Better to teach phonics or whole word recognition? The pendulum swings back and forth, but these days “traditional” district and charter schools usually rely heavily on phonics instruction, most often the Spalding Method.
I learned Spalding in 1977 from a teaching colleague who had been trained by Romalda Spalding herself. It seemed so elegant, a distillation of all the phonograms in English. I am a lover of words, and learning such systems has always come easily to me. It was no problem, and interesting to learn, for example, that the phonogram ough can sound like ō, oo, uf, off, ŏ or ow (as in dough, through, tough, cough, thought, bough). So I dutifully taught these sounds to my students.
I did not, however, go “full Romalda.” Her method, described in detail in her book The Writing Road to Reading, teaches her phonetic system for spelling BEFORE applying it to reading, and is summarized here in five steps by Cheryl Lowe*:
- Students (first grade) learn the sounds of 54 of the 70 phonograms in 3-4 weeks.
- Students analyze, mark, and spell in their spelling notebooks the most common 150 words in the English language, at a rate of 30 words per week. This is begun after Step 1, and requires about 5 more weeks.
- When Steps 1 and 2 have been taught, students begin to read on “November 1.”
- After reading begins, the remaining 16 phonograms are taught and students continue to analyze, mark, and spell words in their spelling notebooks for a total of 780 words by April of first grade.
- Students are tested weekly to measure spelling, using the Morrison-McCall spelling tests, and reading, using the McCall Crabbs reading comprehension tests.
The 54 phonograms mentioned in Step 1 consist of the 26 letters of the alphabet plus er, ir, ur, wor, wr, sh, ee, th, ai, ay, ow, ou, oi, oy, aw, ew, ui, oo, ch, ng, ea, ar, ck, ed, or, wh and oa. Of these, six (g, c, s, e, i, ow) have two sounds, six (a, o, u, ch, ea, oo) have three sounds and one (ou) has four sounds.
In Step 2, the 150 most common words in English (also called “sight words”) include many words that do not follow phonetic conventions. Consider the word of. By all rights, it should be spelled “uv,” right? And though a silent e is supposed to make the first vowel “say its name” (as in game, five, note, etc.), it does not seem to have that power in come, done, have, or give. And what’s with the letter L in could?
Imagine teaching reading to kindergarten and first-grade students starting with this horrifyingly complicated process! We are currently tutoring a kindergarten student in this precise situation. She could not, upon entering kindergarten, identify or name all the alphabet letters but, because she attends a “traditional school,” is expected to acquire mastery over what must appear to her to be just squiggles on cards, and dutifully call out the right sound(s) as each card is shown. I feel quite sure she is not alone in being overwhelmed. And she really wants to READ — which, by the way, she has now started to do in tutoring.
So. Back to ough. For a few years, my students learned to recite “ō, oo, uf, off, ŏ, ow” whenever I held up the ough card. Then I started to wonder, “How is this helping them read?”
There are about 12 words that kids in elementary school learn to read that contain this chain of letters: bought, thought, fought, ought, rough, tough, enough, cough, though, dough and through. Sure, it helps to know that sequence of letters: O-U-G-H, but after you know it, you see it in common words you know, and spelling them won’t be a problem because you see ough as a visual unit. In my phonics system, I do not require a recital of the six sounds, and tell students that knowing ough as a unit is something to know “for your eyes only,” then have them learn to spell those common words.
Does knowing those six sounds help if you run across an unfamiliar word that contains that phonogram? Hmmm. . . I wonder whether any Spalding veterans have ever seen the first words that Samuel F.B. Morse transmitted over a telegraph line and considered the options: “What hath God wrote? No, root? No, ruffed? No, roft? No, rot? No, row?”
See? Pretty useless. No way to know.
Note: I found Cheryl Lowe’s article “How to Teach Phonics (and How Not To)” by chance. Intrigued by that one — and agreeing with it wholeheartedly — I looked further. She and her colleagues at Memoria Press have written on many other topics — well worth a look!