December 13, 2021

The Five Must-Know Phonetic Skills

Tags: Teaching Reading Tips


When children are young, they often rely solely on phonetics to read and spell. Phonetics is the study of speech sounds. When novice writers spell phonetically, they “sound out” the word they want to write and record one letter for each sound they hear. As a kindergarten teacher, I’d often see “bik” for bike or “bot” for boat. The same concept applies to reading. At the beginning of the year, when my students would try to sound out an unknown word, they would give each letter a sound like “/h-/ō/-/p/-/e/, hopé.” Or they might read the word “tub” like “/t/-/ū/-/b/, tube.” Reading and spelling phonetically is a developmentally important milestone because it helps the students strengthen their phonemic awareness skills and understand that letters represent sounds. Yet, we as educators must be able to move our students past this developmental stage and into phonics so they can master the patterns of the English language. This will enable them to write and read accurately and fluently and free up their cognitive space to focus on comprehension and context.

There is good news! Did you know there are rules that govern whether a vowel will be pronounced short or long? It doesn't have to be guesswork for your students.

Memorizing and using these five skills is an indispensable tool and reading strategy used in explicit phonics instruction to decode, pronounce, and spell one-syllable words.

Here are the Five Phonetic Skills:

  • Phonetic Skill #1: When one consonant and nothing more follows the vowel, the vowel will be short. Examples: sun, cat, mop.
  • Phonetic Skill #2: When the vowel is followed by two consonants and nothing more, the vowel will be short. Examples: jump, last, mint.
  • Phonetic Skill #3: When a vowel stands alone, it will be long. Examples: go, I, she.
  • Phonetic Skill #4: When a word ends with a silent e, the first vowel will be long. Examples: hope, bake, tune.
  • Phonetic Skill #5: When vowels are adjacent, the second vowel is silent, and the first vowel is long. Examples: boat, seat, feel.

Note: There are exceptions to these rules. These rules apply to the majority of English words, but there are words that do not follow these rules. Because these rules apply to the majority of words, they are a helpful tool for beginning readers, struggling readers, and English Language Learners. These rules are based on the Reading Horizons instructional method.

This blog post has been updated for content and republished.


Generic placeholder image
Lucia said

That's really useful.
I would only suggest some examples to go along with the phonetic skills

Generic placeholder image
Sherlyn said

Examples please. I understand all others excepting #3. So for others who may need examples
#1 is words like bag, bin, net, nun, not.
#2 are words like talk, felt, wilt, bull, miss.
#4 are words like came, note, Pete,wine, and
#5 are words like each, plea, receive, pay. .

Generic placeholder image
Helen said

Rule #3- I, A, and Me (consonant, vowel) Vowel is long in Me because we only pay attention to the consonants after the vowel not before.

Generic placeholder image
Paula said

Sherlyn, #3 is when you have a word that has an open syllable at the end, which means there is no consonant guardian, the vowel says its name. Examples are: go, no, so. Exceptions: do, to.

Generic placeholder image
Jillian Kaster said

Thanks for your input! We updated this post and added examples to each skill.

Generic placeholder image
Alicia said

I love having conversations surrounding this topic! Below are my thoughts on the five rules proposed in this post:

Rule 1 and 2 are both referring to closed syllables. A closed syllable has one vowel letter, followed by one or more consonants. The vowel sound is short in closed syllables. I'm curious why this has been broken into two rules.

Rule 3 is referring to open syllables as someone else stated above. However, it may be confusing to some with the way it is worded by saying "when a vowel stands alone." When I hear this, my mind thinks of words like "a" or "I" which stand true to the rule but are not the only examples. So, it may be easier to understand if worded as one vowel letter, followed by no consonants. Just a thought. :)

Rule 5 is not true the majority of the time. If you look at the first 2,000 common words this rule is only true 35% of the time. It is better to teach the sounds for each vowel team and diphthong rather than relying on the saying "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" which is ultimately what rule 5 is referring to.

Generic placeholder image
Jillian Kaster said

Hi, Alisha!
I am so glad you shared your thoughts! I also love talking about phonics and SOR. I’m so glad I am in good company! I tried to address each of your concerns below.

Phonetic Skills 1 and 2
You are exactly right, the 5 Phonetic Skills represent syllable types and Phonetic Skills 1 and 2 are both closed. There are a few reasons to break them into two separate skills, but I find the biggest benefit comes later when we teach students to add suffixes to these words.

In Phonetic Skill 1 words, there is only one consonant after the vowel. We teach students to double the final consonant before adding the suffix. For example, we double the p at the end of hop to form words like hopped and hopping.

In Phonetic Skill 2 words, there are already two consonants after the vowel, so students don’t have to change anything before adding a suffix. A word like jump easily becomes jumper or jumping.

I really believe that this is a powerful way of breaking things down explicitly and sequentially. I was only diagnosed with dyslexia a couple of years ago. Despite all my education and the years I spent in the classroom, I can say for certain I didn’t really understand the rules of adding suffixes until sitting in a Reading Horizons training. I literally thought people just memorized which words needed to have the final consonant doubled. I never made the connection that the two consonants between the vowels kept the first vowel short. I could distinguish between hopped and hoped in context but when it came time to spell those words or if you asked me to read them in isolation, I had to guess. Now, as a tutor for kids with learning disabilities, I can see firsthand the power of splitting closed syllables into Phonetic Skill 1 and Phonetic Skill 2.

Phonetic Skill 3
I totally understand your point regarding the phrasing “the vowel stands alone.” It may have been more clear if I had said, “when the vowel stands alone at the end of a word or syllable.”

Phonetic Skill 5
Reading Horizons explicitly teaches which phonograms follow Phonetic Skill 5 (ai, ay, ea, ee, oa, oe, ui, ue, and ie) and where those vowel teams appear in words. For example, when students are learning Phonetic Skill 5, they learn to use the oa spelling for long o at the beginning and in the middle of words (oak, float) and the oe spelling at the end of words (toe, Joe).

This doesn't mean we don’t teach vowel diphthongs; we must! Instead, we provide explicit instruction in Phonetic Skill 5 and give students opportunities to orthographically map those patterns. Once they have mastered those vowel teams we can move them into vowel diphthongs.

I believe you are referring to Clymer's research when you point out that when any two vowels are next to each other, they may not follow Phonetic Skill 5. It is important to note that Clymer’s research did not take the specific combinations (such as oa noted above) into account. For example, oa represents the long o sound 95% of the time! Additionally, ay represents the long a sound 96% of the time, ee represents the long e sound 96% of the time, and ai represents the long a sound 75% of the time. The vowel teams are too consistent not to explicitly teach. Johnston, F. R. (2001)

Governing and categorizing the 5 Phonetic Skills around what makes the vowel long or short in a single syllable word is powerful and makes learning easy to digest and boosts confidence. Once students master a phonetic skill they can easily see how to add suffixes. From there we can move into the diphthongs. We keep them separate from the 5 Phonetic Skills since they produce sounds that are neither long nor short, i.e. oi as in boil, oo as in zoo.

I realize this is a super lengthy reply, possibly even longer than the original blog post, LOL, but as I said I love these conversations. Please let me know your thoughts, Alisha!


Leave Comment

Authors: No content items.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Fill out this form to sign-up for our monthly newsletter.