Decoding written words

From Teflpedia

Pronunciation is the ability to repeat a word after hearing it. We call decoding a written word or reading aloud a word the ability to pronounce a word while reading it. The inability to read aloud a word correctly is a decoding difficulty.

When teaching children to read, sounding out a word means pronouncing each letter (or each phoneme) slowly in sequence. For example "cake" is sounded out as /k, eɪ, k/ and "talk" is sounded out as /t, æ, l, k/. Decoding a word means to pronounce all phonemes at a normal speed. Occasionally in Teflpedia instead of decoding a word we will say sounding out a word: "cake" is sounded out as /keɪk/ and "talk" is sounded out as /tɔːk/.


Many dictionaries use a standardized system of pronunciation symbols known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

These are particularly important in learning how to pronounce English. As English contains many vowels that don't exist in other languages, it can be very useful for students to physically "see" the different sound in minimal pairs such as sit and seat or see and she in order to differentiate sounds they do not normally perceive.

While some teachers consider it an unnecessary complication to teach students these symbols, others maintain that if the ulterior motive of a teacher is to help students progress by themselves in their language learning, at least an introduction to the most frequently-used symbols is desirable.

Regular pronunciations[edit]

IPA vowels
æ ɑː
trap father - start
dress face square
ɪ ɪə
kit fleece near
ɒ əʊ ɔː
lot goat taught
ʊ ʊə
foot goose mature
juː jʊə
cute cure
ʌ ə ɜː
strut comma nurse
price mouth choice
IPA consonants
Normal sound: /b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, z/
 ʃ  ŋ
show church sing
ʒ  j 
usual judge you
θ ð s
think that see
IPA Stress
ˈ Primary stress
hotel /həʊˈtel/
ˌ Secondary stress
IPA Syllabification
. nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/, night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/

Phonetic rules[edit]

Regular verbs[edit]

Main article: Past tense pronunciation

A large group of words affected by the idiosincracies of English is that of the past tense pronunciation of regular verbs. The past tenses of pick, beg and lift are pronounced /pɪkt/, /begd/ and /lɪftɪd/, i.e. there are three pronunciation for "-ed": /t/, /d/ and /ɪd/.

Final r[edit]

Main articles: Rhotic and non-rhotic accent and Decoding the letter R

In Received Pronunciation (Standard British English), the letter r is not pronounced before a consonant or at the end of a word: car - care - near - door - cure - fire - sour - sir - letter - start - scarce - weird - north - Ireland - nurse - concert.

It is however pronounced if the following word begins with a vowel. As "final e" is also not pronounced, a word like "more" is reduced to /mɔː/.

However, if the following word begins with an vowel then the "r" is given a new lease of life and attaches itself to the vowel. Hence, "more apples" is pronounced /mɔːˈræplz/.

This is a phonetic rule. This means it applies even if /r/ is not written "r", as in colonel /ˈkɜːrnəl/, pronounced /ˈkɜːnəl/ in Received Pronunciation.

Final -s or -es[edit]

Main article: Pronunciation of the morpheme “-s”

The final s or es of plural nouns, the possessive ’s and verbs in the third person singular have three different pronunciations, as follows:

  • /s/ after /p/, /k/, /t/, etc.: stops – books – Bert’s
  • /z/ after /n/, /d/, /m/, /v/, etc.: opens – beds – Sam’s – goes
  • /ɪz/ after /tʃ/, /ʃ/, /s/, etc.: watches – dishes – Alice’s - garages

Note: In most of the words ending in the letter s, it is pronounced /z/: plays /pleɪz/; raise /reɪz/; rise /raɪz/ (see above) and also Pronunciation and decoding exercises: /s/ vs /z/.

Orthographic rules[edit]

ce, ci, cy[edit]

Main article: Decoding the letter C

  • In most of the words having the sequences ce, ci, cy, the letter "c" is pronounced /s/: bicycle - city - place - race - rice

There are many exceptions in which "ce" or "ci" are pronounced /ʃ/ (ocean, social, sufficient). In very few cases "c" followed by "e" is pronounced /k/: scepticBrE /ˈskeptɪk/ (skeptic)AmE - soccer /ˈsɒkər/.

Magic e[edit]

Main article: Magic e

The magic e is not pronounced, but instead influences the the sound of the preceding vowel letter, so that it is pronounced like the name of the letter in the English alphabet.

  • Typical contrasts with and without the "magic e": rat/rate; bit/bite; rot/rote; met/mete.

There are exceptions though, and they are listed in the article Silent e. Consider the very common word "have", which "logically" should be pronounced in the same way as haven or the end of behave or shave or cave. As another example, many students are confused because determine doesn't rhyme with mine.

Short sounds of vowels[edit]

Main article: So-called “short” and “long” vowels

In general, the vowel sound in single syllable words ending in a consonant, such as hat; get; sit, not and but, is one of the so-called "short" sounds: /æ/ (or /ɑː/BrE), /e/, /ɪ/, /ɒ/ (or /ɔː/AmE), and /ʌ/.

The same so-called "short" sound occurs in most words where the vowel letter is followed by two consonants:

  • /æ/: batter, landing, aspect
  • /ɑː/BrE, /æ/AmE: example, giraffe
  • /e/: better, rest, ending
  • /ɪ/: bitter, sister, winter
  • /ɒ/: bottle, hotter, problem
  • /ɔː/AmE, /ɒ/BrE: offer, cloth, lost
  • /ʌ/: butter, under, summer

Some idiosyncratic pronunciations[edit]


Main article: IPA phoneme /ə/

The most common sound in all varieties of the English language is the schwa. We use it for the vowel sounds in many common words – about, water, doctor, another, America, where it corresponds to the syllables which do not carry the word stress.


The combination of letters ough has nine different pronunciations:

  • /ɔː/: thought, bought, sought, ought, fought, nought
  • /ʌf/: tough, enough, rough
  • /aʊ/: drought, ploughBrE (plowAmE), bough
  • /əʊ/: though, dough, doughnut (Am. spelling also "donut"), thorough,AmE boroughAmE
  • /ɒf/: cough, trough
  • /ə/: thoroughBrE, boroughBrE
  • /uː/: through (US informal spelling "thru")
  • /ʌp/: hiccough (also "hiccup")
  • /ɒx/ or /ɒk/: lough (Scottish lake)

Silent letters[edit]

Main article: Silent letters

As a rule, silent letters represent antique pronunciations, though some were introduced deliberately in a misguided effort at spelling reform which attempted to clarify the history of the word.

  • B: bom(b) - clim(b) - de(b)t - dou(b)t - su(b)tle - lam(b)
  • G: champa(g)ne - desi(g)n - fore(ig)n - si(g)n
  • GH: ei(gh)t - li(gh)t - ni(gh)t - strai(gh)t - throu(gh) - wei(gh) - wei(gh)t
  • H: (h)onor - r(h)ythm - t(h)yme - w(h)en - w(h)ite
  • K: (k)nee - (k)nife - (k)now
  • L: ta(l)k - wa(l)k
  • N: autum(n) - colum(n) - hym(n)
  • S: ai(s)le - i(s)land
  • T: cas(t)le - lis(t)en - of(t)en
  • W: (w)rite - (w)ho

Silent syllables[edit]

  • bus(i)ness; diff(e)rent; choc(o)late; ev(e)ning;

See also Varisyllabic words.

Unwritten sounds[edit]

Main article: Unwritten sounds

  • could'(ə)ve - eigh(t)th - mechanis(ə)m - (w)one - rhyth(ə)m
  • cent(ə)ringBrE/centeringAmE
  • Edinburgh(ə) /ˈedɪnbrə,BrE ˈedɪnˌbɜːrəAmE/


The combination of letters th has two different pronunciations:

  • unvoiced (/θ/): thing - think - third - thirsty - thirty - Thursday - bath - birthday - both - earth - fourth - teeth;
  • voiced (/ð/): there - father - leather - mother - than - that - the - them - then - this - those - together - weather;


The letter s can be pronounced as /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/

  • /s/: case - goose - loose - obese
  • /z/: advise - lose - rose - wise
  • /ʃ/: compulsion - sugar - sure - tension
  • /ʒ/: measure - pleasure - vision

See also Pronunciation and decoding exercises: /s/ vs /z/.

Unusual pronunciations of consonant letters[edit]

In certain words, consonant letters have unusual pronunciations: soldier /dʒ/; enough /f/; colonel /r/.

Different pronunciations of vowel letters[edit]

All vowels have at least 5 pronunciations. Below there are two examples.

  • letter "a" (not counting combinations of vowel letters such as "ea" or "ai"): /eɪ/, as in game; /æ/, as in hand; /ə/, as in chocolate, privacy, about; /ɒ/, as in what, was; /ɔː/, as in water, call; /e/, as in many, any; /ɑː/ as in start; /eə/ as in square;
  • letter "u": 7 typical pronunciations: /ʌ/, as in sun; /uː/ as in June; /juː/ as in use; /ɜː/, as in burn; /jʊə/ as in cure; and /ʊə/ or /ɔː/ and in sure. In addition, less frequent pronunciations include /ʊ/, as in put; /ɪ/, as in busy, biscuit and /e/ as in bury.

Alternative pronunciations[edit]

Apart from the alternative pronunciations existing between American and British Englishes, as in schedule /ˈʃedjuːl,BrE ˈskedʒuːlAmE/ or advertisement /ˌædvərˈtaɪzmənt /AmE and advertisement /ədˈvɜːtɪsmənt/BrE, even in British English there are several words which people may pronounce differently. In 1981, the BBC produced a guide which set out some of the words which can be pronounced in more than one way. Differences may be in the pronunciation of a vowel, as in the word economic, where the first syllable can be pronounced as the "e" in me /ˌiːkəˈnɒmɪk/ or in met /ˌekəˈnɒmɪk/; and privacy (short i /ˈprɪvəsi/ or long i /ˈpraɪvəsi/), or they can be in the word stress, as in controversy or controversy.[1]

The following words have alternative pronunciations (or variant pronunciations) both in British English and American English:

/s/ vs. /z/
  • absorb /əbˈzɔːrb, əbˈsɔːrb/
  • treatise /ˈtriːtɪs, ˈtriːtɪz/
Different stress
  • applicable /əˈplɪkəbl, ˈæplɪkəbl/
  • princess /ˌprɪnˈses, ˈprɪnses/
Different vowel
  • because /bɪˈkɒz, bɪˈkɔːz,AmE bɪˈkʌz/
  • data /ˈdeɪtə, ˈdɑːtə,BrE ˈdætəAmE/
  • director /dəˈrektər, dɪˈrektər, daɪˈrektər/
  • economic /ˌiːkəˈnɒmɪk, ˌekəˈnɒmɪk/
  • either /ˈaɪðər, ˈiːðər/
  • envelope /ˈenvələʊp, ˈɒnvələʊp/
  • handkerchief /ˈhæŋkərtʃɪf, ˈhæŋkərtʃiːf/
  • Monday /ˈmʌndeɪ, ˈmʌndiː/
  • neither /ˈnaɪðər, ˈniːðər/
  • room /ruːm, rʊm/
  • vacation /vəˈkeɪʃən, veɪˈkeɪʃən/
Optional consonant
  • clothes /kləʊðz, kləʊz/
  • forehead /ˈfɔːrhed, ˈfɒrɪd,BrE ˈfɔːrɪdAmE/
  • often /ˈɒfn, ˈɒftən/BrE /ˈɔːfn, ˈɔːftən/AmE
Optionall syllable
  • different /ˈdɪfərənt, ˈdɪfrənt/
  • family /ˈfæməliː, ˈfæmliː/

See Varisyllabic words

More than one difference
  • finance /ˈfaɪnæns, faɪˈnæns, fəˈnæns/


  1. Crystal, David. The English Language. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-100396-0

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External links[edit]