Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

Phonics and Dialects of English

All English speakers speak and understand at least one dialect, or variant form, of English. In the United States, for historical reasons, there are three major dialects spoken in areas that stretch from East to West. These are called Northern, Midland, and Southern. But there are some more contained dialects as well, mostly in the Eastern areas settled first Downeast Maine, Boston, New York City, Jersey city, Tidewater Virginia, Sea Islands Gullah (Carolina and Georgia), Appalachian, Cajun, and New Orleans (to name a few). And, of course, England, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries also have regional dialects.

The dialect patterns in the U.S. are complicated because as industry developed in northern cities, people brought regional dialects with them as they came seeking jobs. And in many parts of the country, class and ethnic differences as well as immigrant language influences are also reflected in dialect differences.

There was a time when spelling was not conventional across dialects; people invented their own spellings to represent the way they thought their own speech sounded. But as printing became widespread, spelling became standard across dialects. English is somewhat unusual in that a group of American intellectuals, including Noah Webster, deliberately rejected some British spellings in order to make American literature easily recognized.  Some examples are labour, jewellery, and centre. Now, there is standard American spelling and standard British.

The problem different dialects presents for phonics is this: there is a single spelling across dialects that pronounce words very differently. In Northern dialects there are double consonants at the end of test, breakfast, and desk. In Southern speech these are pronounced tes', breakfas', des'. There is an I sound in help in the North, none in the South (he'p). But in midland dialects, help has two syllables, hey-ulp. There are at least four ways of saying almond, two with and two without the l. In certain dialects an r sound is added to words ending in vowels (idea, Cuba, media) but not produced in words that already have an ending r (car, dear, meteor).

Vowels vary considerably from dialect to dialect. Which of these words have the same vowel for you? frog , fog , bog , cog , dog , hog , smog, grog, log, clog, to g. In some English dialects the vowels are all the same. In others there are two vowels; one in frog, fog, dog, hog, log and the other in bog, cog, smog, clog, tog. Where does your list break? None of these are right or wrong. It's just a dialect difference.

Each of us develops phonics rules that fit the speech sounds of our own dialects.  That doesn't have to be a problem unless the school insists there is a single set of phonics rules for all American speakers. Unfortunately, people who speak lower class dialects and regionally transplanted people of all classes are the ones who will suffer most from this insistence. They will be confused by being taught that letter patterns represent sound patterns that are foreign to their ears. The worst problems will come if teachers try to change the speech of their pupils to fit the phonics rules. One common English spelling is the gh in words like fight, eightlight, might, night, right, sight, tight. That seems to be a holdover from Scottish and other United Kingdom dialects which do, in fact, have a throaty h found in other Germanic languages but not usually in English. But it would confuse most Americans if our teachers insisted they must say likht because the word is spelled light. In just the same way, it confuses many American children when they are told they must produce an I in help , almond , or palm .

The pretense of a single set of phonics rules is not only confusing; it damages people's chances for school success. Most standardized reading tests have a section on phonics that asks students to match rhyming words or to identify words with similar sounds. The problem is that what rhymes in one dialect doesn't in another (aunts rhymes with wants in some dialects, with pants in others). Homophones (marryMary, merry) in one dialect sound different in others. Such phonics test items are obviously biased against speakers whose dialects don't match the dialect of the person who wrote the test. And at a time when test results have increasingly high stakes, such a phonics bias can have severe consequences for just the children who are less likely to succeed in school. Even if children were not tested with biased phonics items, however, it would still be damaging to subject children to instruction based on a single set of phonics rules. Phonics is a complicated set of relationships between the sound system and the writing system. It includes a set of relationships among sounds (e.g., the way the middle vowel and the accented syllable in telegraph changes when the word becomes telegraphy). Phonics relationships are complicated by homophones (pair, pear, pare) and homographs (read, read ), by the multiplicity of roots of English (Greek, German, Latin, Danish, French),  and by the fact that our spelling system is based in part on sound, in part on meaning,  and in part on grammar. Phonic relationships are learned best the way language is learned: through actually using the abstract system (the phonics system, in this case) in the context of trying to make sense of meaningful language (written language, in this case). Out-of-context, uninformed phonics instruction is not only confusing; it makes the learning of phonics harder. And when the rules being taught in out-of-context lessons do not match the learner's own dialect, it is that much more confusing and that much harder to learn. Yet another barrier for far too many children!


Davis, A. (1972). Culture, class, and language variety. Urbana, IL National Council  of Teachers of English.

Farb, P. (1973). Word play. NY: Bantam, Alfred A. Knopf.

Goodman, K. (1993). Phonics phacts. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann. 

Shuy, R. (19671. Discovering American dialects. Urbana, IL National Council of Teachers  of English.

Wolfram, W., & Christian, D. (1989). Dialects and education: Questions and answers.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall.

©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED,325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602-929~929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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