Advanced Phonics - Beyond Simple Sound-Symbol Correspondence

Beyond Simple Sound-Symbol Correspondence

Some struggling intermediate-grade readers have difficulty believing us when we try to teach them advanced phonics rules. They learned the basic rules of one-to-one sound-symbol correspondence long ago.  They learned those rules easily, in the beginning, and now they're fiercely loyal to that learning. For these students, those rules are absolute.  They are unable to adjust to new, contradictory rules which give four sounds for the letter y (with a reasonable pattern for guessing which one to use) or the suffix “cious” (shus), which, by their rules, should be something like kih-ah-us.  

For many years I thought these students found it difficult to memorize more advanced rules.  I thought the problem was their capacity for memorization.  Memorization was the focus of my mostly futile efforts.  

In truth, many of them just plain didn’t believe me when I said,  "In certain cases “si” spells sh," or "Did you know “ce” has an s sound?" 

They muttered to themselves, under their breath, “S-i” doesn’t spell sh; it spells sih.  Doesn’t this teacher know anything?”

Many of our struggling readers need explicit help to understand and cope with the concept of multiple rules.  Some students who learned that g=guh and y=yuh will, without help, continue to resist into adulthood the idea that g can also =juh and y can also =ee or ih or eye.

Third-grader Isaac had a good grasp of sound-symbol correspondence.  He knew the basic rules of phonics.  He was certain what sounds b, t, i, a, sh, ch, th, ea, str, and gr make.  

However, as his reading level increased, it became clear he didn’t know what sounds “tion” or “-ation” make.  I attempted to teach him.  I explained that the letters “-tion” were almost always pronounced shun, often at the end of a word.  

He nodded.  

I wrote “tion” and asked him what sound it made.  

He said, "tih-on." 

I explained again what sound “tion” makes.  

He nodded.  He pronounced it after me.  

I wrote it again.  He said, "tih-on."  

I tried explaining that in English we have words from other languages that come with their own set of rules.  In latin, “ti” makes the “sh” sound.  So, strange as it seems, “tion” is pronounced shun.   

He nodded.   We pointed to the “tion” and pronounced it together - shun.  

Then I wrote it again, pointed to it.  

He said, “tih-on.

I tried again.  I explained that “tion” is common at the ends of many words.  Vacation is the word I used to remember it when I was learning to read and spell,” I told him.  “I love vacations.”  I thought perhaps adding positive emotion - thoughts of vacation - to the memorization process would help.  I repeated: “t-i-o-n” is shun.  

He nodded and repeated it after me.

The next day, we tried again:  Tih-on.”  

I began to wonder if Isaac had short-term memory problems.  Maybe I was trying to force him to memorize something he wasn’t capable of learning.  He had learned all the basic phonics rules.  Why not this one?  

Maybe he needed more visuals.  I wrote “shun = tion” and "tion = shun" on a small white board.  He read it with me. “Tion" equals “shun.”

His turn. I pointed to the white board. Tih-on. 

Maybe he didn't understand the language I was using.  “Equals means they’re the same.  Shun equals “tion”  I read and vice versa.   He repeated after me. “Tion equals “shun.”  

"Shun" is the way we say "t-i-o-n."

"When you see the letters "t-i-o-n" in a word, we say "shun."

"Let's pronounce this together ... "shun."

“Now you try it.  “Tion" equals..." I prompted and pointed.

His turn. "Tih-on. 

I thought about losing it.  

“T-i-o-n is pronounced shun.” I pointed again, and insisted, a little more vehemently.  

He nodded.  We said it together.  

“Shun equals tih-on,” he repeated after me.

“Why do you keep saying tih-on?” I finally asked in desperation.  

“Because it doesn’t have an “s-h.”  “S-h” spells sh.” I explained the language situation again.  

He nodded.  His turn again.  Tih-on.  It doesn’t have an “s-h," he said. 

Finally, the lightbulb went on.

Finally, the lighbulb went on.

"You don't believe me!" I said, somewhat in shock.

He smiled in confirmation.  “S-h” spells sh,” he said.

I grabbed his hand.  “Come on,” I grinned.  “Let’s go see what everyone else thinks.  Let’s see if anyone else agrees with me.  OK?”  I asked.  

He nodded.

At the copy machine, we asked the nearest teacher.  “How would you say this?” I asked, pointing to the “tion” written on the white board.  

Shun,” was the answer.  “He doesn’t believe me.  There’s no “s-h,” I grinned.  

The copy machine teacher - who happened to be an ex-high school English teacher - nodded and smiled and explained to Isaac about foreign words in English.  We thanked her and went on.

Next stop was the office.  We asked the secretary if we could ask her a question.  “How would you say this?” I asked.  She answered - shun.  “But there’s no “s-h,” I replied.

She explained.  

We found a teacher in the hallway working on a project.  We asked him.  Shun.  There are some crazy words in English!” he replied.

At the library, we found a fifth-grade teacher and the librarian talking together.  We asked our question again.  Same answer.  Each adult took the question seriously and each carefully bent closer to Isaac to explain how the English language worked.

I set off to find another opinion. 

“OK, OK,” Isaac grinned.  “I get it!  It’s shun.   We don’t need to ask anyone else.”

It was four days before I saw Isaac again.  When we sat down at our table, I wrote “tion” on the white board and pointed to it.  

Shun,” Isaac replied and smiled.

I think of the students in my reading groups who, through the years, have acted as if they were tied to their chairs with bright lights in their eyes, valiantly resisting my attempts to brainwash them with advanced phonics concepts.  

They had steadfastly resisted abandoning their belief in the sound-symbol correspondence they knew to be true.

It wasn’t, as I had thought all this time, that they were having difficulty memorizing advanced phonics concepts.   I just needed to find a way to convince them of the truth of what I was trying to teach them.  

Isaac needed to find a way to accept what to him was a form of heresy.   Five busy adults willing to take a moment away from what they were doing to personally explain it to him was a powerful lesson.  Their individual attention helped him to take the risk of reframing his entire world-view as it related to the decoding rules of the English language.  

Now I can teach him “-acious” (ay shus), the many sounds of “ou”, all four sounds of y.  Now, maybe he’ll believe me.

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