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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What to Do When Traditional Phonics Fails

Are you familiar with that pesky ‘magic e’?

It’s a special phonics rule taught to kids worldwide. The supposed  magic of the ‘e’ that appears at the end of a word is that it supposedly lengthens the vowel before it.

For example, take the word cake. The e does its magic and lengthens the a vowel.

But hang on a minute. What about come or done? Something’s fishy there...

A recent research study found that the ‘magic e’ rule works only 77% of the time with a vowels, 76% of the time with u vowels, 75% of the time with i vowels, 58% of the time with o vowels, and a scrawny 16% of the time with e vowels. A little number crunching shows us that the ‘magic e’ only works 60% of the time.

A 60% success rate doesn’t bode well for a phonics rule. It's only slightly higher than half the time!

Or how about another famous phonics saying: “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”? Here, the idea is that when there are two vowels together, the sound they will make is the long vowel relating to the first vowel, like in the word rain.

There's only one little problem, however: this works less than 50% of the time. Doesn’t sound like a "rule" really, does it?

These little sayings are simply attempts at helping early readers remember irregular phonetic constructions, and they can be helpful in some circumstances. But their failure illustrates a much bigger problem overall: traditional phonics alone may not be the best way to teach the English language.

That’s why we recommend Guided Phonetic Reading (GPR), or multisensory techniques that involve more than just a rule-based phonics curriculum. Especially for visual learners or dyslexics with low phonemic awareness, memorizing a bunch of faulty rules is never going to be the right way to go.

As one example of a multi-sensory approach to phonics, GPR uses a visual angle to teach the letter-to-sound relationships in English. Little visual images floating above a word represent each of the sounds in that word. They act as a support for the learner. It’s similar to learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Through decoding practice using these visual phonics prompts that are always correct, even for irregular words, reading can be taught as a skill rather than a set of untrustworthy rules. Over time, the child is weaned off those training wheels and no longer needs the image prompts to read.

And with GPR currently running around a 95% success rate with struggling readers, perhaps that’s the kind of “magic” we should be teaching in our classrooms!

Sarah Forrest is a Reading Specialist for the Easyread System, an online program designed to help children learn to read who are struggling with dyslexia, weak auditory processing and more.

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