Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers

An expert guide for parents

Help Children Crack the Reading Code (Part 1 of 2)

It’s easy for you to read the words to, too, and two or eye, I, you and ewe and get right to the meaning. But how do you explain the logic of English spelling to a beginning reader? Should we simply tell them “Spell it like it sounds”? The answer is "No!" Find out what to do. Read More

multi-letter phonograms should be taught with letters

I found that my daughter at two was already reading many words ( with no instruction at all except a schoolbus toy that said the letter and sound ) and was frustrated that she couldn't sound out each letter. I remember being floored when she was about 2.5 and she asked me "Why does a 'c' sometimes sound like [hard c] and sometimes sound like [soft c] when it is with an "i"." I said, "what do you mean?" and she said, "You know, like city and cirlce." So, I gave her the letter sounds and multi-letter phonograms at the same time (ci,ph, oa, sh, ee, ow, au, th, ing, etc. ). It was just as easy for her to learn the multi-letter combos and she was reading and spelling easily aorund 3 and writing shortly after. She would type words on my iPad at 2.5 before she could write and actually say "sheep... oh, that is 'sh' and 'ee' and p" and type it out. I had a hard time when she started reading also, to explain when to phonetically sound things out versus sight words and it really frustrated her. SHE asked me ( at about 3.5 ), "Mom, could you underline the sight words and for words that are long, can you put lines between the sounds?" I would not have thought of that, but I did it for her with a pencil in a few books and after 4 or 5 books she never needed it again. By 4.5 she was reading at a 3-4th grade level. I just found it interesting since I never thought about how children learn language, but she felt comfortable enough to tell me what and how she needed to learn ( and it is so different than how it is conventionally taught ). I also found she like the Simplex Spelling app on the iPad while learning because it sounded out words and gave hints, like the "oa" sound would have a drop down of "oa, o.e, ow, etc.".

I'm happy for your success...

I'm glad your daughter got off to such a quick start with reading. She sounds like a very bright girl and I assume that has quite a lot to do with her parents, too.

I really enjoy doing sound-symbol work with very young children. I, too, am amazed at what kids can accomplish if we encourage them in logical and consistent ways.

I think the biggest challenge we have with early literacy is simply the tradition we've bought into as a nation that learning to read is something kids start in kindergarten and don't really get the hang of until first grade.

I've found, just as you have, that with the right exposure and instruction, kids can learn to read and write much earlier in life than our school system traditionally tells us they can.

The fact that many kids become literate long before their first day of school is well known. But the belief that kindergarten is "the year kids begin to learn to read" is perhaps the equivalent of a vestigial organ.

They key here is probably not methodological but cultural. Literacy is associated with school and school doesn't officially start until kindergarten. The best way to change this might be Universal Pre-School minus the "pre". What is school started at age 3? Eventually we might come to think of that year as the beginning of literacy learning.

Thanks for your comment,


You taught multi-letter phonograms at just the right time!

What a wonderful case study of baby/toddler reading! I have quite a few posts on baby/toddler reading and in summary, babies/toddlers seem to have special capacities for learning to read between about nine months and age three or four. Given the right experiences (joyful interactions with caregivers and literacy) and their special capacities for pattern recognition, they seem to intuit phonics much like they intuit the patterns and rules of grammar. That is to say, very young children like your daughter seem to begin by recognizing words but they pick up on the patterns of English and crack the code. You wisely point out that the way baby/toddlers learn to read differs from conventional instruction beginning in kindergarten but we have very little research on this large population of early readers. There is some evidence that they go through the same early phases as conventional readers. You introduced high frequency multi-letter phonograms at exactly the right time based on her sophisticated questions. Kudos to you for being an excellent reading teacher and mom. Thanks for sharing your daughter’s delightful experience.

Logic of English

This is a great article! I would only add that one of the reasons many students (and teachers) do not know how to sound out words, is that so many of them appear to be exceptions. If we only teach the sounds of A-Z and the common digraphs OA, EA, SH, TH... up to 50% of words will become sight words. I think you may really enjoy the book, "Uncovering the Logic of English." http://www.amazon.com/Uncovering-Logic-English-Common-Sense-Approach/dp/... It provides answers to children's questions about words such as, "Why is there a silent final E in have?" (English words do not end in V, therefore add a V. "Why does the C say two sounds in circus" (C softens to /s/ before an E, I, or Y) and much more. When this valuable information is presented to young students they are equipped with the tools to spell and read words with success! Once again thanks for the great work!

Working with exceptions...

Thanks for bringing this up. It's a key point. When it comes to spelling, the English language is complicated. Kids struggle to learn it more than they do Spanish or Italian, for example, which are more phonetically regular.

However, we can deal with what we think of as irregularity by casting it in a different way than you or I might have been exposed to when we were in school and were taught with what I call "The Sesame Street" approach or the notion that letter names are more important than letter sounds.

The basic message I convey is always the same: "Words are made of sounds that are written with letters." But many times, the same sound is written written difference letters in different words. The way I talk about this is to say something like this: "In word X, the sound Y, is written the letter(s) Z."

For example, take the sound we hear when we say the number "8". That sound has many different spellings, among them "ate", "ait", and, of course, "eight". So I'll say the sound /8/ and then I'll make lists of words for each of the known spellings:

1. "ate" as in "rate", "date," "late" etc.
2. "ait" as in "bait", "wait", "trait", etc.
3. "eight" as in the number "eight" and "freight" etc.

Or, to be simpler, with some words I can say:

1. In these words ("bait", "wait", "trait", etc.) the /a/ sound is spelled "ai".
2. In these words ""eight", "freight", "weight", "neighbor", and "sleigh" etc.) the /a/ sound is spelled "eigh".

The choice I make depends on the context and the spelling development of the learners.

Regardless of the letter(s) used to write a given sound, I can always say: "In this word, the sound /sound/ is spelled with the letter(s) "letter(s)". And at least this statement will be consistent.

When I do this, I reinforce three ideas:

1. Each word has a single correct spelling.
2. Different sounds have different spellings in different words.
3. Even thought there are choices to learn, there are still patterns we can rely on within a given set of words.

I think, in total, there are a little over 400 patterns like these in the Engilsh language. That sounds like a lot but when we think of spelling development as occurring primarily during the ages of 4-8, that's 5 years, or over 1800 days, and literally thousands of opportunities to read and write that we can give kids during this time.

By always moving from sound to letter, I'm always reinforcing the Alphabetic Principle, the central concept kids need to tackle any alphabetic language. The principle is expressed simply as "Words are made of sounds that are written with letters."

More than anything, I want young children to learn that English does make sense and that spelling does have regular memorizable patterns in it.

This is why I never bring up so-called "silent" letters. That would be confusing as it is a contradiction of the Alphabetic Principle. I also won't talk about "words that have hard spellings" or so-called "spelling demons".

Words are just words and learning to spell them is a function of length, often expressed as syllable count, and therefore no part of any word is much harder than any other part—as long as children have had enough consistent and helpful exposure to the pattern of letters used to write a particular part in a particular word.

I can also present kids with a more regularized view of English when we begin to talk about syllables as opposed to entire words. Syllables in English are slightly more predictable.

Thanks for your comment. You made a very useful observation and gave me an opportunity to explain something I did not explain in the article.


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J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., an expert on childhood literacy, reading, and spelling, is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—Baby to Age 7. more...

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