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Part 3 – Problems linked to the complex code

Reasons are given for why whole-word memorising is not the solution for coping with our complex alphabetic code. Alphabetic charts are provided, with guidance for interpreting them.

 

Part 3: Problems linked to the complex code

 

One of the problems caused by our complex alphabetic code is the difficulty that children and poor readers have in deducing how it works. Literate adults have usually forgotten how they learnt it. This is partly why whole-word memorising became the method of teaching that was promoted for many decades. Some educationalists thought the code was too complicated for young children. This thinking, on reflection, lacks logic.

 

There are about 140 ways of representing the 44 sounds of English, of which 70 are in common use. They are the letter sounds introduced in Steps 1 to 5. With knowledge of these letter sounds, and the skill of blending, the children can read an infinite number of words. Whereas, with whole-word memorising:

 

There is a limit on human long-term memory for memorising abstract visual patterns paired with individual words. This is an ultimate limit present after years of intense memorisation. Based on an earlier analysis of known writing systems, I put this limit at approximately 2,000, remarkably close to Mair’s estimate based on Chinese.

 

[Professor Diane McGuinness: What Research Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading, 1977]

 

 

In other words, it is only possible to learn 2,000 words by memorising them, and that takes many years of hard work to learn. With some alphabet knowledge and a link to the sounds, it might go as high as 5,000 words, which is not nearly enough to become a literate person.

 

There are hundreds of thousands of words in English. This is why it is so important for the children to crack the alphabetic code, bit by bit, starting from the frequently used letter sounds and gradually progressing to the unusual alternative spellings. It is much easier for them to learn 140 letter sounds than many thousands of words.

 

 

Interpreting the alphabetic code

 

The way the alphabetic code has been interpreted over the years has varied a great deal. Some people, like myself, have explained some of the unusual spellings by referring to silent letters and rules linked to the vowels. Others have decided that this is not necessary and they teach only alternative spellings for the sounds, which is fine, but it also brings problems about differing interpretations of the code. For example, in the word guy, are ‹gu› and ‹y› the alternative spellings of /g/ and /ie/, or is it the other way around, with ‹g› as /g/ and ‹uy› saying /ie/? Island is awkward, too: Is ‹is› another way of representing the /ie/ sound or does ‹s› go with ‹l› as an alternative for the /l/ sound? The word mortgage presents the same dilemma: Is ‹ort› another way of writing the /or/ sound, or is ‹tg› an alternative spelling for the /g/ sound? A similar problem exists with the ‹th› in asthma. Personally, I think it is easier – especially with young children – just to say that in these words the letters are awkward because they are silent: guy, island, mortgage, asthma.

 

The fact is that there is no right or wrong. The alphabetic code is interpreted in different ways, especially with the more unusual words, and nobody, as far as I know, has included every unusual spelling in their charts.

 

For this website, I have prepared a chart for the alphabetic code, which follows the same order as that used to introduce the letter sounds in the materials provided. It follows the same format as the excellent alphabetic code devised by Debbie Hepplewhite. The colour systems are linked to the order of the teaching. The really useful thing about both these charts is that you can easily see how the code works. Look at the different ways the /s/ sound can be represented, for example, starting with the simplest and most common way: ‹s›. This is the spelling that is introduced to the children first of all. It is then followed by the alternative spellings, in the order they are introduced: ‹ce›, ‹ci›, ‹cy›, ‹-ce›, ‹se›, ‹st›, ‹ps› (as in cent, cinema, cycle, bounce, house, castle and psalm). You can see, as you move from left to right, that the alternative spellings tend to be used in more advanced words and are used less frequently than ‹s›.

 

The order used in the two charts may not be the same, but the synthetic-phonics principals are just the same. All the sounds of English are covered in both of the charts, and Debbie’s chart has particularly useful teaching points for each sound as well. Both can be found in the Resources section on the home page or by scrolling down to the bottom of the screen in the section Understanding the Alphabetic Code, Part 3).

 

Alphabetic Code Charts are very helpful for demonstrating the various spellings that are linked to the 44 sounds of English. Not all alternatives are included: some are so rare that it is not worth including them. These oddities have to be dealt with when they occur.

 

Although synthetic-phonics programmes differ slightly in their interpretation of the alphabetic code, the really important thing is that the children always try and work the words out from the phonic knowledge they have been given
and avoid making wild guesses. Just follow the guidance provided by the synthetic-phonics programme that is being used.

 

English accents vary enormously from area to area and country to country. There will never be complete agreement about how words are pronounced, decoded or encoded. It is best to look on phonics as a rough guide and to use common sense.

 

  • TCRW - English Alphabetic-Code

    English alphabetic-code charts are particularly useful for adults who are interested in the many alternative spellings that are used in the English code.

  • Debbie's English Alphabetic-Code Chart

    Debbie Hepplewhite has put a great amount of detail in this chart. It is an excellent teaching aid. A link has been provided to her website, which has several other types of charts available.

  • TCRW - English Alphabetic-Code

    English alphabetic-code charts are particularly useful for adults who are interested in the many alternative spellings that are used in the English code.

  • Debbie's English Alphabetic-Code Chart

    Debbie Hepplewhite has put a great amount of detail in this chart. It is an excellent teaching aid. A link has been provided to her website, which has several other types of charts available.