PHONICS: A Large Phoneme-Grapheme Frequency Count Revised – Was Fry Right?

Recently, I was looking back at an article that I reviewed a few years ago. Written by Edward Fry for The Journal of Literacy Research and published in the spring of 2004. Fry aims to retrieve previous data gathered by academics such as Hanna et al (1966), Thorndike and Large (1944) and to simplify this data and make it more usable. Fry’s research centers around two questions:

  1. What are the most useful (highest frequency) phoneme-grapheme correspondences?
  2. What are the most frequent ways of spelling these phonemes?

I found the author’s research to be well prepared and well presented. By using data from over a half-dozen
studies covering a sixty year period, Fry brings a wealth of data to the table. He can divide his study between vowel classification and consonant categories, One interesting note about the former comes from the tidbit that Merriam Webster dictionary’s vowel classification system went from 33 vowel sounds to 22 to facilitate their original algorithms.

The consonant section gets more technical with multiple phonemes and consonant digraphs mentioned at the forefront. Fry points out the differences among the studies while focusing on certain items – such as the digraph TH and how it is used in high frequency words (i.e. this, that, these), but only used in 411 different words. I was surprised by the intensity of the findings and how the author attempts to make sense of such a plethora of information.

It surprised me at the beginning of my English teaching career to learn how little I knew about phonics. I gained a new respect for the remarkable work that reading teachers accomplish on a daily basis. Working with their students is like detective work, in that the teacher employs different techniques to find the problems while simultaneously developing solutions to the specific problem. When I first read this piece, I looked forward to using some of the methods myself to help reading students, but in a sense, I felt like the student. In summary, Fry makes a compelling argument.