Kinds Of Confusion

The letters of the English writing system have confusing relationships with the sounds of the English language.

To beginning and struggling readers of English, the relationships between letters and sounds is complexly confusing. Letters can sound like their letter names (ape, oatmeal, zebra), they can be silent (lamb, knight, guess), they can represent other letter’s sounds (giant, my, is), they can represent a spectrum of sounds related to their name-sound (ace, fast, fall), they can have sounds completely different from their name-sounds (clock, yes, xylophone), they can combine to represent sounds not represented by any other single letters (ch, th, wh, sh, ti, si, ci, tu,), and they can individually or in combination represent sounds of other single alphabet letters (c=k, x=z, ph = f). Working through these confusing relationships (before attention runs out of time) is what most challenges most beginning and struggling readers.

In English orthography, letters function like equation ‘variables’ that contain a number of possible sound values.  Each successive letter, though it may itself be a variable, reduces the letter-sound possibilities of the letters that precede it and constrains the possible sounds in the letters that follow it.  The field of possible sounds that a letter can make collapses / disambiguates down (like waves that become particles in a measuring context) to the particular sound it is actually making only after processing other letters in the word (sometimes other words) and only then by reference to phonical and /or spelling rules and conventions.

Lexical: Determining which of a letter’s potential sounds that it is to actually sound like, more often than not, depends on resolving the letter sounds of the other letters that accompany it in the word it is appearing (Bite or Bit – Deed, Dead). Resolving the letter sounds in a word is determined by the spelling of the word (or sub-word sound).  Notice the “c” sound variations in the following:

an agency for advancing the clarity of consciousness about changes in scientific uncertainty

The sounds conveyed by the c can be a ‘c’ as in agency, a near ‘s’ as in advancing, a ‘k’ as in clarity; it can join with other letters to make a larger unit as in consciousness or changes; it can represent silence as in scientific, and it makes the sound of a stronger ‘s’ as in uncertainty.  In each case the sound of the c is determined by one or more letters preceding, following, or surrounding it in the word.


The words ‘act’ and ‘ace’ both have an ‘a’ before the ‘c’. The sound of the ‘c’ changes from a ‘k’ sound to a ‘c-s’ sound when the ‘t’ on the end of act is replaced with an ‘e’ making the word ‘ace’.

The ‘c’ sound changes as the ‘e’ shifts the ‘a’ sound from act to ace.


It is possible for any given letter in a word to have its letter sound determined by any one of the other letters within the word.

Semantic:  Some words (heteronyms) sound different even though they are spelled the same. Same-spelling word-sound variations can only be determined by the meaning of other words.


It is important to live well. I like live performances.

The ‘i’ in ‘live’ can represent different sounds depending on the word’s meaning even though the word is spelled the same.  Words like this sound different not because of any difference in the letters within them but rather from the meaning of the word which is a product of its context of use not its letters or spelling.

The bottom line is that the sounds of letters are variable and the process of determining which of a letter’s possible sounds it is actually making in a word can be very confusing to beginning and struggling readers:

  • Does it sound like its letter name?
  • If not a letter-name, which of its other sounds?
  • Is it a silent letter?
  • Does it stand alone or combine with others?
  • Does its sound run together with its adjacent letters’ sounds or is there a pause before or after it?
Virtually everything we think about reading, learning to read, and the teaching of reading (including “Scientifically Based Reading Research“),  is based on – warped by – accepting the code’s letter-sound confusion as immutable (see “Paradigm Inertia“)Consequently, all traditional approaches to teaching reading are based on training the brains of readers to deal with this letter-sound confusion by either working around it (whole – contextual guessing) or by recognizing rule-clues (cues) in the letter’s lexical and semantic context (phonics). Phonics and whole language methods are both attempts to compensate for (work around), rather than directly address, the confusing correspondence between letters and sounds. (see Alphaphon analogy)

PCUES is based on an entirely different starting assumption: the orthography can itself be varied, without changing the alphabet or spelling, in ways that reduce (and in many cases remove) the confusion. PCUES accomplishes this visually-intuitively and neurologically-efficiently on the edge of letter recognition flow rather than requiring complexly-contextual post letter-recognition processing. PCUES adds a layer to the orthography that overlays its messy letter-sound relations and provides readers a new parallel pathway for both sounding out words and learning to recognize the spelling-sound patterns within them.
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