Tech Talk: The Five Types of Letter Sounds in Written Words

English has many letters and letter combinations that don’t follow the rules (thanks to its history as a mishmash of other languages!). These exceptions can be confusing and make learning to read more difficult unless they’re taught in a sequential and cumulative manner.

The OpenReading™ method starts by teaching the most commonly used sound for each letter, which we call the Solo Letter Sounds. After your kid can comfortably read simple words, we introduce exceptions and letter combinations. These include Alternate Sounds (when letters have a second, commonly used sound), Partner Sounds (two letters combining to make new sounds), Team Sounds (three or more letters combining to make new sounds), and Clown Sounds (sounds that borrow other letters’ sounds).   

It can be easier to coach kids if you know a little about all five types of letter sounds before they’re formally introduced. Let’s take a minute to go over each one.

Solo Letter Sounds

A Solo Letter Sound is the sound an individual letter of the alphabet makes most of the time like /mmm/, /aaa/, or /t/. This is in contrast to any alternate sounds a letter may make and does not include sounds made by pairs of letters or groups of letters. Remember, these sounds are not the same as the letter names. We’re talking about /aaa/, /b/ and /c/  and NOT our A, B, C’s. 

The beginning reader program almost exclusively contains words using Solo Letter Sounds. The one exception is when we teach the letter “a” as a stand-alone word.

Alternate Sounds

In addition to having a main sound (the Solo Letter Sound), some letters also have an alternate, commonly used sound. An example of a main sound is “ih” as in “bit,” along with its alternate sound “eye” as in “bite”.

All five vowels have alternate sounds. The main vowel sounds,  /aaa/, /eee/, /iii/, /ooo/, and /uuu/, are also known as the short vowel sounds. For example, the /aaa/ in “tap.” The alternate vowel sounds, aye, ee, eye, oh, and oo, are also known as the long vowel sounds. For example, the /ā/ in “tape.” 

The main short vowel sounds are used in words more than 60% of the time, so we teach them first and leave the alternate long vowel sounds for later.

In the OpenReading™ Method, only one consonant has an Alternate Sound: The letter “s.” Its main sound is /sss/ as in “sun,” and its alternate sound is /z/ as in “visit.” 

Partner Sounds

There aren’t enough single letters in English to represent all of our spoken sounds, so some letters combine and work together to make new sounds. When two letters are combined, we call them Partner Sounds. For example, when /sss/ pairs up with /h/ to make the /sh/ sound in “ship.” 

Sometimes Partners make the same sound as a Solo Letter Sound, like when /p/ and /h/ partner up to make the /f/ sound in “phone.” But most of the time they make new sounds, like when /c/ and /h/ pair up to make the /ch/ sound in “chip”.

Team Sounds

Team Sounds are a cluster of three to five letters often found together. For example, /t/, /i/, /o/, and /n/ team up as /tion/ (shun) in many words, like “motion.” 

Occasionally teams make a single sound, such as /e/, /i/, /g/, and /h/ teaming up to make the long /ā/ sound in “weigh.” But more often teams make more than one sound, like in the /tion/ example above, which has the three sounds: /sh/, /u/, /n/.

Clown Sounds

Learning about irregular letter sounds can be boring, so we make it fun for kids by calling them Clown Sounds. These sounds “clown around” by saying another letter’s sound. There are three ways letters can clown around:

  1. Vowels sometimes make another letter’s sound, like when /a/ clowns around and makes the /uuu/ sound in the words above, sofa, or was. Or when /e/ (eh) clowns around and says the “uh” sound in “the.”
  2. Partners can also make sounds other than their main Partner Sound, like when /ch/ makes the /sh/ sound in “chef” or the /k/ sound in “school.” Teams do this too like when the four letter /augh/ (ŏ) makes the /af/ sound in “laugh.”
  3. Some letters clown around by being silent like the /b/ at the end of “crumb” and the /t/ in “listen.”