Category Archives: exceptions to phonics rules

Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read

If a child is having trouble reading, what is the most likely cause?

  • Reliance on pictures for meaning?
  • Guessing?
  • Weak word recognition skills?
  • Reliance on context word clues?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter LWeak word recognition skills is the mostly likely cause, and because of that, students guess at words or search for clues from pictures and other words.

Weak word recognition skills means an inability to sound out the letters which form words.  If a child comes upon a new word—for example, “trek”—and the child cannot sound out the individual letters, the child cannot read the word.

Since 2000 we have known that the most effective way to teach reading is through a system of associating sounds with letters and combining those letters to form words—in other words, a phonics-based approach.  A National Reading Panel authorized and funded by Congress assessed scientific research on reading.  The Panel’s goal was to determine the most efficient way children learn to read.  The Panel concluded in 2000 that to read well, children should associate sounds of English (phonemes) with letters or letter pairs and to combine the letter-sounds into words.

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.The word “it,” for example, has two sounds, each of which is associated with a letter.  The word “shop” has three sounds with “sh” corresponding to a single sound.

By deconstructing words into their basic sounds, children learn to sound out words.  Without guessing, without context clues, without pictures, children can figure out how to read words.  Even though there are some words which defy this sounding-out system (words like “one” and “two”), the vast majority of words in English can be sounded out.

The problem is, even though we know what works best, teachers are still asking children to guess at words, to look at pictures to figure out what words mean, to read other words nearby and use those context clues to figure out words, and to memorize the look of a word.  In other words, some teachers are not teaching phonics as the primary way to learn to read.  They are relying on methods which research shows do not work as well as phonics.

When I went to first grade, I was taught to read using a memorization approach.  The first page of my first reader had the word ”look” under a picture.  The next page had the words “Oh, look” with a different picture.  The next page had “See, see, see” with another picture.  It wasn’t until fourth grade that my teacher, Sister James Bernard, CSJ, offered lesson after lesson on phonics.  What a revelation!

If your child hasn’t learned phonics, teach him or her.  If your child is guessing at words, make him sound out each letter or each syllable.  No guessing allowed!  This is the surest way to create a strong reader.

Worth reading: The Settled Science of Teaching Reading*

I thought the time for discussion was over, that the correct way to teach reading had been established by research almost twenty years ago.

Apparently not.  On social media the discussion continues.  Is it better to focus on teaching phonics and how letter sounds form words or to focus on whole language (memorizing words and discovering meaning).

After a study of hundreds of research reports of how children learn to read, the US government reported in 2000 that the best way to teach English reading is to focus on phonemes and phonics first.  Children need instruction on how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words. New readers also need to memorize high frequency words that don’t necessarily follow the rules of phonics (words like “was, ” “do,” and “the”).

According to the 2000 National Reading Panel, students need to learn five concepts relating to reading:

  • Phonics (combining letters to form words)
  • Phonological awareness (how sounds correspond to letters)
  • Fluency (reading in phrases with appropriate stops and starts and with voice inflection)
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension (understanding what is read)

Decoding the language comes from studying phonics, phonological awareness and fluency.  Combine that with vocabulary and you achieve the desired result of reading comprehension.

Yet research also shows that even today not all reading teachers know, or even if they know, apply the correct approaches to teaching reading.

If your kindergarten child comes home with lists of words to memorize, beware.  If those words are sight words, okay.  But the main focus of his or her learning should be how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words, and how combining those words forms sentences with meaning.

*https://www.collaborativeclassroom.org/blog/the-settled-science-of-teaching-reading-part-1/?_hsmi=76082821

Which to teach after CVC words—double syllables, double vowels or silent e’s?

Reading experts agree that CVC words—two consonants sandwiching a short or closed vowel—should be taught first to children who are just beginning to read.  The reason has to do with logic.  Almost all CVC words pronounce sounds in the expected way, that is, with a one-to-one correspondence between the sound and the letter representing the sound.  The few words which are exceptions to the rules—words like “was” and “gym”—are not taught yet.

Experts also agree that one-syllable CVC words containing blends in which each letter is sounded should be taught next.  Words with blends at the beginning, words like “spot” and “drum,” should be taught before words with blends at the end, words like “bend” and “lump,” because beginning sounds are easier to master than ending sounds.

Teaching reading in this order is important because most beginning readers are four to six years old, and their sense of logic does not allow for exceptions.  All red lights mean stop, no exceptions.  Every time Dad says “no,” that means no, no exceptions.  One plus one equals two every time, no exceptions.  Every “z” is pronounced “z,” no exceptions.

The problem for teachers is that after children learn CVC words, what kinds of words should they learn next?

  • Two syllable words containing two CVC segments (CVCCVC) such as “rabbit” and “Justin”?
  • CVCe one-syllable words containing a silent e at the end such as “make” and “kite”?
  • CVVC one-syllable words containing double vowels such as “Jean” and “boat”?

There is no correct approach after teaching CVC words.  Teaching two-syllable CVCCVC words maintains the logic of one sound per letter, but two syllables are harder to learn than one.  All those letters can look intimidating to a tiny child.

child with adult helping to read

CVCe words require that the last letter not be sounded, which breaks the rule of one sound per letter.  If lots of silent letters were not pronounced, this would wreak havoc in a child’s mind.  But since the same letter—“e”—is not sounded, this maintains a one-to-one logical relationship that is easy to remember.

The hard part of CVCe words is that the silent e changes the sound of the vowel to a long or open vowel sound.  Previously children needed to know five vowel sounds; to learn CVCe words they need to know ten.  (Actually, they need to know eleven if both sounds of u are taught.  In “mule” the u sounds like “yu” and in “tune” the “u” sounds like “u.”)

One child I taught could not make the transition from CVC to CVCe words even after several months of work.  She could remember how to pronounce either CVC or CVCe words, but when I mixed them, she could not go back and forth sounding the words correctly.

Learning CVVC words containing double vowels is readily grasped if the double vowels are identical, as they are when the vowels are “ee” as in “seen” and “deed.”  Usually when the vowels are different, as in “mean” and “read,” the second vowel is silent but its presence means the first vowel is pronounced like a long or open vowel.  The new reader needs to remember two ideas:  that the second vowel is not pronounced, and that the first vowel is not pronounced like a CVC vowel.  For some children this is difficult even if exceptions are not mentioned.

What to teach after CVC words?  The choice is yours, but each option comes with its difficulties for children.  I usually teach the silent e words next.  I have tried printing words with a shadowy “e” which helps children to remember not to say the “e.”  But when I take away the shadowy letter “e,” it is like starting over.  What I thought would be a short cut way to learn turns out to be a dead end detour.

One thing I have learned:  Integrating whatever you teach next with CVC words can take a long time.

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read–part 2

Once you are sure your child can hear and say the sounds of the English language, the next step is to make your child understand that we use letters to represent those sounds.child making letter T with his body

One good way is to explain that people a long time ago figured out how to make pictures of sounds.  Those pictures of sounds are called letters.  In English those pictures are called ABC’s.

Say the child’s name.  Emphasize the sound at the beginning of the name.  Then show or draw the letter which the child’s name begins with.  You don’t need to call the letter by its name yet; rather, call the letter by the sound it represents.

For example, if your child’s name is Teddy, say his name emphasizing the “t” sound at the beginning of the name.  Show or draw the letter “t” but when you point to it, say the “t” sound.  Collect or point out objects which begin with the same sound.  Help the child to see that the “t” sound is in many words.  Kids will hear the sound more readily at the beginnings of words.

Some kids catch on fast and you can add another letter sound almost immediately.  For others you should focus on one sound at a time for several days.  Start with names of family members.  Focus on the first sound of the name, not middle sounds or ending sounds.  Move on to objects the child sees or uses daily.  Keep reviewing the letter sounds the child has already learned.

Stick to sounds which follow a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence.  For now, avoid names like Yvonne or Celine in which the first sound of the name is not represented by the letter usually associated with that sound.  Names which begin with digraphs like Shelly or Thad should also be avoided for now.  Four-year-olds can understand one-to-one logic.  Save words in which one sound is represented by two letters until later.

When a word has a single consonant between two vowels, sometimes (not often) the consonant goes with the first syllable.

Usually when a two-syllable word has a single consonant between two vowels, the consonant goes with the second syllable.  This pattern forms a first syllable ending in a long or open vowel.  Some words like this include

  • minus
  • tulip
  • pupil
  • motel

Because the majority of two syllable words with a consonant between two vowels follow this pattern, children should learn this as the rule before they learn exceptions.  Lists of words like this are available in many reading workbook series or online.

But students need to know that a few words don’t follow this rule of pronouncing the consonant with the second syllable.  Some words are pronounced with the consonant ending the first syllable and forming a CVC first syllable.

I have not found readily available lists of words like these, so I am including some here.

  • manic, panic, colic, comic, frolic, sonic, tonic
  • oven
  • Janet, planet
  • punish
  • olive
  • livid, timid, valid
  • delta
  • rebel, shrivel, level, civil, devil, hovel, Nevil
  • deluge
  • lizard, wizard
  • driven, given, Kevin, seven
  • second

To find if a word is an exception to the rule, have the student pronounce the word with the consonant starting the second syllable (following the rule).  If the student does not recognize the word, then have the student pronounce the word with the consonant ending the first syllable.  Many times this second pronunciation will make sense, but not if the student is unfamiliar with the word.  In that case, you will need to pronounce the word correctly for the student to hear and explain the meaning of the word to help the student remember it.

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

Guessing at long words means more phonics work is necessary

Suppose you have a reader  who  scores well on teacher assessments through first grade.  But then in second grade, she falters and starts guessing wrongly at new words.  What is going on?

It could be that this child has not learned the rules of phonics, or has learned the rudimentary rules but not the more advanced rules.  Instead, this student relies on a system of memorizing the look of words.

A child can get by for years using whole word guessing.  But then because of the sheer number of new long words, this system no longer sustains learning words with two, three and four syllables, words with prefixes and suffixes, words which must be sounded out first one way and then another to figure them out.

Research shows that a “whole language” approach to learning to read—that is memorizing new words—doesn’t work nearly as well as a system based on phonics.

I have worked with many students who can sound out one- and two-syllable words but who guess at longer words.  They say a word which begins the same way as the longer word but which doesn’t make sense.  They continue reading without stopping to consider that what they just said makes no sense, a clue that they are not comprehending what they read.

For example, suppose a sentence says, “The President issued an executive order.”  A student reads, “The President issued an exercise order.” In a split second the student searched her mind and retrieved “exercise,” a familiar word that begins the way the original word begins.

If you have a child who slurs longer words or who substitutes a word that begins the same way as the original word, this child probably needs advanced phonics work.  By advanced I mean learning rules for splitting long words into parts and for understanding how prefixes and suffixes attach to a root word and change the pronunciation and meaning of a root.

Even after children can read, they need to continue to work with phonics.