Debbie H's response to DfES phonics & Greg Brooks report

This forum and the sub forums below are no longer active. Messages can still be read and searched but no new messages can be posted

Moderators: Debbie Hepplewhite, maizie

David Philpot

Debbie H's response to DfES phonics & Greg Brooks report

Post by David Philpot »

On page 9 of the article it is noted that
Prof Brooks estimates that the spelling system of English is about 75% regular
. This is typical of the myths that exist about English spelling and underpin arguments about the necessity for whole-word approaches either on their own or in tandem with 'phonics'. These myths need to be taken head-on and demonstrated to be untrue. English is actually spelled in a remarkably accurate and consistent manner. For those who are interested I shall outline my arguments that lead to this conclusion.

In order to examine the regularity of English spelling it would make sense to start by developing a basis for examining texts and analysing the spelling therein. This I have done using the following ideas.

a) Include any grapheme that is used to represent the same sound in more than one word. (The grapheme uy is therefore included because it represents the phoneme / ie / in the two words buy and guy, but no others as far as I am aware. One off spellings such as ough representing the sound / oo / {moon} as it does in the word through are not included.)

b) Assume that, as spoken English contains no silences other than those used to draw breath or insert a dramatic pause, every letter in every word will either be a grapheme in its own right or else be part of a grapheme composed of two, three or four letters.

On this basis, regular English spelling contains about 135 to 140 graphemes and 210 to 220 correspondences. We only need to consider two situations, viz

1) Each sound may be represented by more than one symbol as the phoneme / n / can be shown by the five graphemes n nn ne kn and gn in the words no runner gone knot and gnaw.

2) Each symbol may represent more than one sound as the symbol a represents the seven vowels / a / / ae / / o / / ar / / or / / e / and the schwa in the words cat lazy was spa also any and Coca-Cola.

It is a fairly simple process to inspect texts underlining each sound to look for both regularities and irregularities. To demonstrate I shall now do this with the previous sentence.

I t....i s....a....f air l y....s i m p le....p r o c e ss....t o....i n s p e c t....t e x t s....u n d er l i n i ng....ea ch....s ou n d.... t o....l oo k....f or....b o th....r e g u l a r i t ie s....a n d....i rr e g u l a r i t ie s.

You can now count that this sentence comprises 86 sounds represented by 85 regular phonemes, ie this sentence is spelled with 100% regularity.(NB the letter x codes for two phonemes!)

I have analysed various chunks of text from novels, newspapers, academic research,etc, by taking a random point and reading the next 500 sounds. So far they all turn out to be between 99.6 and 99.8% regular, ie on average only one or two sounds per 500 are not spelled regularly.

This myth about English spelling being irregular seems to me to have come about for three reasons.

1) The incorporation of foreign words into English whilst retaining some or all of their foreign spelling, eg one, two and yacht. (Currently we can see that a new English correspondence is being created for the ai digraph by the use of far eastern words such as bonsai and Kawai where ai is used to show the phoneme / ie /.)

2) Chances in pronunciation over the years not being matched by changes in spelling, eg Wednesday.

3) Incorrect analysis of spelling in traditional phonics by introducing the nonsensical idea of silent letters for a language that contains no silences,
eg in the word know, the k is silent but the w isn't. Logically, either kn and ow are both digraphs, or else both k AND w are silent! This idea of silent letters is a graphemic one and has no place in any real phonic programme!

However, when you examine texts, although the above three points may refer to thousands of individual words, their prevelence in text is totally overwhelmed by the preponderance of words that are spelled in a regular fashion.

What needs to be understood here is that English spelling, although it is uneccessarily complex, is extremely regular. This in fact is why real phonic tuition is effective. For most pupils only about 175 actual phoneme-grapheme correspondences need to be taught. The rest will be assimilated, if appropriate, from reading text.

Debbie Hepplewhite

Post by Debbie Hepplewhite »

Dear Dave,

Thank you for your very detailed and extremely helpful explanation of the REGULARITY of our English spelling system. I knew that people such as Diane McGuinness state that the English spelling system is 90something% regular but I chose not to go into the details in my article as I could not have explained it with anywhere close to your expertise!

I did wonder whether you have informed Greg Brooks of his misunderstanding!

I think that you have written such a good explanation that I have printed it off for myself and my colleagues.

Interestingly, in the first draft of my article, I had written very differently in response to Greg's statistics on irregular spelling. I had waxed rather lyrical about the inspiration I had felt following the reading of Greg's statement. I looked down the page on which he had written about spelling and it was overwhelmingly regular. There was nothing difficult about it at all so where was the 25% irregular spellings? However, to describe that inspiring moment sounded rather ludicrous considering the general nature of the article!

Thank you, Dave, for your important contribution re spelling.

User avatar
Vicki Lynch
Posts: 200
Joined: Fri Oct 31, 2003 12:18 am
Location: Kent

Post by Vicki Lynch »

Agreed - this is a fantastic article. Intend to use it with colleagues also. I have always contested people who tell me how irregular our language is, but have only had my own limited experience to use as evidence - this is a really thorough examination which provides a valuable source of information that everyone who teaches children to read and write should be aware of. Thank you very much!


Post by Guest »

Hi Debbie!

I'm glad you found the analysis interesting. When I first did this I was amazed at how regular English spelling actually is. (In fact, on my system, the only irregularity you see much of is the letter f in the word of!) Of course, on reflection, it isn't at all surprising because we have a language that we write down phonetically sound-by-sound exactly as it is spoken.

You asked a question and so I'd better answer it.

I wrote a short letter to the Times Ed challenging a comment in an article they printed on February 28th 2003 in which it was claimed that there are about 1000 spelling correspondences in English. Prof Brooks saw this letter and wrote to me in the context of
his being the expert commentator on the DfES consultation on the phonics element of the NLS
and asking about how I arrived at my estimate of about 205 phonemes (that I have now revised upwards a little!).

He said that his own analysis suggests the following,
(1) for representing the 44 +or-1 phonemes of RP, there are about 90 graphemes in the main system, and about 230 in a reasonably full account;

(2) the net of correspondences between the 44 +or-1 phonemes and the 90 graphemes in the main system contains about 130 correspondences;

(3) at the phoneme-grapheme level, the system is about 75% regular.
I responded to this letter by email on March 22nd 2003 giving a fuller account of my thinking than I have posted above and also included my first attempt at a phonetic dictionary that shows how 207 graphemes are used to represent sounds at the beginnings, middles and ends of words. As an example I retyped his letter subjecting it to my analysis and demonstrated that (providing you accept of as a regular English spelling) the total of 765 sounds included in it were encoded by 762 regular graphemes and only 3 irregular ones, ie 99.6% regular.

I don't remember receiving a reply to my letter and had forgotten about it until I was reminded by the quote in your article about English spelling being 75% regular.

Debbie Hepplewhite

Post by Debbie Hepplewhite »

Very interesting!

Not replying to correspondence is so very clever a way of preventing debate from being engaged and moving forwards.

I have only known figures in Ofsted at the highest level to respond quickly and politely and appropriately.

And I am talking about a very few individuals.

But still the responses are not really adequate considering the seriousness of the questions raised!

Looking forward to seeing more of your spelling work in the future.

Posts: 1348
Joined: Fri Oct 31, 2003 1:18 am

Post by bwking »


I find your argument very convincing, thank you for taking the time to share it with us and wish you success with any publishing of expanded versions of it.

However, there is just one point of detail I had a problem with: in your examples of foreign words retaining their original spellings you included "one" and "two".

I have always understood these words to be of Old English origin, and to have evolved pronunciation-wise into their present form thus:
oon(var.of ane) > oo-un > wun(one).
twa > too-uh > too (ending dropped) (two), or simply the adoption of the "tu" neuter form of twa.

This isn't of course meant to detract from your admirable exposition in any way.


User avatar
Vicki Lynch
Posts: 200
Joined: Fri Oct 31, 2003 12:18 am
Location: Kent

Post by Vicki Lynch »

When I did Chaucer at A-level, we had to read 'two' as t-w-oa' with the sound traditionally associated with the letter 'w'. I tell my kids that, to explain why it's there.

Understanding the origins of words would certainly help understand their spellings - I wish I knew more. Am about to read Bill Bryson's 'Mother Tongue.' Anyone know of any others they would recommend for an easy-read historical analysis of our written language?


Post by Guest »


As an ex-mathematician who struggled with his GCE English in the 60's, I am sorry to have to admit to not having had many dealings in my life with either Chaucer or Old English, so please forgive my ignorance! Given that the phoneme / w / is actually a truncated / oo / sound as in the word moon, could that possibly explain its appearance in the word two?

User avatar
Vicki Lynch
Posts: 200
Joined: Fri Oct 31, 2003 12:18 am
Location: Kent

Post by Vicki Lynch »

Hi there - very possibly - I have no better ideas and am certainly no expert at Chaucer! (I enjoyed Eng Lit but struggled and only got an E... :? ) I just know that when we were reading aloud, we were taught all the olde Englishe ways of pronouncing words. I loved that part - I always wanted to do Eng Lang - but not enough other people did :(

Susan Godsland

Post by Susan Godsland »

My friend teaches English Language at our local college and she says the 'Bible' for EL teachers is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language by David Crystal. It really is very good, but Crystal is not up-to-date with regard to teaching reading. His other 'Encyclopedia of Language' also has a section on teaching reading and he takes a whole-language stance. ... 28-6934835


Post by Guest »

A quick reply to a few postings:
I'd just like to say that David's analysis is already publicly available in the Sounds-Write literacy training manual, which he co-authored with Susan Case and myself.
On the sight word word 'two', it can help, for older pupils, to let them know that it is probably closely related to the plattdeutsch word for 'two' ('zwei' in hochdeutsch) 'zwo'. Here the <z> represents the sounds /t/ and /s/. The <w> spelling was very likely retained and so was the <o>, but now, after more than a thousand years, representing a different sound: 'oo', rather than 'oe'. In regard to 'one', this, I am told a colleague who teaches with me on the OU course 'The English Language: past present and future', was introduced only about a thousand years ago, and, originally as 'ane', the way it is still pronounced in some Caribbean islands to this day.
To Vicki: one of the best and most readable books on the language is A History of English Words by Geoffrey Hughes, published by Blackwell. I think it's much better than Bryson or Melvin, for that matter.
John Walker



Post by AG »

Having found out about sounds-write from a college colleague, I want to spend some time on it in my dissertation. However, I cannot seem to find it published or even the web address comes up with it being under construction.

Can anyone give me more information on the actual programme.
Is it being used anywhere and how to get hold of the whole programme.

Many Thanks


David Philpot


Post by David Philpot »

Hi Anneke!

My apologies for the delay in setting up the Sounds-Write website! It really is under construction and hopefully will be with us within a few weeks. Please let me answer your questions.

1) "Is it published?" Sounds~Write, the company, predominantly exists to teach how to teach literacy. We run week long (35 hour) courses in how to use a linguistic phonic approach as described in the Sounds~Write programme itself. The courses, which cost £385 (inclusive of the VAT demanded by the taxman!), include a copy of the manual with all lesson plans, teaching materials, etc. The actual teaching programme is designed for whole class teaching from YR through Y2 and possibly into Y3 - some aspects of the programme, which deal with effective memorisation of spellings, should also be continued throughout Key Stages 2 and 3. Additionally there are remedial materials that can be used with students of any age, ie 7 to 65+. We feel that a week's course is the absolute minimum time we need to help teachers (and LSAs) professionally re-think what they 'believe' about literacy tuition and also teach them the skills they need to become effective teachers themselves in the classroom. We would not be happy to supply our manuals without tuition which we think would only lead to some teachers using bits and pieces in an unthinking and desultory fashion, and then commenting along the lines of, "Sounds~Write, tried that, it didn't work!"

2) "Is it being used?" Since we (Susan Case, John Walker & myself) completed the initial draft of the Sounds~Write programme in February 2003 we have trained about 540 people in its use, mainly in England, but there are also some users in North & Southern Ireland and a few in Australia. I would guess that it is already being used in over 200 schools in England. However the actual use will vary from school to school - some will be using it throughout Key Stage One and remedially at Key Stage 2. Some High Schools and Special Schools also use it. Other schools will have a rolling programme where their YR teacher is the only one trained so far, but year on year the HT plans to train the Y1, then Y2 teacher etc, so that the program gradually takes over the word level of the NC within the school. Currently the biggest groupings of schools that are using Sounds~Write are in the Salford and Wigan areas of the North-West, Milton Keynes/Beds and Kent. 2003/4 is the first year that the programme has actually been used in Key Stage One classrooms and initial data is only just starting to trickle in. I have asked some schools to send me spelling test results - reading test results often only measure sight vocabulary recognition and bear no relation to fundamental decoding skill development. Spelling tests, where the children do not have visual models to trigger memory, and which measure an expressive element of literacy development, give a much better indication of progress. Initial results suggest that 90% of YR pupils on the programme this year have spelling ages ahead of chronological age by an average of 16 months. (The other 10% come below test norms, but the test baseline is actually still above their chronological ages, so it is not yet easy to determine how well they are doing!).

Hope this is useful.

Dave P.


Post by Lesley »


Any chance of you running any Sounds-Write training in the London area in the Autumn term?

The Cockneys need training in linguistic phonics just as much as the Pie-Eaters you know!



Post by Guest »

Hi Dave,

I have been interested in why children can't read, or at least so many of them in our school since I started working in this school as a Teaching Assistant 5 and 1/2 years ago. I then started training to become a teacher via Christ Church University college. I have read widely, and am currently doing my dissertation on reading and am focussing on my comparative study of reading practice in the first year and this year I worked with reading reflex with 2 children (year 3 children). I suppose you are familiar with **, as I feel that sounds write has many elements of **. Am I right? Incidently, could you say what the differences are.

Although I am leaving the school at the end of the year, (to do the GTP in another school to get more experience) I have been able to demonstrate that children do better on ** and they are keen to start using it.

As Sounds-write is English?, I might be able to persuade them that training is beneficial for them. (I am talking about a junior school by the way, and year 3 bottom set literacy) I have always felt that children come to our year 3 from the junior feeder school with one to one sound knowledge and maybe the ch, ck, th. But that is the limit and they just do not seem to have knowledge of the different ways the sounds are represented.

Is there anything you can send the school about the programme, courses and prices etc that would entice the school?
I believe that code knowledge is essential to learning to read, and in a sense I don't mind which programme is used, as long as it teaches them the code and how to use the code and the teachers know how to teach it. Small differences in programmes do not particularly matter. (I mean differences in the code)

I cannot remember how I learned to read or write, or that children in my class were not able to read. This might be because I am Dutch, but I should think that in Holland we use a code as well. I have not looked into that. I learned English as a second language, and I know that when faced with an unfamiliar word, I use code knowledge to build words up. Incidently I have learned a lot about the English code and language doing my research and using **.

However, if you could send information on courses etc I would be grateful.



or I could send the school address somehow.