Wednesday, May 02, 2012

the sounds of English

This is a warning that a certain amount of excitement is about to be expressed over things like spelling rules, phonics, and handwriting ideas. But first, a little context to put this excitement in perspective.

I went to college to learn how to be a teacher. Thousands of dollars later, I earned a certificate that proved I was qualified to teach in the state of Pennsylvania and at least twenty others. I began as a tutor for Sylvan Learning Center following graduation and looked around for a Christian school to practice my trade. The following year I took a position in Philadelphia as a fourth grade teacher in a school started by converted Jewish families, with a few Gentiles thrown in for flavor. One of my students joining us after the school year started was a struggling reader who I attempted to tutor while the other students were in their Hebrew class. I picked a list of the 100 most frequently used words and got to work. It was frustrating for both of us, although he was a well mannered boy and never disrespectful. At some point, our tutoring times petered out and his reading level never did improve much after his year in my classroom to my own shame.

I share this story because after all these years, I now see very clearly why I failed to help him. I unintentionally withheld the code he desperately needed to decipher the English language. This code of knowing what sounds our letters make alone and in groups, which is most often referred to as Phonics. When I was initially preparing to teach Seth how to read, I became increasingly aware that I never really had taught anyone to read before despite being a certified teacher and to make matters worse, I didn't even know HOW to really teach someone to read. It was in these early years of homeschooling research that I began to really doubt the usefulness of my college degree. Four years into homeschooling, I am utterly convinced that my teaching degree taught me nothing other than classroom management, which I could have learned in one short afternoon lecture. And to make matters worse, people like my hygienist who chat with me about my kids and home life always assume that I am qualified to homeschool because I have a teaching degree. I try to tell them but they cannot understand that my teaching degree has nothing to do with our decision to homeschool and has not contributed much if anything to our lessons at home. I have had to start from scratch just like most parents. It has been a very humbling experience.

As Seth and I worked together on helping him become a confident reader, I became very aware of all the educational products that crowd the shelves touting phrases like "Phonics-based" or "Fun Phonics". As I would peruse these items online or in-store, I quickly realized that 99% of those workbooks, flashcards and games were "Fake Phonics". Among other issues, they relied on things like picture cues which were often misleading and inconsistent. I struggled to find simple books that Seth could read to practice sounding out the short and long vowel sounds as most "early/beginner reader" books included many words he couldn't sound out yet. Thankfully I came across the Bob books and that helped bridge the gap to other more experienced reading.

After a disappointment with our initial spelling program, I have been delighted with the kind of understanding All About Spelling brings to mastering the code. We have learned spelling rules that have brought much clarity to me as a mature speller. Many of those "a-ha" moments where I thought, for example, I knew the reason for the "silent e" but didn't really.

So as I came upon this recent post by Brandy about a lecture she was listening to entitled The Logic Of English, I thought I might be missing a major component to our Phonics/Spelling instruction. Turns out, Denise Eide advocates for the same phonics and spelling rules as All About Spelling. Can you spell r-e-l-i-e-f?
I have been reading through her book Uncovering the Logic of English and find it to be a very helpful companion to my spelling curriculum since she discusses the same material but with much more depth for older learners(and teachers).

Some changes I anticipate making with my girls' phonics instruction is working on recognizing the lowercase letters first, although since we've already started on the uppercase, I will actually be teaching both but with more emphasis on lowercase letters since as Denise points out in her seminar, they occur much more frequently than capital letters. She also makes a case for teaching cursive writing first before print and I may follow her advice on this as well. I have some time to play around with this yet, but I am mulling it over.

But most importantly I am eager to help the girls learn all the many different sounds of our letters and letter combinations make and not just treat them like strange exceptions that make English seem chaotic and inconsistent. For example: If I asked you, "What sounds does ch make?" what would you say?  Go ahead and think, I'll wait.

So far everyone I've asked has correctly answered(as I would),/ch/ like "church" and then looked stumped as to any other sounds. So I get the fun part of saying, "Yes, but it also says, /k/ and /sh/ like in "school" and "choir" and "chef" and "chateau" respectively." The /sh/ sound of ch is because they are French words we've borrowed. All About Spelling does do this with ch(and many others), although each sound is worked with independently and not simultaneously to avoid confusion, but the three sounds are introduced together and practiced as the three sounds of ch.

According to her lecture, Denise reports that English is currently the most verbose language with close to two million words.  She says that German is the next closest with 200,000.  That is an incredible amount of sounds and words to learn and use correctly.  And the amount of order and consistency that is present in our language is something to be proud of, instead of embarrassed when a true exception to a rule is found.  Many commonly thought exceptions are actually just misunderstood and overlooked rules that we do not bother to teach or learn.

If you do nothing else besides reading this post, I urge you to take the time to go and listen to the two seminar lectures by Denise Eide, linked in the above paragraph.  I cannot help but think it will change the way you think about the orderliness of English as you use letters and words each day.

I cannot truly express the excitement that reading and listening to this material has given me for understanding and teaching correct English to myself and my children. There is much more I could say about this and those of you who have talked to me recently about this know I'm hard to shut up. Oh dear. Please feel free to share your thoughts as you read and research for your own particular needs or interests. Then we can be excited together! *

Here is a current list of resources I have used and would recommend for Reading, Spelling and Grammar:
The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading
First Language Lessons
All About Spelling
The Sentence Family, previously written about here.

This is what I have used for Writing beginning this year:
Writing With Ease
And this is what I am considering using for Reading/Phonics for the girls:
All About Reading

*(And on that note, I'll mention here that I'm trying to wean myself off of using the smilely face to convey a happy or humorous tone when I'm posting on here. I have yet to find one by any of the authors' whose books I read, so I know I must do better to communicate that lightheartedness in words without resorting to an emoticon. But it is so very tempting. See, like one for right here. Gah!)

And for a little humor, here are two scenes from My Fair Lady.


  1. I am excited that you are excited!

    I have my copy of Eide's book sitting on my shelf, and I can't wait to crack it. SO glad this helped you. I feel like teaching reading to every little kid I see right now! :)

  2. Yes, Brandy! I know the excitement of wanting to help everyone read well! Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to your thoughts, although they may be different than mine. We'll see!


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