Part 2 – Main reasons for the complex code

Details are provided about what makes the alphabetic code so complicated and the problems that are caused by it.

Part 2: Main reasons for the complex code


So the main reason our alphabetic code is complicated is because it has incorporated words from other languages, which often have different spellings for the sounds. Another reason is that English has 44 sounds but only 26 letters to represent those sounds. This means that at least two letters have to be used to represent some sounds (such as the many digraphs taught in Steps 1 to 5). It would not be so complicated if we always used the same two letters for a sound. If ‹ee› was always used to represent the /ee/ sound (as in tree), for example, the following words would be spelt like this: mee creem, vallee, thees and eelastic.


This would certainly make it easier for the children learning to read and spell in English. The problem is that this is not the way that English is written. As explained in the overview, there are many ways of representing the sounds in English. For example, each of the following words has an alternative spelling of the /ee/ sound: bee, sunny, theme, dream, chief, key, we, receive and radio. The common alternatives ‹ee›, ‹y›, ‹e_e› and ‹ea› are taught in Steps 1 to 5. The other spellings are not used nearly as much, and so only some of them are taught in Step 6.


Although the alternative spellings make learning to read and spell more difficult, there is one advantage in having this variety. In English there are nearly 450 homophones: that is, words like by, buy and bye, which sound the same, but have different meanings and spellings. The choice of alternatives for the /ie/ sound allows the spelling of each word to be different and the meaning of each word to be instantly clear, which keeps that fluency when reading.


Occasionally we come across a word that can be pronounced in different ways, each of which carries a different meaning: words like read, row and live. The spelling of these words does not reliably provide the pronunciation or the meaning – is it /reed/ or /red/, /roa/ or /rou/, /liv/ or /liev/? When reading them we are dependant on the context of the sentence and we often hesitate and give that extra bit of thought in order to choose the correct meaning. Fortunately, there are not many words like this. It would be a larger problem if we did not have the alternative spellings to make the meaning clear in our many English homophones.


The other main reason why the English alphabetic code is so complex is this: Since the first dictionary was printed over 200 hundred years ago, the spelling of words has remained the same, but the pronunciation may have changed. For example, the word said was originally pronounced as it is spelt, and knight sounded like /knicht/ (the ‹ch› pronounced as in the Scottish loch). Similarly, in the past the word often would always be pronounced with a spoken /t/, whereas now it can be pronounced with or without it. The word clothes has a similar history. It is fascinating how language changes over time.


  • TCRW - English Alphabetic-Code

    English alphabetic-code charts are particularly useful for adults who are interested in the many alternative spellings that are used in the English code.

  • Debbie's English Alphabetic-Code Chart

    Debbie Hepplewhite has put a great amount of detail in this chart. It is an excellent teaching aid. A link has been provided to her website, which has several other types of charts available.