Due to the fact that my eyes are wonky (dilation for my eye exam), my LOVELY wife has agreed to fill in for me. This is turning into quite an astounding week for my wife. I think I may owe her more than a $5 bottle of wine…
“MISS!” a student yelled across my classroom.
“Yes?” I replied.
“How do you spell ‘immediately’?”
“I-m-m, and the rest is in the dictionary.”
“Aww, come on Miss,” she whined, “How am I supposed to look up a word in the dictionary if I don’t know how to spell it?”
“Use your phonograms of course.”
What then followed was the most impressive, dramatic, and exasperated sigh you have ever heard come out of a twelve-year-old girl.
Ahh, phonograms. What is a phonogram you ask? A phonogram is a letter or combination of letters that represent a sound or sounds in a phonetic language. Up until five years ago, I was under the distinct impression that each vowel in the American English language had two sounds: a long one and a short one. Why? Because that was what I was taught. If you were raised in the phonics swing of the education movement like I was, then you were taught that the letter ‘C’ sounded like the first sound in “cat” … but then so did the letter ‘K’. The letter ‘G’ sounded like the first sound in “goat”, but then you were confronted with the word “giraffe” and, by golly, it should have started with a “J” because that letter made that sound. Confusing? Definitely!
Then in 2007, when I began my first teaching job, my world was turned wonky. I learned that ‘A’, ‘O’, and ‘U” have four distinct sounds, ‘I’ has three, and ‘E” has two. (At least they got that one right!) The letter ‘C’ has two sounds, and yes, one of them does sound like a “K”. The letter ‘G’ has two sounds, and again, yes, one of them sounds like a ‘J’.The sad thing was, I wasn’t the only one in the room to which this was a revelation.
I teach in a school that has a very large population of students who are learning English as a second language. I watch their struggle as many of them walk in the door on the first day of school knowing very little of our language. My heart breaks for these students who, for many of them, have just come into the country and can barely ask if they can use the restroom. This is why I am a firm believer in teaching students all 71 phonograms of the American English language.
Thankfully, I work in a school who believes this as well. Our Kindergarteners will have learned half of those sounds by the end of the year, and our first graders will have mastered every one of them by the end of their year. As a result our “babies”, as I call them, have the ability to decode almost any word you place in front of them with a teacher’s help.
“But,” you may be asking, ”What about sight words? Some of them do not fit into the rules!” You’re right, they don’t. Words like “the” and “of”, should probably be taught by sight. However, a child can only memorize so many words before their brain will begin to see patterns in spelling that will mislead them. For example, it is easy for a student to memorize the word ‘read’, but eventually they will be confronted with the word ‘read’. If they understand that the phonogram ‘ea’ has three different sounds, they can use those sounds to understand the difference between “I will read a book” versus “I have read a book”.
I was once told that if you can spell a word, you’ll always be able to read it. However, just because you can read a word, does not mean that you will be able to spell it. I know The Husband has talked before about the importance of grammar and the structure of writing, but don’t forget the extreme basics of our language: the sounds that create it!