I will ask- Tell me a sound that could go with that letter or those letters (when reading). Tell me a letter, or letters, that you could write for that sound (when writing).
While there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are approximately 43 – 44 sounds.
For example, say the following words to yourself and listen to the different sounds represented by the letter ‘a’ in cat, make, wash, grandpa, always and Thomas. The student can be even more confused when he sees words like walk, beach, boat, sausage, and Niamh, if he is only told that ‘a’ will always have the ‘a in apple sound’ or the ‘a in ape sound’. (If you are confused by the name Niamh you are not alone. It is pronounced Neeve.)
If my student writes bic for bike I praise her for choosing a letter that does sound like it could be that letter. I might say- You know another word that sounds like bike. Write like and then have a go at writing bike underneath it. I don’t talk about spelling ‘rules’ because there are just too many exceptions to ‘the rules’. I help the student to make connections to words she knows well to assist her with unknown words, and I point out that this does not always work either! I never pretend the English language is easy.