Should Children Memorize Phonics Rules?
We know the drill: flashcards, recitation, and demands to say them all in order. This routine is just part of learning to read. Rigˇht? Hey
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why this is so necessary? When you read, do you flip through that mental card file looking for the phonics rule needed to read each word? Of course not!
You just read.
Reading instruction changes focus through the years, always attempting to find the “best” way to teach children to read, and currently, that revolves around phonics rules. However, are all these rules necessary to becoming a competent reader?
Let’s look at why memorizing phonics rules is a big waste of your child’s time.
Why “Sound-to-Letter” is Enough
Unlike many reading programs, the Happy Cheetah Reading System doesn’t emphasize dozens of phonics rules.
After children learn which sounds go with which letter — also call “sound-to-letter” or “sound-to-written-symbol correspondence” — that’s enough. Children will be able to read the vast majority of words by asking themselves: Does it sound right? Does it look right? Does it make sense?
Why would you want to memorize rules like “i before e except after c” or “two vowels go walking, and the first one does the talking”? Why not discuss the seven varieties of syllables and their division rules, and the different ways to put syllables back together after dividing them?
For one simple reason: this is not an effective way to learn to read.
English Has Guidelines, Not Rules
When Dr. Marie Clay studied children who were successful readers, she noticed that they paid attention to the context, and figured out the meaning of what they were reading. They did not try to sound out every word laboriously, but created a visual memory bank of common words, and predicted the next word to come.
They didn’t use spelling and syllable division rules to become fluent readers.
Here’s the thing: English is not like math. Math has absolute rules. If you have a problem like 2+3x5, you have to do the multiplication first. That’s the rule.
However, English “rules” are more like general guidelines. They’re not actual rules. Perhaps you’ve heard the rule, “English words don’t end in I.”
That might seem helpful because the idea is that students will remember to end words in Y or maybe E.
Except there are exceptions: the first person pronoun I begins and ends in I. The word Hi ends in I.
However, those are only two words, so there’s not a bunch more to have to memorize.
Yet, what if we start to look at common words borrowed from other languages that seem like English words? Then spelling starts to get complicated. There’s ski from Norwegian, spaghetti, broccoli, and jacuzzi from Italian, Havarti cheese from Danish, basmati rice from Hindi, syllabi from Latin, and dozens more.
Most children have heard of broccoli. It’s an English word now, even if it didn’t start as an English word.
Most people wouldn’t mind a trip to Hawaii, which not only ends in i, but ends in double-i!
English is a beautiful, crazy mixture of languages, which makes “rules in English” a meaningless idea.
No Need to Memorize Rules
Studies show that when the brain learns an exception to the rule, it tosses the rule. This idea makes trying to memorize rules for spelling and reading unproductive.
Of course, for some children, spending the time to memorize rules is not the end of the world. It may not be the best use of time, but research shows that 60% of children learn to read, no matter what kind of reading program they use.
Memorizing rules isn’t efficient nor terribly fun, but it’s not harmful to those students.
However, children with learning challenges, adding rule memorization is detrimental. Do not add rules to the task of learning to read. Your children’s brains will dump the rules — since phonics rules are more like guidelines with lots of exceptions. Rather than practicing reading, your children remain stuck in place and, worse, frustrated and may even despair.
And, parents, if you enjoy learning phonics rules — why he is pronounced differently than hem — that’s great! It’s interesting to see some of these patterns. You can learn about open syllables and closed syllables on your own time, but for the sake of your beginning readers, don’t make your children learn them, too.
Spend Time Reading
How do we become better runners? By running. Rules won’t do us much good if they prevent us from actually running.
Reading is much the same way. How do children become better readers? By reading. As with most things in life, we improve with practice and repetition. All the memorized rules on riding a bike won’t instantly create a bike rider. We need to feel the motion and find our balance. Once we do, we never forget.
This holds of reading as well. Children must find their balance and flow through the words. Once they can, they will never forget.
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