Sound Spelling Harmony Theory


Written by Dr. Paul V. Griesy - Creator / Founder of Sound Spelling Harmony System

One of the first things that strikes a native speaker of English who comes to Japan to teach English, is the inability of students to “sound out” new words.  In nearly every classroom, students depend entirely upon the teacher to model each word before attempting to pronounce the word or sentence themselves.  This is particularly true at the beginning level when children have to be led, as it were, through the vocabulary of each lesson.  As they progress through their English education they gradually become more secure as their vocabulary increases.  They begin to discover prototype words and create generalizations about the way spelling indicates pronunciation.  Yet, there continues to be a great hesitation on their part when they are asked to read unfamiliar words or phrases because they fear the rules they have generalized will be mistaken or inapplicable in other contexts.

This inability to read new words from their spellings may come from a mistaken, deeply ingrained assumption about the English language.  Many teachers assume that the spelling of English is almost completely irregular and that the only way to master it is to memorize words  as one does when learning kanji.  It is this kanji learning mentality that interferes with learning English pronunciation from the way words are spelled.  Since there is little agreement between the way kanji are written and the way they are pronounced,[1] children who have spent long hours in elementary school mastering the writing and pronunciation of kanji find it difficult to realize that it may be possible to learn the spelling and pronunciation of a new language without the same effort and without rote memorization being the chief tool.  The reverse problem is encountered by foreigners whose native languages are totally phonetic (eg. Finnish) or by English speakers whose language is nearly 90% phonetic.  When speakers of such languages learn hiragana, katakana, or romaji, they quickly perceive that there is in Japanese a clear one-to-one correspondence between sounds and symbols (phoneme-grapheme correspondence).  They are rudely awakened though when they begin to study kanji.  They discover that although   is pronounced /do/, and is pronounced /su:n/, is not pronounced /dosu:n/.  Their approach to attaching the sounds to the orthography of kanji must change from the approach used in learning the sounds and spellings of their native languages.  It is true that in English, for example, letters have a variety of pronunciations.  For example, according to Webster’s dictionary, the letter “a” has eight pronunciations.  Yet it is possible by various contextual clues (from viewing the letter “a” in various configurations) to determine to a great degree what the pronunciation of the letter “a” will be.

The pronunciation of nearly 90% of all English words can be deciphered from the configuration of letters used to represent the words.  This fact should encourage teachers to present these correspondences to students early in their English education and thereby equip them to read the words they see and to spell the words they hear without the teacher’s assistance.  Unfortunately many teachers have never learned these generalizations and therefore feel they are unable to teach them systematically.  The purpose of this book is to assist teachers in presenting these generalizations to students and thereby increasing their students’ confidence and skill as they use the language.  As Virginia French Allen has written, “Evidence of system encourages the student: where there is a system, there is hope that the system can be learned.”

The instruction given in this book is but one part of the total English language curriculum, but it is an essential part.  It is given for a single reason: to teach children how to use the letter-sound relationships they have learned to identify unfamiliar words.  It is a source of constant amazement that teachers judge children ready to study their first lesson in the assigned textbooks after having learned to read and write the letters of the alphabet.

How can a child really pronounce a sentence such as “This is a book,” just having learned that the names of the letters in that sentence are pronounced /ti:/ /eiʧ/ /ɑi/ /ɛs/ /ɑi/ /ɛs/ /ei/ /bi:/ /ou/ /ou/ /kei/?  There must be some bridge between the names of the letters and their pronunciations when combined into words.  This  indispensable  bridge we call Sound Spelling Harmony.  These generalizations, drawn from observations of the way the sounds and spellings of English agree, must be known by the teacher and in turn communicated to their students.

Since all teachers of English can read and spell with considerable proficiency, it seems a simple matter to them to impart these skills to their pupils.  However, many teachers fail to realize that children learning a new language are totally ignorant of sound-letter correspondence and are quickly discouraged if the teachers fail to recognize their dilemma when encountering English words for the first time.  In order to truly understand their circumstance and deal effectively with their learning problems, we teachers must, in the words of the Bible, “become as little children.”  In that way we can discover methods to help them overcome their misunderstandings, increase their curiosity, and sustain their interest.  This book will give you, the teacher, many tools to help you bring increased understanding and enthusiasm to your students.

Throughout this book we have tried to adhere to several basic principles.  First, we have tried to utilize the knowledge students already possess in order to present the target language.  For this reason we have made abundant use of Japanese throughout the materials.  For example, when consonant sounds are introduced we teach them by using key words drawn not from English, but from Japanese, e.g., bara no /b/, or daruma no /d/.  When key words were chosen for inclusion in the spelling exercises, words borrowed into Japanese from English that are known to middle school students were adopted.  For example, the words used to drill the No. 0 Sound /ɑ/, are words borrowed into Japanese from English, eg., hot, mop, top, box, fox, spot, stop, doll, and knob.  In addition to the fact that these are “known” words, the meanings can quickly be gathered from the illustrations which accompany each lesson, and all that is required is a transferral from the Japanese to the English pronunciation, and from katakana to English spelling.  Reinforcing generalizations therefore is greatly simplified.  The importance of using borrowed words as examples is clearly seen in the following quote from Roger Brown’s book Words and Things.  

“The usefulness of being able to sound a new word depends on the state of the reader’s speaking vocabulary.  If the word that is unfamiliar in printed form is also unfamiliar in spoken form the reader who can sound it out will not understand the word any better than the reader who cannot sound it….  The real advantage in being able to sound a word that is unfamiliar in print, only appears when the word is familiar in speech.”

Second, we have tried to adopt a multi-faceted, multi-sensory approach to the teaching of sounds and spellings.  This means we try to utilize various devices to reinforce the material being taught and to instill information via as many senses as possible.  Colors are used when teaching the names of the letters of the alphabet.  Physical (kinesthetic) involvement reinforces the shapes and names of the letters.  Rhythmical drills are used to simulate the stress patterns of words and sentences, to increase awareness of blending between words, to demonstrate the reduction of the vowels in unstressed syllables, and to create an awareness of the time-stressed character of English as distinct from the syllable-stressed character of Japanese.  A non-linguistic (non-graphemic) guide for creating recall of vowel sounds (the Allen vowel number system) has been adopted in order to allow the teacher to bring the students’ attention to a vowel sound while not confusing them with phonemic symbols rarely seen outside the English language classroom.

Third, throughout the series we have adopted a prescriptive approach to pronunciation rather than describing the various pronunciations native speakers use.  The criterion for choosing one alternative pronunciation rather than another is based on whether that pronunciation accords with other words having the same arrangement of letters.  For example, /pur/ is the pronunciation of poor that we teach even though many native speakers pronounce it /pƆ:r/, as if it rhymed with door.  We indicate (prescribe) /pur/ as the acceptable pronunciation because it agrees with the pronunciation of other words in which the letter “oo” lateralize when followed by the consonant “r,” e.g., boor, moor, spoor.  The same is true with the pronunciation of the u + consonant + e pattern.  When u – e is preceded by /d/, /t/, and /n/, we teach that the vowel should be pronounced /ju:/, e.g., duke, tune, nude, although many native speakers pronounce the vowel in these words /u:/.  We chose /ju:/ because it is both an acceptable pronunciation (in agreement with the pronunciation noted in Kenyon & Knott’s A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English), and is the only pronunciation of u – e in other identical configurations, e.g., cute, huge, mute.  When u – e is preceded by /l/, /r/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/, and /s/ the letters are pronounced /u:/.

Fourth, students are constantly led to conjecture the sound or spellings of unfamiliar words from what they have learned about other sounds and spellings.  Rather than provide students with long lists of words to be repeated, a limited number of examples were selected from which students are led to conjecture or extrapolate about the entire lexicon of English.  Within this book, extensive lists are included for the benefit of teachers who may wish more examples for classroom and testing use, or for their own study.  The charts summarizing the harmony between vowels and their spellings bring together various generalizations so that students can clearly see the unity and harmony of the system and conjecture from one pattern to other patterns without resorting to memorization alone.  Throughout, the preceding patterns become the means of learning the succeeding ones.  Of course, in some instances words whose spellings do not bear a relation to their pronunciation must be identified and memorized.  These “sight words” cannot be analyzed or “sounded out” and must be taught when they are encountered in the textbooks.  A means of identifying such words has been developed and will be explained later in this book.  Yet even with “sight words” it has been found that consonants are nearly always regular and can be read without undue difficulty.

Even though there is no point at which the teaching of Sound Spelling Harmony ends and the teaching of reading itself begins, this system teaches children how to read rather than reading itself.  In that sense, Sound Spelling Harmony does not seek to supplant the techniques individual teachers use when teaching reading; it enhances these techniques.  Sound Spelling Harmony limits itself to the essential, primary skills children must possess if they are ever to be able to read with ease.  In that respect, Sound Spelling Harmony is the foundation on which children can build a strong, secure knowledge of the English language.

In conclusion, perhaps the greatest benefit teachers and students derive from Sound Spelling Harmony is the confidence it creates.  Teachers find added stimulation in their classrooms, students experience success in reading and writing new words from the very beginning, enthusiasm and trust are built.  When children do not flounder in confusion, or give up in frustration, both the students and their teachers benefit.  Teaching becomes truly satisfying, learning becomes cumulative and confident.  This kind of experience accords with the primary objective of education: the training of the mind to use its own powers, enabling students to think for themselves.  When we provide our students with the proper tools for this process we have accomplished the purpose of our profession.

[1] Certainly there are kanji that are pronounced the same way as others because they share the same radicals.  This is a form of agreement, but it does not operate to the same degree as does the harmony between sound and spelling in English.  cf., , 

To find out more about SSH English and its programs, please contact us!