Learn to Spell by Phonograms, not Letters

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In the 1970’s, educational research indicated that less than one per cent of the population suffered what has come to be called “dyslexia” (a disturbance of the ability to read).

Now the estimate is “from 5 to 15 per cent.”

As early as 1955 Rudolf Flesch pointed out the disconnect between “modern” teaching methods and the ability to read (or spell) in Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It.

After half a century, Flesch’s book remains a thorn in the side of the advocates of the sight method of teaching children to read. Parents of young children would do well to read it.

I once tutored a child who looked at the word “April” and read it as “May.” He knew that the word represented the name of a month because he’d been taught the names of the months “in context.” He apparently did not know how to decipher it by its spelling.

Adult readers recognize words by sight. Experienced readers can recognize words if only some of the letters are showing. They can recognize them if the words are upside down. This ability comes from having seen the words hundreds or thousands of times.

Beginning readers, however, need systematic instruction in approaching words from left to right, phonogram by phonogram. To develop confidence and fluency in reading–and the ability to spell–they need to begin with words like hat, cot, and bin before encountering words like know, they, or eight. (The latter three words are on the Dolch List taught to beginning readers with the use of flashcards.)

NOTE: The use of flashcards to develop instant word recognition is a useful technique–but only after the beginning reader has been taught the phonetic elements of the word being drilled. It’s counterproductive to expose a beginner who knows only the 26 letters of the alphabet to words spelled with sounds represented by letter combinations like th, kn, ay, igh, and eigh. Relatively few of the common words on the Dolch List defy the effort to sound them out by their phonograms. Those few, like once and warm, are easily taught as exceptions.

The most efficient way to learn to spell a word is to approach it phonogram by phonogram, and not letter by letter.

A phonogram is a written symbol that stands for a sound.

The word pal, for example, contains three letters, each of which is also a phonogram: /p-a-l/. The word church , on the other hand, contains six letters, but only three phonograms: /ch-ur-ch/.

Here are some phonograms to look for when analyzing a word’s spelling:

Consonant phonograms: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z, sh, th, ch, ng, ck, wh, kn, gn, wr, ph, dge, gh, ti, si, ci, pn, rh, and qu.

Vowel (and semi-vowel) phonograms: a, e, i, o, u, y, ee, ay, ai, ow, ou, oy, oi, aw, au, ew, ui, oo, ea, ar, er, ir, ur, or, ed, or, oa, ey, ei, ie, igh, eigh, oe, ough, and eu.

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9 thoughts on “Learn to Spell by Phonograms, not Letters”

  1. Here in Australia there is still furious controversy raging about the teaching of reading in schools.

    There are two opposing camps, under the banners of ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics’.

    Why these people have to polarise instead of using both approaches in combination beats me!

  2. I learned to read by looking at the book as my parents read to me…I was reading long before I entered school. They say they didn’t make any effort to teach me; they were surprised when I started reading by myself.

  3. I’m so happy to see someone promoting learning sight words by phonograms instead of by memorizing shape etc.

    I write a blog called Beginning Reading Help. I’ve shared free high frequency word flashcards I created with phonics rules on the back on my blog to print for free.

    Learning some words by sight is okay for a beginning reader. I think of these words like training wheels to help them read easy reader books. I can’t imagine why people try to teach 100 or more words by sight instead of teaching a child to read these words. The kids who learn how to read are the ones who figure out phonics and phonograms by themselves in a program that teaches words by sight.

    My experience with children who are taught words by sight is success in early reader books up to about middle first grade. Then these students are stuck. It’s hard to teach them to use letter sound relationships to read. My daughter was one of these students. She learned to read words by sight and guess at harder words. When I tried to help her, she rolled on the floor and said, “I know how to read!” I taught her to sound out words with Phonics Pathways. She finally started to understand and used letters while reading stories.

    Sorry, I wrote a book for a comment. Thanks again for your great post!

  4. I agree with Geoff. I’m retired now but taught beginning reading for many years. And I used several approaches to beginning reading because all children are different. Please see my blogs:

    Learning to Read
    Making Choices About Learning to Read

    When you receive the blog page, there is a place to request the blog you’d like and then it’s somewhere on that page.

  5. I made a comment before but referred you to the wrong blog. I also taught spelling using phonograms. See: Spelling for Young Writers.

    When you receive the blog page, there is a place to request the blog youโ€™d like and then itโ€™s somewhere on that page.

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