Where’s the phonics?

Posted on August 21, 2016


I’m not distractible but I had an ad from Woot! in my mailbox, which had a monkey image that made me think of “think geek!” so I started to type that into the window to see what was on sale there, but the autocomplete went to “thinkport.org” so I went there instead.

PBS has courses for teacher & day care people and I saw a “phonics” course.

Sigh, you *might* think unless you knew better that a phonics course would have a lot of phonics in it.  No, it’s absolutely in the “well, ,you’ll figure it out as you read — let’s talk about the relationship of content and accuracy in spelling and stuff like that.”    I don’t even think “silent e” is in there.   Now, I”m looking at the syllabus so it’s (remotely) possible that some of that is in there, but there’s an awful lot about “finding teachable moments.”

I think we’ve got this mess backwards.   In math, there aren’t too many exceptions, but we teach rules out the wazoo…   and if we hit an “exception,” (e.g., we find out that you *can* subtract a bigger from a smaller number) we often just add a rule to “explain” it. “Notice and wonder” are slightly radical teaching notions.

Rules are amazingly handy for reading and spelling — but they’re complicated by the exceptions which, like math, generally have a reason and a rule.   If you teach the “two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” — and teach the exceptions in their groups — you can gradually learn more and more words, more than one at a time.   No, I’m not a fan of the word list on Monday, test on Friday, unless you make them lists where students already have 90% mastery so 18 words are practice of something they have mastered, and two of ’em make ’em think.   That’s what my story was, and I’m pretty sure it’s a big part of why I spell well, as opposed to it being some natural knack.   Spelling savants can be made.   I am a fan of teaching to real, honest mastery.

I was tickled to see the very very first article I ever wrote for the INternet as part of the course:  Five principles of learning spelling and six ways to practice spelling    I wrote it in 1998 when working for ldonline and looking for our weekly “teaching tip” and noticing that the only only stuff online was about writing the word N times, more and more if it doesn’t work… and I had watched students for whom this. just. did. not. connect.  and so I put what I knew in a ‘teaching tip’ of my own.

I wish they’d include another of my contributions:  Importance of Spelling (can’t we use spell check?)  … :
“Teaching spelling systematically can also dispel the myth that spelling is unpredictable and too confusing for all but those with a natural gift for it , which often happens when a “correct mistakes as they happen” approach is taken. The idea that English is too mixed up to make sense of is a myth perpetuated by lack of instruction and poor teacher preparation. Spelling is not simple, but when people understand its structure, it is perfectly decodable and not limited to people “born to spell” to understand. … Perhaps it’s unfortunate that people who are naturally good at spelling and reading are likely to be teaching it; they may not have needed to have these rules explained, or perhaps don’t remember the explanations because they did not have to practice them. Understanding the rules and patterns helps the student who doesn’t intuitively pick them up and enables the teacher to clear up confusion instead of having to resort to “it’s just how it’s spelled.”

But… time to get back to math… need to carve an extra four hours in each day so I can do an app like the negative numbers app for spelling too 🙂


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