The need to distinguish between consonant letters and vowel letters through teaching about ‘the alphabet’ compared to consonant sounds and vowel sounds through teaching about the ‘alphabetic code’

Teachers need to teach about both ‘the alphabet’ and ‘the alphabetic code’ and distinguish between them. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be clear about their differences and their uses, and their overlap – and any associated terminology.

In teaching about the alphabet and the alphabetic code, this involves the terminology of consonants and vowels, letters and sounds, and the use of abbreviations based on capital letters C and V.

With regards to terminology, the smallest sounds readily identifiable in spoken languages are referred to as ‘phonemes’. The name ‘graphemes’ is given to the letters and letter groups that are code for the phonemes in the spelling system (the alphabetic code) of the English language. Phonemes can be represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which includes some symbols that are the same or similar to alphabet letters and some symbols that are an entirely different shape or orientation. This can present further confusion for phonics teaching and learning and so it can be helpful for ‘easy-to-use’ alphabet letter symbols to represent the phonemes such as on this Alphabetic Code Chart.

I cannot shed any light on the history of origin of abbreviations such as CVC, CCVC, CVCC – that is, the breakdown of words into ‘consonants’ and ‘vowels’ but I’m aware that there are various social network conversations taking place illustrating a lack of common understanding of this type of notation with people all presenting themselves as being the authority on whether CVC actually means ‘letters’ or ‘sounds’. 

This is no small matter in the field of literacy and requires a common sense approach to clarification. 

At the heart of the problem is a simple lack of distinction between whether people mean vowel SOUNDS or vowel LETTERS, and consonant SOUNDS or consonant LETTERS. This need for clarification/definition is the case not only in the ‘conversations’ around the topic, but also in published literature and literacy programmes and terminology and resources intended for training, teaching and learning.

It is no wonder that there is confusion and lack of shared understanding as, more often than not, people FAIL to distinguish whether they mean letters or sounds in their day-to-day conversations and in their specialist literature, material and training provision!

Surely it is not sufficient ever to refer to ‘consonants’ and ‘vowels’ without further qualification of whether the meaning intended by the CVC notation could be either ‘letters’ or ‘sounds’. No wonder there is confusion.

Some people, including those regarded as specialists, are adamant that ‘consonants and vowels are sounds, not letters’ – but this is not really correct because there is such a notion of consonant letters and vowel letters – as in the alphabet. 

I suggest that, actually, the vast majority of people will, first and foremost, consider ‘vowels and consonants’ to mean letters and not sounds.

For many years England has had an official policy for schools to provide systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) for beginning reading instruction, and universities have been training in the ‘systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles’ – largely, I suspect, through the vehicle of the ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007) publication which was provided for schools at no charge.

Part of my phonics training provision, even in England, needs to feature the difference between consonant and vowel sounds of the alphabetic code – as compared to consonant and vowel letters of the alphabet.

One of my slides asks, ‘How many vowel sounds are there in the English language?

Usually several people at least in the teaching profession answer ‘five’ and clearly they are thinking of the vowel letters of the alphabet – a, e, i, o, u – and not the vowel sounds

In other words, they think of ‘vowels’ – even when described and introduced as “vowel sounds” – as vowel letters of the alphabet because that is, arguably, the common and most obvious understanding.

If we are specialists, then, it is our job to raise awareness of the difference between vowel sounds and vowel letters and so on. It is not obvious that CVC, for example, means consonant sound followed by vowel sound followed by consonant sound such as in words: cat CVC /k/ /a/ /t/, chip CVC /ch/ /i/ /p/, push CVC /p/ /u/ /sh/ . (The ‘sounds’ are always denoted in slash marks.)

Many people, in reality, would think this of these words as letter-by-letter when they think of them in terms of ‘consonants’ and ‘vowels’ and therefore notate them letter-by-letter this way: cat CVC, chip CCVC, push CVCC.

That means, we ourselves – everyone –  needs to add the qualifier of ‘sounds’ or ‘letters’ and cannot presume that just to refer to ‘vowels’ and ‘consonants’ always means the sounds – because this is not clear and not based on the reality of many people’s, if not most people’s, understanding.

Dependent on various regional and national accents, there are around 20 ‘vowel sounds’ in the English language and around 24 ‘consonant sounds’. I usually denote vowel sounds with red letters shown in slash marks on my overview Alphabetic Code Charts – and denote consonant sounds with blue letters shown in slash marks (see below for link to Alphabetic Code Charts). 

People usually agree that there are around 44 of the smallest identifiable sounds (known as ‘phonemes’) in the English language. It is not commonly appreciated, however, that when we bring actual ‘print’ into the picture (the written code), that some graphemes (letters and letter groups that are code for the phonemes) are actually code for ‘combined phonemes’. Take for example the letter ‘x’ which is code for two phonemes /k+s/ as in ‘fox’ and two phonemes /g+z/ as in ‘exam’. Graphemes ‘u’ as in ‘unicorn’, ‘-ue’ as in ‘rescue’, ‘u-e’ as in ‘tube’, ‘ew’ as in ‘new’ are all code for two phonemes /y+oo/.

This explains why the free printable Alphabetic Code Charts I provide list more than just 44 phonemes as they include further units of sound  that necessarily are ‘combined phonemes’ such as the examples above. 

No Alphabetic Code Chart of the English language can be completely definitive because of various accents but it is important that this variation is not overplayed as an issue – teachers and parents/carers can simply explain the reality of various accents to the learners and say, ‘In our region/country, we tend to pronounce that letter, or that letter group, like this….. .

I strongly advocate that every phonics trainer, or teacher, or phonics programme author, or academic author, establishes the English alphabetic code AS a tangible code chart as the starting point for understanding the complexities of the English language. It is because I think this is an important first step that I provide a range of free Alphabetic Code Charts for different users and uses. We should ideally be able to see posters/charts of both ‘the alphabet’ and ‘the alphabetic code’ in infant and primary classrooms where the English language is taught for reading and spelling/writing.

[It is also informative and helpful for teachers, learners and parents/carers to show the contrast between the ‘opaque code’ of the English spelling system and the more ‘transparent’ code of another language such as Spanish. The Spanish alphabetic code (spelling system) is very simple in great contrast – nearly half as many identifiable phonemes compared to the English language and far fewer graphemes or ‘spelling alternatives’ for the phonemes.]

To make matters even more complicated with English spelling, a combination of vowel letters and consonant letters are commonly code for the vowel sounds such as letter groups: or, ow, oy, ay, air, ear, aw, al – and many more. Even letters considered to be ‘consonants letters’ such as ‘w’ and ‘y’ are sometimes perceived as code for vowel sounds and sometimes code for consonant sounds. 

As you can see, this is not a precise state of affairs – but those people who get bogged down with exact-ness (and arguments are rife as seen via Twitter) often miss the point that what matters most is effective teaching for effective learning. We teach beginners from the age of 3+ in some cases, and remediate children from not much older than that through to adults. In my view, there is such a fine line between preoccupation with some form of scientific precision and definition rather than the practical resources and content that most support teaching and learning and best inform parents and carers aspiring to work in partnership with them. Effective programmes and practices can, and do, differ in their details.

World-renowned Professor Max Coltheart had this to say about the use of wording re consonants and vowels which confirmed the need to be explicit in meaning:

“If the literature you are reading is about research on reading by psychologists, the terms “consonant” and ‘vowel” (or C and V) will almost certainly be referring to letters (not phonemes). This has been the case for at least forty years.

If instead you are reading work by speech pathologists or speech scientists, the terms “consonant” and ‘vowel” (or C and V) will almost certainly be referring to phonemes (not letters). This has also been the case for a long time.

There’s nothing wrong with either usage, so we just have to accept both. They are both legitimate and they are both longstanding.

If people are worried about being misunderstood when using these terms, then when referring to letters they can use the terms “consonant letter” and “vowel letter”, and when referring to phonemes they can use the terms “consonant phoneme” and “vowel phoneme”.”


 For Debbie’s wide range of free printable Alphabetic Code Charts for various users and uses (including in America and Canada), see here:

Debbie Hepplewhite is a founding committee member of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction – see the forum and blog here for research, recommended reading, practical support and up-to-date developments in the field of literacy.

See also the UK Reading Reform Foundation which provides a blog and a long-established, content-rich forum.

You can follow Garforth Education on the Facebook, InstagramPinterest, and Twitter pages.

***Does CVC refer to letters or sounds? Post by Debbie Hepplewhite written at first as a guest post for Dr. Kathryn Garforth of Garforth Education

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