How to…teach alternative spellings for vowel and consonant sounds

In our ‘how to…’ series we are going to delve into all things phonics instruction and give you our expert advice on developing confident readers.


One of the difficult aspects of the English Alphabetic Code is that sounds (phonemes) can be spelled in different ways. For example, the sound /ae/ can be spelled ‘ai’ (rain), ‘ay’ (day), ‘a–e’ (came), ‘ea’ (great) and ‘a’ (baby), and these are only the common spellings! As pupils learn more and more of the code, we want them to build a mental framework that incorporates this concept of multiple spellings. We want our pupils to understand that sounds can be represented in different ways and to recognise these spelling patterns when they read. Later, they will need to learn which spelling fits in which word. 

How can we teach this?

Word sorting

The best way to demonstrate how a sound can be spelled in different ways is through sorting activities. After teaching the pupils about the graphemes ai and ay for example (ideally through word building), pupils should be given words to sort according to spelling. This activity enables the pupils to compare and contrast words. It will often reveal typical spelling patterns, for example that the spelling ‘ay’ comes at the end of a base word while ‘ai’ will usually appear in the middle of the word.

Sorting activity with two ways to spell the sound /ae/
Sorting activity with two ways to spell the sound /ae/

How many alternatives?

The teacher must decide how many alternatives to include when the pupils carry out this sorting activity. This will depend on the programme being followed. It is important not to present these spellings in an isolated way as the pupils will not make the connection between them. If this activity is part of an intervention programme, it is helpful to introduce the different spellings in a gradual way. Always include previous learning so that the concept of “one sound – different spellings” is built on what the pupils already know.

Sorting activity with five ways to spell the sound /ae/
Sorting activity with five ways to spell the sound /ae/

Word wall in the classroom

A great way to reinforce the different spellings for a sound is to display them in the classroom. This display will remind pupils of the different ways to spell a sound. New words can be added to the display as they are encountered. This display will then become a useful spelling tool. For example, if a pupil spells the word “came” as “cam”, the teacher can direct them to the display and say, “Use the a–e spelling in this word.”

The language we use

We can reinforce the concept that a sound can be spelled in different ways by the language we use. When a pupil encounters an additional way to spell the sound, we say, “Yes, this is another way to spell the sound /ae/.” This dispels the notion that there is only one way to spell the sound /ae/ and develops a flexible approach to a complex code. Pupils learn that when they spell a sound there are a number of options, and they will need to choose the correct option when they spell a word.

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