely, before e, i, or y. For example, k is necessary for spelling kept, kit, and sky. If you were to use a c in these words, they would have to be read “sept, sit, and sigh”. (Our discussion of these letters demonstrates that spelling and reading are intimately connected. It is hard to talk about one without mentioning the other.)

Following this logic, we can now understand why sometimes k must be inserted to retain the hard sound of c. Consider picnic. Think about how you would need to pronounce the word if you were to add either the suffix ed or ing. To retain the hard sound of c, k is added in picnicked or picnicking. Other examples are trafficked, trafficking, panicked, and panicky.

Growing with c and k

Introducing c and k to a young child requires following a careful, systematic, developmental path. First, start with c, remembering to limit its sound to /k/. Then move on to k. Finally, present the soft sound of c accompanied by demonstrations and explanations of instances where k is required. Expect this learning path to take many weeks or several months.

“Wherever possible” . . . making an informed choice

In learning about c and k, there are two helpful hints that should be shared along the way. First, in a one syllable word, wherever possible use c at the beginning and k at the end as in crank or cork. On the other hand, in a word of two or more syllables, wherever possible use c and only when necessary use k. Examples of this informed choice would be dictate, cucumber, attic, provocation, but kettle, napkin, handkerchief, or provoke. “Wherever possible” is the operative principle. Obviously, you cannot use c at the beginning of kiss, nor in such two syllable words as pumpkin or basket.

The choice of s or c in spelling.

Of course, the choice of using s or c in spelling can be problematic. Rinse and since or dense or fence are instances where this spelling decision must be made. In order to spell such words correctly, you need either to have encountered them before and remember the correct spelling, or you have to have someone tell you that the soft sound requires a c and not an s . . . or the reverse. In a future article, we’ll talk more about how to deal with alternative spellings.

Test your knowledge

Now that you are familiar with the sounds of c and the use of k, can you explain why we read cyclone, pencil, participate, skepticism the way we do? And can you explain the spelling of cake, kennel, locate, frolicking, pesky, and skeptical?

And what about ck?

Yes, there’s a wonderful way to teach ck and we’ll talk about that in a future article.


Do you have questions about the use of c or k? Other spelling problems you would like addressed? Contact us at

* Note: when we refer to a letter by its name in these articles, we will underline it. If we refer to a letter sound, we will enclose it between two diagonal lines.

How much do you know about the letters of the alphabet?

The twenty-six letters have names and sounds. Names are handy when we talk about the letters. Sounds are more useful as they help us figure out how to spell and read words. In this article, when we refer to a letter sound it will be enclosed between two diagonal strokes (example: /a/ as in apple).

The letters which are classified as consonants produce their sounds with some part of the speech mechanism obstructed. Try to say /b/. You will find your lips are closed. With /d/ your teeth come together. Experiment with all the consonants and see if you can discover the obstruction. (A list of correct sounds will be found at the end of this article.)

Vowels, on the other hand, are open sounds. Only the shape of the mouth changes. Try to say the vowels sounds (/a/ as in apple, /e/ as in elephant, /i/ as in igloo, /o/ as in octopus, /u/ as in umbrella). Actually, we could not speak if we did not have vowels sounds!

The number of vowel sounds in a word determines the number of syllables. One vowel sound is equivalent to one push of air or one syllable (example: nap). Two vowel sounds produce two pushes of air which makes two syllables (example: napkin). There are, of course, instances where a word contains two vowels, but together these two vowels make only one sound (example: look). It is the number of vowel sounds, not vowels, which determine the number of syllables. (A future article will talk more about vowel pairs.)

Practice spelling the following words: fast, grip, stump, kidnap, collect, distant. Don’t copy the words. Just say the word, then spell by the letter sound, and write as you sound.

You may feel that the word doesn’t feel natural when you attempt to spell by sounding. Normal speech with its accent patterns tends to blur and muffle sounds. When you are learning to spell a word, however, it is useful to resound the word distinctly according to its actual letter sounds (examples: col-lect, not cuhlect or dis-tant, not distint). Later, as you become accustomed to the correct spelling, it won’t be necessary to resay the word and you’ll find yourself writing the word automatically.

Without lengthy explanations, the alpha-read app is designed to cue the very young child from the very beginning that vowels and consonants are different. The vowels are colored and the consonants are white. As you progress through alpha-read, you can help your child discover that every word contains at least one colored letter. Over time, when your child is ready, you can start to identify letters as either vowels or consonants. In this systematic, developmental way alpha-read helps you guide your young student to learn about one of the most basic phonic principals that governs English spelling.

Consonant Sounds:

/b/ … ball /c/ … comb /d/ … dog /f/ … fork /g/ … ghost /h/ … hat /j/ … jeep /k/ … key /l/ … lemon /m/ … monkey /n/ … nail /p/ … pencil /q/ …queen /r/ … ring /s/ … scissors /t/ … table /v/ … violin /w/ … watch /x/ … box /y/ … yo-yo /z/ … zipper

Did you know that the English language is governed by a code and that cracking this code makes spelling (and reading) easy, predictable, and even enjoyable?

Did you know that time spent memorizing weekly school spelling lists is time wasted? Knowing how the language works and spelling by sounds enables you to spell (and read) words never heard or encountered previously. It’s true . . . the more you know about the language, the more perfectly coded the language will become.

Even young children can master the code. They should be introduced to the system gradually, allowing for their age. The child needs to learn the regular, most useful sounds at the beginning . . . and then be led gradually into the more complicated letter patterns . . . and finally to the unusual words that comprise only about 5% of the language.

In this series of articles, we plan to help you (the parents) discover little known but incredibly useful information about the code. This information will astonish and satisfy inquiring children and adults.

If your child is having a specific problem in spelling, or if s/he is a poor speller in general, contact us at Feel free to forward a sample of a typical spelling paper or original writing. We will address common problems in this column. Anonymity will be preserved.


(Answers are below.)
  1. In English words, q is always followed by u.
  2. The true sound of x is /ks/ and is found only at the end of a word or a syllable, as in box or explode.
  3. There are only a few words that end in v.
  4. No English word ends in j.
  5. R following a vowel usually changes the sound of that vowel.
  6. Guessing is the only way you can tell if a vowel is short or long.
  7. C followed by e, i, or y always has the soft sound of s.
  8. G followed by e, i, or y always has the soft sound of g.
  9. The rule “i before e, except after c, or when sounded as a as in neighbor or weigh” is one of the easiest rules to use.
  10. There is a rule that tells us when to use ck or k at the end of a short word like pack, cook or link.

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