Everyone knows that reading and spelling English words is far from simple. If only our language were as reasonable as a language like Spanish where there is one sound for one letter. But our mother tongue refuses to follow that kind of simple system. Instead, it takes even the simplest of words and makes them inaccessible to â€œsounding out.â€ Take words like done, bread, love, and said and see where you end up when you put a sound to each letter.
So classrooms across the nation devote lots of time to helping young children cope with the complexities. The long-held, dominant view is that â€œrulesâ€ are the way, indeed the only way, for children to get a handle on the system. Thatâ€™s why early grades focus on having children memorize rules, lots and lots of rules. In fact, almost 600 are offered just to get through the demands of third grade reading.
To see what children face with this tried-and-true approach, letâ€™s consider just one rule-- the one that requires us to double the final letter of certain verbs when they end in -ing or -ed. For example, why does plan get a double â€˜nâ€™ when it becomes planning, while paint escapes the demand to double its final letter when it becomes painting.
You probably had to memorize the rule many years ago but youâ€™re likely to have forgotten it by now. If that is the case, letâ€™s refresh your memory.
The rule is: If a verb has one syllable and ends with a single vowel followed by a single consonant, then the rule is that you should double the final letter for the -ing and -ed forms.
Now letâ€™s try out your newly-regained knowledge. Take the following verbs: wait, fit, smoke, bark, cut and see which one should have the final letter doubled when you add -ing or -ed:
The answer is only the verb fit. Why?
Fit has one vowel + one consonant, so it doubles
Wait is not doubled because it has two vowels, not one, before the final letter â€“hence, waiting\waited
Smoke is not doubled because it ends with a ends with a vowel (even if silent)â€”hence smoking\smoked
Bark is not doubled because it ends with two consonantsâ€”hence barking, barked
And cut is not doubled because it plays a totally different game altogetherâ€”it is an irregular verb form where the present and past tense forms are identical.
So far weâ€™ve only dealt with single syllable verbs; we havenâ€™t even touched multi-syllable verbs (like benefit) or single syllable adjectives (like neat, neater vs. big, bigger). If you like this sort of activity, the huge corpus of English words could keep busy 24-7.
But most people experience no such liking. If youâ€™re among them, even if you made some effort to learn the rule when you were in school, youâ€™re likely to have forgotten it. Armed with the advances of modern society, you sensibly rely on your spell check to keep watch and take care of what years of teaching failed to accomplish.
Ironically, you were never told the reason for the rule. It is taught as if it came down as a divine judgment from the gods. The origins of the rule, however, add some interest to the situation. Were you to have been told about it, it might have made the situation more appealingâ€”albeit not more useful.
Specifically, the â€œruleâ€ is a creation of type setters. When they first came on the scene, one of the details they noted was that certain words became ambiguous in the â€“ed form. For example, if you took the word plane (the sort of thing a carpenter does with wood) and the word plan and put them into the â€“ing or â€“ed forms, they might both end up looking like planing or planed. Of course, we have hundreds of comparable ambiguities in English that weâ€™re quite willing to put up with. But this particular one somehow caused concern and so it was decided to reduce the ambiguity by doubling the consonant on the word that did not end in e, resulting in planing vs. planning and planed vs. planned. And from this well-intended effort to simplify one tiny aspect of reading came another of the many confusing, arbitrary rules that children have to memorize.
Itâ€™s not enough that the rules are cumbersome and overwhelming. Often, they are misleading. For example, every first grader spends months with the "at familyâ€ and learning that all its members are pronounced like the â€œatâ€ of cat. In reality, as evidenced by words such as great, attend, patrol, water, fatigue, station, watch, data, matrix in over 70 percent of words with the letters â€œat,â€ those letters are not pronounced the way our first-grade teachers told us they were.
But all rules are not the same. There is a very different set of rules that play a unique role in the life of a reader. We can get a glimpse into what they are by reading the following sentences:
Â· We ought to record that he broke the record.
Â· The dump was so full that it had to refuse the refuse.
Â· I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
Â· The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
Â· This is not the time to present the present.
In each sentence, there are homographsâ€”identically spelled words that you decided, without hesitation, to pronounce differently. What made you do this? Rules! But, unlike the rules you had to laboriously memorize in school, these are rules youâ€™ve never been explicitly taught. They are a part of a coterie of hidden abilities that work smoothly, steadily, and painlessly to allow you to carry amazingly complicated behaviors.
In this particular instance, the rules you were using took note of the words that preceded the ones in question. In one case, it was the word to and this led you to expect to see a verb since to regularly precedes verbs. Hence you gave the word the pronunciation it has when it is in the verb form. By contrast, the word the preceded the other identical member of the pair and that led you to expect to see a noun since the regularly precedes nouns. What is particularly intriguing is that all this thinking takes place without you ever being aware that you are doing what you are doing.
The rules governed by hidden abilities are the backbone of effective reading. They even enable you to overcome the many rules of traditional phonics that would hobble you if you actually applied what you had been taught. For example, if you ask a typical reader what sound the letters â€œphâ€ make, you will invariably be told that they make the sound â€œf.â€ The hours of training show their power. No other answer ever comes to mind. Nevertheless, if you are a skilled reader, when you come upon words like uphill or shepherd, you do not pause for even a second to wonder if you should consider saying ufill or sheferd.
So what are we to make of rules? The answer is â€œIt depends.â€ Specifically it depends on the sort of â€œruleâ€ you are using. The ones children have to memorize in school represent a hodge-podge of weak, poorly-formed generalizations that fail to capture the most significant parameters of the language. Sadly for children who are already struggling with reading, these rules serve primarily as additional burdens that further complicate their lives. It is as if the life jacket they have been tossed is a set of lead weights that insures they will be sucked further down into the morass of failure.
By contrast, the rules you have developed on your own through well-organized encounters with real language are amazingly effective. These are the rules that stand you in good stead throughout your reading life. Indeed, it would be impossible to read and write effectively were these not steadily in the background â€“helping you at every point.
Phonics Plus Five is designed to foster this aspect of rule learning and enable children to capitalize on this component of reading. It is the only reading system that has been constructed to allow children to intuit the rules that are responsible for truly effective reading and writing. As these skills blossom, the childrenâ€™s abilities begin to skyrocket. The effects are quite amazing.