How to Teach Phonics (Part II)


In two previous articles, we have explored the question: What is the classical approach to phonics? I have shown that Orton-Gillingham phonics, which is designed for students with dyslexia, is in every respect a classic traditional phonics program. I have also shown that Romalda Spalding, in The Writing Road to Reading (WRTR), though she used the Orton phonograms, created a totally different approach to phonics that has little resemblance to Orton or to any other traditional phonics program.

The Spalding Method of Phonogram Instruction

In the Spalding method, children are taught to recite all common sounds for each phonogram from the beginning, and then are expected to use these sounding and spelling rules to decode new words. In contrast, traditional phonics teaches each sound for phonograms one at a time and practices that sound in the context of word families. I think the appeal of Spalding is that the child who can recite all sounds of a particular phonogram from memory appears to have a level of mastery that the traditional phonics student does not. But is this an effective way to teach reading? Let me illustrate the difference. The WRTR student learns the sounds of the phonogram ea in isolation and can recite all three: ē, ĕ, and ā. He is given no words to learn with the ea phonogram, only the pure sounds. When he begins to read and sees a word with ea, he must decide which of the three sounds to use. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of the WRTR. If there were actual rules to help the child choose between the three sounds he has learned, then WRTR could claim to be an effective method of teaching accurate reading and spelling. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the absence of rules, the WRTR child has been given no aids for or practice in reading words with the ea phonogram. The traditional phonics student, on the other hand, learns the three sounds of the phonogram ea in a logical order, one at a time. First he learns the most common sound, ē, and practices this phonogram with a selection of the more than 325 words that illustrate this sound: meat, each, real, speak, etc. Later he learns the second most common sound for ea, the ĕ sound, and again he practices this phonogram with a selection of the 150 words that illustrate this sound: bread, head, heavy, ready, etc. For the third sound of ea, the traditional phonics student learns only the three common words where ea has the sound ā: great, steak, break. Which do you think is the best way to teach students the phonogram ea?

Learning Phonogram Sounds Without Aids

Learning every sound of the 70 phonograms is a daunting task which seems nearly impossible in the short amount of time Mrs. Spalding suggests for the first grader. But to make the task even more difficult, Mrs. Spalding prohibits the use of key words or pictures to remember phonogram sounds.

The (phonogram) cards have key words printed on the back only for the teacher’s information. The child learns only the sounds and the writing of them. WRTR, p. 57

Prove to him that the words he says are made up of separate sounds, but do not teach the sounds by having him learn key words. WRTR, p. 57

However, for the teacher herself, she advises the aid of key words to remember and check her pronunciation.

Before teaching the sounds it is advisable for a teacher to check and correct her pronunciation of the phonograms. … Segregate the phonogram sounds in the key words as a check on the correct sounds. WRTR, p. 57

I can see why she advises this aid for the teacher, because it is imperative that the teacher master these sounds in order for the students to learn them accurately. However, if the teacher needs to check her pronunciation and aid her memory by using real words, how much more so the student? Why would we deny the child the same aid to memory and accuracy afforded the teacher? The only way for the child to learn the sounds of his own language is by segmenting them from real words that he can pronounce. There is no other way to accurately pinpoint these sounds. There is a real danger here that students will confuse and blur the 19 vowel sounds in English because a number are very close. To teach all of these vowel sounds in isolation runs the risk of confusing sounds that are close and learning them inaccurately. Dr. Orton’s program, like all traditional phonics, uses pictures and words for students to learn phonogram sounds.

Learning Phonograms Without Word Families

When learning the 70 phonograms, the child is denied the use of his own language to accurately hear and learn phonogram sounds. A second obstacle is then added when he is denied the opportunity to practice each phonogram in word families. Mrs. Spalding specifically scorns the use of word families.

The phonics teaching now being used in many schools classifies rhyming words like ill, will, bill, fill, kill, mill, etc., as word families. This is wrong. They are not families but completely unrelated words. WRTR, p. 159

I didn’t have a phonics program when I was teaching my sons to read, but I made up word families for every phonogram I taught them because it seemed the natural thing to do. They did not have to learn ay as a random phonogram, but as a spelling pattern for many other words. Why would you withhold the information that ay is used in many other words and deny the child the opportunity to practice reading other ay words and enlarge his reading vocabulary? Dr. Orton teaches words in word families like all good phonics programs, and in Lesson 7 teaches the very words—will, bill, fill, kill, mill—that Mrs. Spalding so vehemently denounces. Additionally, Spalding omits the very important word families of consonant blends. Because they are not phonograms for one of the 45 sounds of English, Mrs. Spalding does not teach, nor make any mention of, the many initial and final consonant blends (e.g., br, cl, st). Blending consonants takes practice and is taught explicitly and early in all traditional phonics programs. In the Orton program, for instance, consonant blends are taught in Lessons 10-13, and are also included in the Orton phonogram cards.

The Spalding Spelling Rules

Many advocates of the Spalding method think that the reason our children never master spelling is because they have not learned the 29 Spalding spelling rules. They have the impression that these rules give students the guidelines they need to choose the correct spelling. If this were true, the Spalding method would be a scientific method of learning to read and spell with a high degree of accuracy. Unfortunately this is not the case. Most of the Spalding spelling rules are generalizations about the English language. They are somewhat helpful when teaching children to read, but most are not spelling rules. Most of her rules are awkwardly worded and some are unintelligible.

Rule 2. When c by itself has a sound (not part of a two-letter phonogram) it always says “s” if followed by e, i, or y (cent, city, cyclone). If not followed by one of these letters its sound is “k” (cat, claw, cyclone). This is true in spelling and reading. WRTR, p. 118

Rule 10. Sh may be used at the beginning or end of a base word and at the end of a syllable (she, finish) but except in the ending ship (friendship, worship) not at the beginning of a syllable after the first one. WRTR, p. 119

Because these rules are so rambling, all of the programs based on Spalding have rewritten them into concise and usable generalizations about English. Students write these rules in their spelling books next to words that illustrate them. But few of these spelling rules actually help us with the many spelling demons in English. In fact there are only six useful spelling rules, five of which are about adding suffixes. There is only one spelling rule to help us choose between alternate phonograms, the i before e rule: i before e except after c, or when sounded like a as in neighbor and weigh. This rule is helpful as long as you learn the common exceptions: weird, either, neither, seize, and leisure. The difficulties of English spelling arise from the multiple ways to spell an English sound. There are few rules for choosing the correct spelling. For instance, the /ər/ ending can be spelled three ways: paper, dollar, color; the /ən/ ending can be spelled five ways: open, raisin, bargain, button, listen; the /əl/ ending can be spelled le and el: pickle and nickel; the phonogram ch has three sounds, /ch/, /k/, /sh/: muchecho, and machine; the sound /ch/ can be spelled two ways: ch in much, and tu in nature; the long sound /oo/ can be spelled five ways: Sue, you, new, fruit, truth. This is only the tip of the iceberg. I think the best illustration of the difficulties of English spelling is the following poem:

Our Peculiar Language

When the English tongue we speak
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Won’t you tell me why it’s true
We say sew, but also few?
And the maker of a verse
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard,
Cord is different from word,
Cow is cow, low is low,
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose and dose and lose,
And think of goose and yet of choose,
Think of comb and tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll and home and some.
And since pay is rhymed with say,
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood and food and good;
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Why is done, but gone and lone—
Is there any reason known?
To sum it up, it seems to me
Sounds and letters disagree.

The Spalding Method of Reading Instruction

The Spalding method teaches reading through spelling. “In kindergarten, most of the instructional time is devoted to the spelling lesson because this is where children learn to read.” But the spelling lessons are based not on phonics but on the Ayers list of most frequently used words in English. This means that students are learning words in the same order they would in Look-Say or Whole Language, not in the systematic order of phonics. For instance, in the first ten spelling words (me, do, and, go, at, on, a, it, is, she), students learn long e, three sounds for the vowel o, the z sound of s, and the sh phonogram. There is nothing orderly about this presentation. It is completely random. The emphasis on phonograms, spelling words, and spelling rules in the WRTR obscures the process of blending sounds into words and reading. The WRTR uses the word blending rarely, and always in a negative context. The actual process of “blending” and reading in WRTR eluded me until, after multiple readings and searching, I finally decided, though it is not explicitly stated, that students must blend phonogram sounds into words when analyzing and marking their spelling words. There is no actual instruction on blending or reading, however, that I could find anywhere in the WRTR. The best explanation of how children learn to read in the Spalding method is found in the foreword by Dr. S. Farnham-Diggory. After explaining the value of the spelling notebook, where words are written, marked, and analyzed, he goes on to say:

When you (the student) see the word again (unmarked), it is that visual pattern, not the sequence of sounds, that will be activated. Thus, Spalding minimizes the risk of setting up “sounding out” habits that interfere with wholistic word perception. Words are not sounded out while reading except rarely, when a difficult one is encountered, because they do not have to be. … When about 150 words are in the spelling notebooks, reading begins. A major shock for new Spalding teachers is that reading is never taught. It just begins. After hours of phonogram learning, sequential word analysis, and graphic marking, children can read. They simply pick up a book and start reading. … They fly right over the basal readers with their impoverished vocabularies, and start in with good children’s literature. … They also start right in thinking and reasoning about content. From the very first day of reading, the emphasis can be on ideas, information, forming inferences, tracing implications, and the like, because the emphasis doesn’t have to be on word-attack. WRTR, pp. 17-18

This quote and the one below reveal that there are a number of similarities between the modern Whole Language or Look-Say method and Spalding. One is the rejection of sounding out words and the emphasis on reading whole words and reading for meaning from the beginning. The second is the teaching of words in the order of frequency in the English language rather than in the order of systematic phonics. The third is that Mrs. Spalding shares with the progressive educator a disdain for the beginning skills of learning to read. She scorns phonetic readers and word lists.

Some beginning readers now are based on teaching phonics. Some of the worst are by linguists who offer the beginner sentences containing a repetition of the short sound of the letter a, for example, or, for the purpose of teaching, a sound of ow, etc. Such teaching belongs in the spelling lessons. From the beginning, reading should be centered on the thought expressed by the author. WRTR, p. 254

Well, so much for The Cat in the Hat.How-To-Teach-Phonics-2-Phonics-Program-Chart

ConclusionClassical Phonics

Spalding and traditional phonics and especially the Orton method, with which Spalding is often confused, are completely incompatible. I think it is imperative that homeschoolers and especially the classical education movement use phonics and reading programs based on classical traditional methods that work. Phonics From A to Z, by Wiley Blevins, is an outstanding guide to phonics. I encourage those who want a greater understanding of how to teach reading to buy and study this guide.


Be sure to read the earlier articles, How to Teach Phonics (And How Not To) Part I and What Is the Classical Approach to Phonics?






Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2016 edition.



One thought on “How to Teach Phonics (Part II)

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Hello, I think you should look into and read through The Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking. It is organically related to Spalding, but puts flesh and bones on it. It is designed for a classroom rather than a homeschool, unfortunately, and yes, the method (or its organization in this particular manual) can be so frustrating that several times I wanted to burn the book, BUT NOT FOR THE REASONS YOU ARGUE AGAINST THIS TYPE OF METHOD. With my oldest 2 sons, we used the Level I manual in K-2, and the results were phenomenal. When I needed to switch to a “less parent intensive” plan for them, I chose IEW’s Phonetic Zoo Spelling (just the discs). The older one tested into their high school level spelling, and the younger one into their middle school level spelling. With my 3rd son, I was too busy to do the full Riggs program with him, and I regret that. He is a much slower reader and much poorer speller than his brothers. This is because armed with the phonogram sound possibilities and spelling rules as a common language between myself and my older sons we could easily work through personal spelling issues dialectically. Without the thoroughness of the spelling rules in Riggs, I cannot easily converse with my 3rd son about spelling issues he is having.

    You state in another article: “A nontraditional approach to phonics, developed in the last half of the 20th century, requires students to learn all the sounds for each phonogram initially and to use “spelling rules” to apply them. These programs subordinate reading to spelling and make the process of learning to read unnecessarily complicated. The art of teaching is not to take something relatively simple and obfuscate, but to make the complex simple and easy to understand.” I must say that while the Riggs method IS initially difficult for the parent to grasp, my experience is that the children learn to read very quickly with it, and are not at all limited to graded readers. My older son did most of his reading learning in a large storybook compendium, and my second son in a catechism devotional. With this, I did not have to worry as much about choosing reading material by decoding ability, but by comprehension ability, while it seems like many children learn to read on simplified materials which are below their comprehension level (and thus often boring) by necessity to keep on par with their decoding level.

    I haven’t read either of Spalding or the Riggs manual recently enough to remember (honesty here), but I don’t believe either of them would say a child should not or cannot read before he/she can spell, but that for kids who cannot yet do either, this is an ideal method by which to learn. I remember something about how the ABC song is misleading b/c it is the names of the letters rather than their sounds, thus adding an unnecessary layer of learning to the task, b/c the names of the letters are useless to reading. But what parent doesn’t teach the ABC song, and basic visual letter recognition?? We just do it. I think it is culturally ingrained. My 3yo knows her letters. However, armed with the knowledge of the phonogram sounds, I am casually/randomly teaching her the sounds that each letter can make. She is 3, and because she can’t read, she has no problem with learning letter sounds in isolation of context. She thinks it is funny that s says s, z, and like a 3yo does, she repeats those random tidbits at random times. She does not know how to write yet and does not possess the instruction comprehension yet to do so. However, I do think that the basic premise behind the teaching method–the MULTI-SENSORY nature of the skill acquisition (auditory, visual and kinesthetic) and VERBAL nature of the instruction are superior in their result WHEN they can be successfully applied. I have 2 children with verbal comprehension problems for whom the handwriting instruction needed modification. The same instructions were used, but the paper needed to be modified (in stages promoting independence and the move to ordinary handwriting paper) and I produced videos for them demonstrating the verbal instructions.

    The Riggs manual approaches basic grammar in a way that also produced excellent results. Truth be told, I also learned how to use Socratic questions in other contexts from this manual, as well as instructional methodology that has served us well in a variety of contexts. A page of instruction can be dictated to students (it doesn’t have to be dry, and in fact, the material can often be presented socratically), for which they can be asked to keep and learn and refer back to as the model or measure of their work. I have found in my experience that often material presented and used in this fashion can eliminate the “need” for tedious textbook activities, and that the learning itself is both more personal and more permanent.

    I stumbled across these phonics articles while looking at Latin curriculum. My older son is in 2nd year high school Latin, and he says that of all the books he has used, the format of First Form Latin is by far the best. He has been exposed to 5 different formats, including First Form and Henle, and has nothing but praise for First Form.


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