When Is a Rule Not a Rule?

Proponents of intensive phonics approaches to reading instruction promote the memorization of rules that guide the way words should be pronounced based on the arrangement of the letters within those words.  They discuss these rules as though they are virtually infallible, implying that children simply need to learn the rules, then apply them at the appropriate times while reading. 


This "exploding" of the "code" will lead to accurate reading and good comprehension.  The skills involved in decoding words are described in almost mathematical terms, as predictable in outcome as an equation like 2 + 2 = 4.


But there is a problem...often times the actual pronunciations of words do not follow the rules.  For example, the word appearing more often in print than any other - the - is not pronounced phonetically because the e at the end is typically pronounced with the short u sound, a pronunciation which the rules would not predict.


In a now classic research piece by Theodore Clymer, frequently referenced by reading instructors, the author looked into the usefulness of various phonics "rules" (now called generalizations because of their frequent inaccuracy) in early reading instruction. 


He discovered that many of these generalizations were inaccurate 50% or more of the time in primary grade level words where the rule should be applied. 


For example, the most popular generalization among phonics teachers is the one that states "when two vowels are side by side in a single syllable, the first vowel is long (says its name) and the second is silent."  Often this rule is taught as a rhyme which goes "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." 


Clymer showed that this "rule" only proved to be accurate in 45% of the applicable words in the reading instruction books used in primary grades! 


Another rule states "when there are two vowels in a single syllable word, one of which is the final e, the first vowel is long and the second is silent."  This generalization was true in only 63% of the applicable words.  Many other commonly-trusted phonics rules did not fare as well as these. 


When is a rule not a rule? 


Certainly, no one would argue that knowing letters and letter combinations, and using them to pronounce words, is not important.  But a strong approach to reading instruction needs to be balanced, promoting the use of other cues in addition to the letters on the page.  And this is exactly the methodology recommended in Teach a Child to Read With Children's Books


We invite you to read Chapter 5 and to explore some of the testimonials linked in the menu on the left. 


A final metaphor might help to illustrate the point of this article: a hammer is an extremely important tool for a builder to use while constructing a house.  But it certainly is not the only one he uses! 


If your only method in teaching a child to read is to teach "rules," then to say "sound it out, sound it out" when the child encounters difficulty while reading, you are like the builder who is trying to build a house with a hammer alone. 


And to make the metaphor even more accurate, suppose the hammer he is using only hits the nail on the head 45% of the time.  As a rule, he's probably not going to be very successful!



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