Teaching and Learning With Phonics

My first three and a half years of education were spent in a one-roomed schoolhouse with Mrs. Beaudry, an excellent and memorable teacher. I clearly recall several of my early reading lessons because I was just like every other small child — I was eager to learn to read. Ask any preschooler why they want to go to school, and you will hear, "I want to learn to read." That our schools continue to fail in the face of such positive and powerful initial motivation from children is unforgivable; the damage done to the citizenry, and to the nation as a whole is immeasurable.

Mrs. Beaudry introduced me to the world of reading. I learned quickly and found the new knowledge fascinating. I remember her saying, "See that word — u2018i-t‘? That is u2018it‘." I recall feeling great relief and thinking, "So that is what an u2018it’ looks like!" (It seems that I was a bit vague on the gender situation — able to picture he’s and she’s, but not feeling so confident about it’s.)

Mrs. Beaudry had taught for decades, as had her two elderly, maiden sisters. All three ladies surely knew how to effectively teach reading and certainly understood that in order for a person to read above a third grade level, one must know, and use, the Code in which English speech sounds are recorded in print form. However, the push for u2018progressive education’ was moving through the teacher-training colleges, and basal reading series were being sold to school boards. Even effective teachers like Mrs. Beaudry had bosses who would listen to hype and order teachers to use inferior techniques — techniques that were, and continue to be, an offense to common sense, wisdom and experience.

One day Mrs. Beaudry began, "That letter says…" but stopped mid-sentence. I saw her frown, and heard her say to herself, "That’s right; I’m not supposed to tell them that, anymore." The lesson continued — without any phonics — and followed the look-say/sight word instructions that would have accompanied those new u2018Dick and Jane’ books. I remember thinking, "She won’t tell us the sounds that letters make, so sounds must be bad."

I, of course, had misinterpreted her frown and her frustration. In retrospect, I realize that she must have felt anger at being ordered to stop teaching reading with proven, effective methods; at being forced to use the inferior approaches that Rudolf Flesch so appropriately noted and criticized in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. Yes, Flesch let the cat out of the proverbial bag back in the mid-fifties, yet in 2003, schools continue to make the same mistakes they were making fifty years ago. (And schools want more money??)

Since I held Mrs. Beaudry in such high regard, I accepted what I mistakenly interpreted as a disapproval of Code knowledge and grew to believe that any knowledge of phonics was inexcusable. Neither public school teachers, nor instructors in college education classes, corrected the errors in my thinking and judgment. In fact, my misconceptions were reinforced with each passing year in school. I, along with millions of other Americans, failed to receive important information that is integral to the reading and spelling process. I was one of the lucky ones for I learned to read without overtly learning phonics. Once I realized the error in my thinking, however, I began to study phonics, linguistics, the reading process.

When teachers say that they teach phonics and whole language, one can be fairly certain that children are receiving incomplete phonetic instruction, and complete encouragement to "guess, use the pictures, look at the words around the word you need, look at how the word you need is used in context…." — in other words, students are receiving anything except knowledgeable, methodical, systematic instruction in phonics.

In my classroom, we call that craziness the u2018I Haven’t Had That Word Yet’ approach. Typical oral reading when a student begins working with me: "The boy ran into the…(I haven’t had that word yet. [dangerous] Oh, Ok.)…dangerous street to get the…(I haven’t had that word yet. [bouncing] Oh, Ok.)…bouncing ball." You get the idea. I tease my students — claiming that if they do not learn to decode so that they can learn to read, I will accompany them on their honeymoons to help them read the dinner menus. Funny, but not so funny.


Incidental phonetic instruction often causes confusion that outweighs any benefit. Methodical phonetic instruction gives students the tools and confidence needed for using the English language — for Encoding (spelling and writing,) and for Decoding (sounding out and reading words.) Here follow some examples.

"Incidentally…notice that all of our spelling words this week end in u2018-ed’," says the teacher, but she never teaches the information that would enable students to transfer spelling knowledge of these words to new and unfamiliar words.

Methodically — students should be taught that the phonogram "ed" has three sounds: /ed/, /d/, /t/ — /ed/ as in u2018wanted;’ /d/ as in u2018loved;’ and /t/ as in u2018wrecked.’ I now realize that most teachers have never been taught how the Code for English works, so are unable to accurately and fully teach phonics.

"Incidentally…a Final Silent E makes the vowel before it say its name." That incomplete bit of information proved to be so frustrating, and each word with a silent final e, but without a long vowel, reinforced my distrust of phonics.

Methodically, students should be taught that there are five (yes, 5!) types of Silent E’s, and that only the first one actually does make the preceding vowel say its name.

  • Silent E # 1: Used in E-controlled syllables. The E makes the vowel say its name — time, rate, complete, delete cope cute kite create
  • Silent E # 2: No English word can end with V or U, so this E protects us from breaking the rule — love, blue, cave, clue (I expect that some of you asking, "What about flu?" Well, that is only a syllable that we, in laziness, borrowed from the word influenza. And, you and thou actually end with the phonogram u2018ou.’)
  • Silent E # 3: Softens C’s and G’s so that they say their second sound. When C is followed by E (or I or Y) it says /s/ — chance, nicely; when G is followed by E (or I or Y) it may say /j/ — charge, manageable,
  • Silent E # 4: Every English syllable must have a vowel, so this E fills that role in these types of words and syllables — cas-tle, bat-tle, rat-tle lit-tle
  • Silent E # 5: No Job/Odd Job E — In a word like u2018are’ the E helps us see that we are reading a word, not reading the phonogram /ar/. In a word like u2018raise’ the E helps us see that we are not reading the plural of some odd word, u2018rai.’ (One rai; two rais…) In some words it is difficult to note a reason for the E so we think of the E’s in such words as having u2018no job.’ Many E’s are leftovers from Old English and were probably once pronounced.

"Incidentally…use I before E, except after C." Any word that did not work with this limited phonetic instruction again confirmed, for me, the untrustworthiness of phonics.

Methodically, students should be taught the complete rhyme, "I before E, except after C; unless it says A as in neighbor and weigh" plus the short list of exceptions — "Neither foreign sovereign seized (the) counterfeit (and) forfeited leisure," plus "either, weird, protein, heifer."

"Incidentally…with words like hop you double the consonant, but with words like hope you don’t." That gave me a general idea, but mostly I spelled those types of words by trial and error; using up many pencils and erasers.

Methodically, students should be taught that:

  • A word like u2018hop’ has: 1-syllable; 1-vowel; followed by 1-consonant; so…double the consonant before adding an ending that begins with a vowel. hop-ping (The 1-1-1 Rule)
  • A word like u2018begin’ has the accent on the final syllable, so analyze that final syllable according to the 1-1-1 Rule; if it meets the criteria, double the consonant before adding an ending that begins with a vowel. be-gin-ning (The 2-1-1 Rule)
  • A word like u2018enter’ has the accent on the first syllable, so do not double the consonant before adding an ending. en-ter-ing
  • With a word like u2018hope’: write the word without the u2018e,’ then add the ending that begins with a vowel — hoping. If the ending begins with a consonant, keep the u2018e’ — hopeful. **Remember to keep the u2018e’ if it is needed to soften a C or G: changeable changing.

Simple explanations such as these can make a significant difference for all spellers, young and old. As individuals learn these u2018secrets’ — knowledge that should never have been kept hidden, — they will find that their understanding and usage of the English language, and of the Code in which it is written, will deepen and strengthen, resulting in improved spelling and reading skills. (Pass it around.)